February 10, 2013 · Print This Article
This weekend, Every house has a door will be performing their original work, Mending the Great Forest Highway, on February 15 and 16 at 8pm, and then again on February 17 at 7 pm as part of the IN>TIME festival at Links Hall (3435 N. Sheffield Avenue) $15 general/$10 students. For information on this and other upcoming events, please visit IN>TIME’s website. You will find an interview between myself and Matthew about this same piece on the Art21 blog here. More recently, Matthew submitted the following piece of writing about MTGFH’s latest iteration. – B@S
Returning to They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway
by Matthew Goulish
When people ask about the name Every house has a door, I say it has to do with aesthetic hospitality. In a sense the name stands as an invitation, and the invitation takes two parallel courses. First, each performance as a project assembles a team of specialists in response to the specific demands of that performance’s set of ideas. In this way, the company remains open like a house, and collaborators come and go like visitors. Second, each finished performance demonstrates our ongoing interest in separating the elements of performance and weaving them in some configuration particular to that work. Different aspects of the work may appeal to different audience members. In this inflection, each mode offers a different door, standing open for a different audience member as an invitation into the house of the performance.
We made a performance called They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway. The Chicago Dancemakers’ Forum supported the original version, because choreography lent this work its core. We borrowed the title from a song by the twentieth-century composer Béla Bartók, but the choreography derived from his trio for clarinet, violin, and piano, Contrasts, composed in 1938 in response to a commission by Benny Goodman. We had the idea that three men would dance the parts of the three instruments, transposed from music to movement, adhering to the composition’s precise timing. Brian Torrey Scott danced the part of Benny Goodman’s clarinet, and John Rich that of Joseph Szigeti’s violin. We listened to the original recording by those great musicians, with Bartók himself on the piano. I claimed that part for myself. It was only fair. I had worn out the record through repeated listening in my undergraduate years, and already had it nearly memorized.
We presented the piece at the Holstein Park field house gymnasium in June 2011. Lin Hixson had guided the three of us in the first months of rehearsals, giving us directives for generating movement to retrofit to the score. The directives suggested a second degree of translation from the music; for the first movement: a dance in daylight, movements of labor, social/club movements, army recruiting song; for the second: sounds of a summer night in the country; the flitterings of nocturnal frogs, automatic insect chirping, a bird taps its beak on a hollow wooden tree trunk … concentric circles … restful … volcanic … human singing rises from far away in the darkness; for the third: the fast dance, furious, interrupted, side-slipping tri-tones reminiscent of the end of Berg’s Wozzek.
We invited Charissa Tolentino to compose a score that combined found sounds and samples with original sonic inventions, and to present this live, sharing the stage like a DJ with us dancers. This music, twice removed from Bartók’s composition, responded to the movement, largely free from the score’s constraints, but retaining its broad structure.
Finally, Lin and I collaborated on the writing of an extensive prose introduction. For this part, she, the director, would speak directly to the audience, detailing our intentions and processes, as well relating relevant, if somewhat fictional, autobiographical background from her director’s notes and journals. Lin would not deliver this herself, however. Instead we invited Hannah Geil-Neufeld, a young performer whom we had known since she was a child, to perform the part of the director Lin Hixson. We had in mind a contemplation of youth and aging, with which the introduction concerns itself, as well as that strange area in which the familiar becomes just unstable enough to appear unfamiliar. Hannah returned to conclude the piece, after the roughly 21-minute dance, with an epilogue that included all the performers in the staging of the last moment’s of Büchner’s Woyzeck, taking those liner notes literally. Guided by the tone of Hannah-as-Lin’s semi-autobiographical monologues, a tone lifted from the dual inspiration of J. M. Coetzee and Robert Bresson, the piece somewhat unexpectedly became an indirect meditation on the fraught and sometimes brutal relations between generations, the anxieties of production and reproduction.
We finished the dance today.
It’s called They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway.
I didn’t think it was about mending when we started. I just liked the title.
Now think that thinking that – that the dance was in fact about mending after all – was what stopped me there on the sidewalk in the rain.
So says Hannah-as-Lin near the end. Each element – words, dance, music – had their own life, their own independence on the stage, no one of them as accompaniment to another, and often not even happening at the same time. Each performer, or set of performers, had been delegated to one of these modes. I hope the house/door metaphor is clear now. To divide the finished performance from the process of its creation is largely an artificial exercise, but one that helps clarify our intentions and the work’s meanings and energy. The introductory speech makes some audience members impatient for the dance to begin. Others concentrate on the music as central, and still others need the words as their anchor. The piece asks everybody to assemble the parts into a coherent whole after the 65-minute structured sequence of their presentation.
