on epistemology

why is uncertainty such a bad thing? is objectivity even possible? or desired?

In this week’s readings, I was struck once again about the problematic nature of our current epistemological structures and ways of thinking, especially in academia. The Karen Barad reading in particular made me think a lot about the ways that we understand and utilize knowledge, words, and meaning not only in our daily life but in a larger lens with which to view society, nature, and our place within each. In her article, Barad seems to be working towards an understanding of performative metaphysics, asking questions about the way that representationalism and classical understandings of epistemology become narrow and problematic. I understood this to be primarily about the flattening of experience through the ways that “words and things” come to define and represent ideas and groups of people without their input and often without their consent. One of the driving values of epistemology is understanding the world and creating structures to be able to support the findings and knowledge through academic study - whether it be scientific, social, or anthropological. I have found through some of these readings that a challenge to generalization and objectivity. In a parallel reading in our graduate seminar, Donna Haraway offers another perspective on objectivity and how subjectivity and situated knowledge can and should play a part in knowledge-building.

This leads me to a larger question about our larger systems of knowledge and how epistemological structures and “languaging” affect the populations who do not have the power to define - or represent - themselves. Therein lies the danger: in our current Western system of epistemological discourse and study as a whole, “systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent.” To put plainly, those in power - and in a racist, male-dominated society, those in power are usually white male cisgender authority figures - are the ones doing the defining and categorization of knowledge in fields such as science, metaphysics, and anthropology. This then suggests that the larger structural bodies at work in the practice of epistemology would support structures that represent the views and findings of this group above all others.

This, in turn, begs the greater question: what is the purpose of this knowledge and who does this knowledge benefit? In “On Difference Without Separability,” Denise Ferreira da Silva looks at the way that the racial grammar and lexicon separate and dehumanize the “Other.” This occurs through not only the choosing of language and words but through the way that we understand difference. One of the larger themes of my current thesis research of creativity and self psychology is how, as humans, we define ourselves through relationship. This occurs through intrasubjective, intersubjective, or metasubjective relationships or selfobject experiences that confirm or enhance who we are. In a different approach, it is clearer to understand something when you know what it is not or to realize something about yourself when you are aware of what you are not. Establishing binaries is a socialized and oversimplified way of defining ourselves and creating a sense of belonging in the world. These binaries are not “crowd-sourced”: they are natural by-products of the social structures in which we live and the values that these structures embed in their “words and things” and the knowledge that they certify is true. Sometimes this “knowledge” leads us, as a society, towards certain conclusions about the world and the people within it, often leaning towards the “Othering” of different cultures, ideas, and practices.

This is not to say that all knowledge in a racist and sexist society is inherently racist and sexist: it is instead to suggest that we should be wary of any piece of knowledge being “inherently” anything. Objectivity lays claim to the position of universality: one point of view that encompasses and takes into consideration all of the possible ideas, views, and outcomes. Perhaps objectivity is impossible? Perhaps situated knowledge and a feminist subjectivity is a better epistemological model?

Up until this point, I think that in most forms of epistemology that I have encountered there is a clear flattening of experience and a desire to generalize perspectives for the purpose of a “better” understanding of the world. I think that the world is much too broad and subjective for that and those who usually have the power to form knowledge claim an objective perspective when, in fact, they are highly subjective. “Thingification infects much of the way that we understand the world and our relationship to it.” What is the value of certainty? And what is the cost? What is the value and of knowledge if, when put into practice, is unrelatable or overly simplified? Barad’s ideas of a relational ontology that rejects the metaphysics of relata offers another entry point into a larger conversation about epistemology and the way that we “come into” knowledge.

Thesis Blog #7 - my relationship to the defined terms

An individual’s sense of self develops and shifts over time based on the subjective experience.  It is through relationship that we are best able to see and define ourselves. My intrasubjective experiences - my experiences of self - serve to either reinforce my view of myself or challenge that view. My experiences of relationships and of community and culture, the way that I interact with others and with the world around me, shape how I view myself in relation to my surroundings. These relationships can be affirming or challenging, which serve to create self-cohesion or self-fragmentation.