Now we return to the piece for three performances at Link’s Hall on February 15, 16, and 17, as part of the IN>TIME Festival, and with the support of an Illinois Arts Council fellowship. Brian Torrey Scott has moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Jeff Harms has taken over the violin part. Charissa Tolentino has also departed the piece. Now Liz Payne performs the DJ role, with her own original sound composition. In this series of rehearsals, Lin has asked us to revisit the third movement’s choreography. She put it this way in an email from January 2nd:
Dear Jeff, John, and Matthew,
At our next rehearsals, I would like to work on new choreography. Below are YouTube sources for these new movements, divided between Lower Body and Upper Body. I used the Mending video from Holstein as a reference to locate the choreography I’d like you to change, embellish, or hybridize. Many, many thanks, Lin
30:57 – 31:35
Embellish the repetition of this movement using the Lower Body sources.
John and Jeff
31:56 – 32:24
This is after the shaving bowl move and around 28 seconds of material. Keep all your timings and positions in the space but consider using a different vocabulary from the Upper Body sources. So, for example, if you are doing something together this would remain. What you are doing would change.
32:24 – 32:35
Matthew – replace somersault
Jeff – replace head movement
Both using Upper Body sources
32:36 – 32:49
Embellish leg slapping using Lower Body sources
Matthew, Jeff, and John
37:43 to end
Keep positions in space and timings but change the vocabulary using Lower Body/Upper Body sources
Lower Body Sources
Hungarian Folk Dance
Arms/Upper Body Sources
See a longer version of Forsythe’s Solo here.
Lin sent three links for each source, but I have only included one of each type here. I asked the performers about their thoughts on returning to They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway. John responded with this paragraph:
I counted my jumps one day. There are several hundred – not big jumps, mostly hops. I did not realize this in making the piece, did not realize it even until well after we finished and someone pointed it out. The dance acts as an accumulation that way. It is a complex field, but it is built by simple acts.
Jeff Harms wrote this:
The way in which I am finding the meaning of the piece is a physical process, born of patience and repetition. It seems that the art world often replaces meaning with “intention”, as if we were all in art school, or as if we all agreed on the path or even method art should use. The methods of Every house seem to be humble in this regard, and I think it’s for that reason, if we do succeed here, it will be a rich and meaningful experience for the audience.
In the years since we began working on this piece until our February performances, Hannah will have nearly earned her entire undergraduate degree from Macalester College. She answered this way:
What is exciting to me about They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway is the realization that one can mend something without being entirely sure of what one is mending.
We have been working for almost three years now to mend something that was not one thing to begin with. This is like darning a sock that does not exist before one begins to darn.
Bodies engaged in speaking the thoughts and dancing the labors of other bodies is, I think, necessarily an act of mending, regardless of the thing being mended.
We prepare for February by rehearsing, I imagine the way musicians would, our collected movements, playing and replaying them alongside Liz’s composition, to fix in the mind and body these odd new aggregates. In his book Music and the Ineffable, the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch wrote of how a musical work does not exist except in the time of its playing. Can one say the same about a work of performance? He further distinguished that one does not think about music as much as according to music. With that in mind, please click the link below to hear a sample of Liz’s composition, from the second movement of They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway.
Thanks, and see you soon.
Matthew Goulish, dramaturg
Matthew Goulish co-founded Every house has a door with Lin Hixson in 2008. His books include 39 Microlectures – in proximity of performance (Routledge, 2000), The Brightest Thing in the World – 3 lectures from The Institute of Failure (Green Lantern Press, 2012), and Work from Memory: in response to In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, a collaboration with the poet Dan Beachy-Quick (Ahsahta, 2012). He teaches writing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Matthew Goulish on the Art21 blog. Much of that conversation centered around a performance by Every house has a door that took place this last June. I wanted to reenact some aspects of that performance through writing. Memory is like a muscle, in a way, and what follows is an exercise of memory.
“The body (its matter) is eternal; the soul (the form of the body) is transitory” - Bela Bartók (1881-1945)
We met at the poolhouse in Holstein Park. It was a humid summer day—due to the heat we were asked to stay outside before the show. There was concern the room might get too hot from our cumulative body heat; the longer we could avoid its accumulation, the better. So we gathered around a bench, following incomplete conversational paths, subjects pursued to pass the time and, if necessary, abandon altogether should the doors open unexpectedly. In these preceding moments I realized, for the first time this year, that it was summer: a time for slow and amicable drifting.
Imagine you sit on this bench with us. You look at your watch; people have started to filter indoors. You follow them. You purchase a bottle of water from a vending machine and climb a set of stairs. I am just in front of you. The banister is wrapped with caution tape but you use it anyway. At the top of the stairs we enter a small, half-court gymnasium. Windows surround the upper third of the room. They are old fashioned, connected by a single metal bar; if you turned a specific rod, all the windows would open at the same time. Through the open windows, you hear the sound of children playing in the swimming pool outside. Sometimes you hear a car from the street. The room stills in anticipation of a beginning. You notice the sweat in your palms. It is very hot. Sun brightens the room and when you follow my gaze look through the windows, the sky is a Midwestern blue.
Hannah Geil-Neufeld approaches the microphone. The performance is beginning. It has begun. She begins to read from a rehearsal journal. Like the rest of the audience, we listen to her voice and thus enter the process that created the performance we have come to see. Her voice admits us back stage. She quotes Wallace Stevens. ”The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” she says.