For me, a cohesive sense of self means being confident in my knowledge of myself and the ability to express myself. Through self-cohesion I am able to empathically engage with others. I am stable in my understanding of my self; confident in my thoughts, feelings, and actions; and ready to engage with the world around me. On the other end of the continuum is self-fragmentation. I experience fragmentation when I feel challenged in how I view myself and doubtful of my sense of self. Fragmentation leads me to low self-esteem and often causes anxiety: it causes me to doubt who I am and how well I know myself. Every selfobject experience has the potential to encourage cohesion or fragmentation. Each thought, emotion, or action can push me towards self-assertion and confidence or make me question “who I am.”

Becoming aware of my various subjectivities and unique ways of engaging with the world allows me to continue to develop my sense of self. Taking time to examine my subjectivities gives me more information with which I can become the person that I strive to be and, ideally, my choreographic work will reflect that version of myself. My intrasubjective relationship becomes important in the beginning of the choreographic process when I am exploring movement by myself in the studio. I begin by following my interests and developing phrases of movements that illustrate the ideas and feelings that I am pursuing in that particular moment. My intersubjective relationships with the dancers with whom I work colors the movement in different ways and adds layers of meaning. These relationships can also shift the original intention of the movement in different ways: the self object experience of transferring choreography from one body to another can affirm my sense of who I am in relation to this other person. It also has the potential to give more information as to the kind of ideal relationship or movement or feeling that I am trying to visualize and bring into being. My metasubjective relationship - my experience of and relationship with community and culture - is ever-present in the process of choreography as the “why” and “how.”

Without an undercurrent of metasubjectivity, there would be no reason for me to create. Through creative activity, I respond to the world around me and develop my relationships with other and with my community. I am most excited to create when I have a strong response to something I see in the world.

Thesis Blog #6 - Defining Things

Through self psychology as a theoretical paradigm, we can begin to define sense of self. The self, only known through experience, is difficult to describe. Subjectivities, our intrapsychic ways of being, color and influence our experience in and of the world. Our individual subjective experience of being in the world leads to an invariant pattern of awareness, a form of organization that informs how we interact with ourselves and the world in which we live. Intrasubjectivity is our experiences of self, intersubjectivity our experiences of relationships, and metasubjectivity our experiences of community and culture: each of these subjectivities are different intrapsychic ways of being that influence our experience of self.

From Kohut’s perspective, experience of self operates on a continuum: at one end, self-cohesion, and on the other, self-fragmentation. Cohesion is the self-experience of feeling whole and self-confident while fragmentation is the experience of feeling unwhole, usually accompanied by a drop in self-esteem. In extreme cases, experiences of self-fragmentation lead to intense anxiety or depression. This continuum, along with the patterns of ambitions, skills, goals, and the tensions that inform our patterns and behaviors of being, form the self along with the program of action these patterns create and the activities that strive towards the realization of this program. These patterns and actions affect how individuals engage with the world around them. Similarly, all basic psychological realities, components, and needs of the individual also exist for the group, or society, but on a larger scale called the group self. The group self. The group self then also operates on the same continuum and a healthy and cohesive group self is integral to the maintenance of community and a shared sense of belonging.

Engagement with the world requires empathy, or the capacity to imagine oneself into the inner life of another person with some degree of accuracy. Empathic behavior requires understanding of one’s own subjective way of being in the world. Imagining oneself into the inner life of another without grounding oneself in one’s own sense of self and subjectivities is  Rather than just sympathy or compassion, empathy “requires the capacity to be aware of one’s sense of self and other simultaneously and to allow each subjective reality to inform the other through imagination.” Engagement with others comes into the realm of selfobject experience: the experience of a person, place, thing, ideas, or activities that helps fortify and sustain self-cohesion, to confirm and enhance who we are. An empathic selfobject experience creates the potential for the engagement of self-assertion and self-expression for the individual which allows for creative activity to begin.

Thesis Blog #5 (Committee responses)

Received my responses from my second thesis check in and let me tell you, I feel a lot better about this process! I know I am still a long way off from the finish but I at least feel like I can make it! I received really good feedback and some direction on my "creative manifestation" of my thesis research. I am excited about the opportunity to craft a piece using this research because it is truly what I am interested in. I have included some questions from my Thesis Advisory Committee that will be guiding my later post:

  • The narrowing appears to be the right path; your topic/subject appears to be more manageable; keep working to locate the critical frames to approach your research and creative processes
  • Can you define sense of self? What exactly are you referring to? What are the multiple ways one “senses one’s self?” More specifically, what is your sense of self? 
  • What is initiating your movement? 
  • The movements of arms and legs seem like an external investigation- almost as if an outside force is moving the body. This seems to be in contrast with the idea of “sense of self.” What specifically are you exploring with this movement phrase? What aspects of your research are you actualizing through your creative manifestation? What are you embodying? 
  • What is the sound score? 
  • Where are you imagining this work taking place? Theater? Alternative space? 
  • What do you want this work to do? 
  • I am intrigued by the movement vocabulary – the combination of small gestures and full-bodied reaches creates a tension between self and other, internal and external.  
  • I have questions about the use of sound – how will the sound score support your conceptual frameworks? 
  • I am curious about your desires for the creative manifestation of your thesis. What do you hope the work will do? What is your intention behind the movement material? How is the material being sourced? What compositional devices (use of space, phrasing, weight) will support your intention?

Research Blog

Just for a little something different but still related, here are some questions I had to table from my current research that I'm sure I'll want to pick back up on later. Interested in having a discussion? Let me know. These are all things that I would love to explore but have to narrow down my research to a more streamlined thesis.

Why is the history of art constituted by masterpieces? How is the quality of this work determined and by whom? Is the formula for value a combination of talent and learned skill? Why was Isadora Duncan’s work ultimately accepted instead of rejected for its lack of technique? Can something be of “good” quality and hold value if it is untrained? 

How do we determine quality and value if not by the influences of our culture, trends, and a capitalist system? What is quality? Can something be of good quality and hold value if it is untrained? This determining of art history has historically excluded women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.

What is the art for?

Thesis Blog #4 - Excuses and A Fresh Start

So, I had a draft from February 8 that I posted today for my Blog #3 but I never added more to it. To be quite honest, the past two months has been extremely difficult for me. I had picked such a huge topic for my thesis and my research paper was feeling like a huge hurdle I couldn't quite surpass. I had my show for my company, SELAH, which I did everything for myself without help - which I certainly won't attempt again. I have also been suffering from an illness which we still haven't figured out or diagnosed yet on top of my anxiety which has been fluctuating but still has been rather bad. I am taking steps to take care of myself but as many artists know, your mental, physical, and emotional health are often the first to go in big projects.

I say artists when I really mean people, right? Yes. And no. As I dive further into the topic of my thesis and truly start to narrow down what I mean when I ask my biggest thesis question, the center of everything, I truly do mean "artist". I am not trying to be elitist or selective when I call out my own and talk specifically about the people who have dedicated their lives to an art form but I must be quite honest - what we are doing is a little different. Those of us who have determined that we MUST make art and it takes up enough of our time that it is indeed a career: we're in a different boat. Now, there are artists who have their full 9-5 job which is in whatever skilled area they have chosen or whatever puts bread on the table and on top of that, they make art. To those people: you are awesome. You are achieving a different kind of balance than what I have chosen in my life. I respect you - but I am not talking to you. I'm talking to the hustlers, those whose art is also their living, those who are trying to fill in the gaps where the art doesn't pay with odd jobs and tip jars and weekly gigs. When you have to hustle for your art, it hurts you a little more. When you love teaching but you have to teach 42 classes in a week to be able to have enough money to pay your company and for the rehearsal space, your art starts to hurt you. 

Where am I going with this? Great question. This is less of a well-thought-out argument and more of a thought dump so I apologize. What I am saying is that when you feel the additional pressure to make a living from your art, it changes some things. What things? I'm still trying to figure that out. Many artists view their work as their child (I don't), which means if you are monetizing your art, you're selling your child. Some artists view their art as cathartic release and even, to an extent, therapeutic. Some artists are trying to make things for the Greater Good, some as a reflection of Who They Are. I fall into the category of making art because I have something to say. Maybe that's the overlap of the previous two categories? I'm not quite sure but what I do know is that my art is greatly affected by how I view myself: my strengths, weaknesses, pathologies, fears, ideas, passions, insecurities, joys, sorrows, and the like. If you are a human, you are in the constant process of building, tearing down, and rebuilding your sense of self. As an artist, I am in the business of it. 

My art comes from a multitude of sources, influences, and ideas. Those come from 26 years of being affected by the world around me. The way that world affects me is a further amalgamation of the different ways I view myself through the lens of the world, which shifts and changes over time.