The rehearsal journal ushers an experience of intimacy. It welcomes the audience. It calms us with stable, descriptive footing. But of course this is a performance and we are in a theater watching people who have rehearsed the ensuing movement multiple times. This diary is also a practiced devise. It is a grounding point, coherent and personal and common. It opens the door providing a lens through which to see the rest.
Three men come to the stage. They wear coats and ties. Brian Torrey Scott is not among them. He has been struck from the rehearsal journal as well. Scott was one of the original dancers; he was in the preview of this same performance put on a year ago at the Cultural Center. He moved away, I heard, and Jeff Harms took his place beside Goulish and John Rich in this performance. Harms appears in the rehearsal journal as though he had been there from the beginning. His dance movements are the same–you remember for instance, the comic flop Scott enacted periodically. At the Cultural Center the arms out, face down semi-dive made people laugh. In the gymnasium we laugh at different moment.
In the gymnasium, these men enact a dance. The gestures comprise a vocabulary because they are specific and repeating and sometimes traded off. Each dancer opens and closes his body differently, as a kind of breath. A delicate syncopation, they execute repeated patterns of movement, weaving in and out of one another. Harm’s flops down and up. Goulish wraps his arms inward and twists. Rich rotates, turning back and forth on an ankle. While the movements themselves are coherent and descriptive, it is impossible to translate their meaning into words. The letters of this language are limbs. The body almost resists the intelligence. Someone coughs at your shoulder. There are people sitting on gymnasium mats and I feel fortunate to have a chair. By watching the dancing men, you feel cooler. Because they must be very hot.
Charissa Tolentino sits in the center of the room with an economical table. She plays music from her computer, blending organic, forest sounds with varied samples. The samples weave in and out of one another. You catch a phrase from Iggy Pop and catch my eye. I drink some water. The bottle is perspiring also. The various beats of Tolentino’s music mix with the dancers’ claps and stomps, making the room’s noise greater than that of the children outside. And after a built-in rest (the men stand on the side lines breathing noticeably while Tolentino’s soundscape fills the center of the room), the dancers bring scores and music stands to the middle of the gymnasium. John Rich is the only one who keeps his coat on. He gathers with the others, resuming the focal point of the stage to read and perform the notes inscribed. Here we see the body as an instrument and movement becomes its muscular folk music.
The body is also a diary in which memories are embedded, bound by tissue and variously noticeable tensions. It can be inspired, unexpectedly. The tri-tone stirs the body even when it’s listeners resist (John Rich jumping up and down with a red plastic devil’s fork. His feet make stamping sounds when they land on the otherwise squealing wood).
The tri-tone, Bartok and Barry Goodman are all characters in this performance. They linger in the air, as spirited figments, swooping down to possess the dancers periodically. Bartok was a pioneer of ethno-musicology. He collected folk songs like the Grimms collected fairy tales, traveling through the countryside with an Edison phonograph. The ease of his travel was impeded by the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but he continued to visit what became Romania, trapping voices in an historical box. Folk singers regularly used the tritone without any evil associations and Bartok used it in his own compositions, smuggling the diminished fifth symphony halls. His violins were retuned to play dissonant notes on open strings and his audience was curiously moved in ways they didn’t understand. Americans were similarly afraid of Jazz (it made the young people dance) but in 1938 the Goodman Band played at Carnegie Hall, what had otherwise been a site for classical performance. By drawing you into this gymnasium, I am trying to conjure the ghost of experience. Now we have these figments between us, as they were in the gymnasium.
And so we come to the final act. Goulish approaches the microphone and begins to read from the rehearsal diary again. He describes the movements of an opera. He returns to the idea of mothers while describing an after-rehearsal walk. We have left the center of the performance. In leaving the center, we approach the bounds of its circumference and crossing that line will mark the end. Goulish conjures a looming maternal presence–a presence that seems to have always been in the room, lurking in the shadows of each and every one of us, ill-defined until it was named. Mothers are the beginning of material experience. Her multiple facets standing like a grove of aspens with one single root system. This is the forest we have been walking through inside of this bare-bright gymnasium. The wooden floors, rife with patterns to measure court games, collecting sweat like a forest floor. The performance is a delapidated road and by its enactment it wants to mend itself.
But first, there will be a death scene. In the first month of summer, in the middle of a very warm day, you watch three dancers die while thinking of an opera you have never seen. Goulish describes the opera as I am here describing their performance. Their bodies jerk differently as they imagine themselves drowning in this dry heat and when they leave they exit out the gymnasium door. Goulish drowns last.
We cannot tell if it is really over, which is what happens with death. Material bodies are stupefied when they can no longer move themselves. The room begins to applaud. Performers come out from their backstage retreat to bow. The Director, Lin Hixson, is called out from where she has been watching in the audience with a smile. The room applauds with a bigger noise.
Back down the stairs you realize the banister you’d been using for support is only partially screwed into the wall. Thus the cautionary tape. In addition to the memory of the performance, you also remember (perhaps by accident) the faces of those sitting around you. The same faces you walk down stairs with. Strangers watching a partially silent music.