As an artist/human, this process is ever-changing, shifting, exploding, coalescing. I have spent my life up until this point thinking that there was one Me, the true version of myself, the one I know, the one that if I could just get people to see... This is not a productive endeavor. There is a multiplicity of Merediths that exist in this world: one for each person that has met me (because of their lens and how they view me through themselves) and then even a few more for the different ways I view myself. This is my thesis.

How does our sense of self develop and how is this reflected in the creative process? Not to drift too far from my ideas of madness and genius - because this is key in my own individual process - how does my sense of self and the way I view my work change the work itself? How do I allow things to affect me while I'm acting creatively? How does my mental health affect my sense of self? This seems to be a far cry from my original thesis idea but to me they are so interconnected. Feeling "mad" or feeling "genius" in the creative process is indicative of your own sense of self and where you are letting yourself explore. So many artists that I have read about or looked up to have suffered various mental illnesses and breakdowns. Sure, some of those were undiagnosed mental issues - but how many of them? How many of these lapses in "normal" and expected behavior were truly just parts of the work? A slowing or ebbing of creativity in the cycle of the creative process? How much does our sense of self, whether it be self-consciousness or anxiety or fear, affect the creative process and hold it hostage until we can allow ourselves to move forward again, taking steps to repair our sense of self?

Again, this is the work.

Thesis Blog #3

I have made a lot of progress this week, I think! I have been narrowing my focus in my thesis material while simultaneously forming a thesis for my research paper. I am trying to simplify everything further but I started working through some materials from my thesis mentor - whose body of work is related to my current interests and is fully-formed - and I think I am finally on track.

Thesis Blog #2

Directly from my notes while book shopping for thesis things:

  • cult of genius
  • loneliness
  • the desert
  • solitude and contemplation
  • madness and eccentricity
  • What defines genius?
  • What defines creativity?
  • How do we determine what is "creative"?
  • "authentic" or "original"?

Feedback from my thesis mentor:

  • I believe that creativity requires the capacity to tolerate ambiguity. 
  • For many that produces anxiety, for others exhilaration. 
  • I believe that capacity to tolerate such ambiguity firmly comes down on the side of mental health, not mental illness. 
  • For individuals who are suffering from mental/emotional challenges, and are involved in creative endeavors, I would say that healthy aspects of their psychological structures are allowing them to do so. From such endeavors they may experience self-cohesion, even if temporarily, from the creation of an external form that gives shape to subjective experience. 

Things are definitely starting to shift into a more "thesis" structure and thought process. I was interested in the 2003 study done by U of T and Harvard about the link between mental illness and creativity. I am now shifting outside of just that link and instead to defining the nebulous concept of mental illness and what can be considered an "illness". I have a lot of scattered thoughts that need addressing before I can fully come to a structured thesis for this project. I am listing the questions below for my own records:

  1. Poor mental health and mental illness are very very very different.
  2. I have severe and often debilitating anxiety; am I mentally ill?
  3. What is the threshold that qualifies mental illness?
  4. What does something require to be "artistry"?
  5. Art can be self-expressive but is self-expression always art?
  6. What is art, anyway?
  7. Who decides what art is?
  8. Who decides the broad aesthetics of what is art, what is considered artistic, what is genius, etc.?

I have included some Dictionary.com definitions because at the base, all of these terms require examination and clear definitions before they can be used.

1.the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2.the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.
3.a field, genre, or category of art: Dance is an art.

1.any of the various forms of psychosis or severe neurosis.

a mental disorder characterized by symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations, that indicate impaired contact with reality

(E/N: isn't imagination an impaired contact with reality? or at least the ability to see reality as something different that what is?)

1.a disturbance in physical or mental health or functions; malady or dysfunction

1. malfunctioning

Thesis Blog #1

main idea: the biological basis for creativity and its relationship to mental illness/disorders, the cult of the (mad) genius, the solitary and slightly insane artist and its historical value as well as how we value creativity. 

Why "mental disorders"?

A bit more than a week ago I was in New York presenting my thesis idea to my cohort for feedback. As usual with my work, I was all over the place. When I start to research, I pull from tons of sources as I construct the web of different ideas and influences that will inform my argument. Often, I end up with absolute chaos - but as it turns out, I work quite well in chaos.

Currently, I am narrowing down what the core of my thesis will be. When I submitted my thesis proposal, I thought I was leaning towards working collaboratively with artists who have mental illnesses to create work. Since then, I have shifted more into working in the studio with the dancers with the idea of Kinesthetic Empathy. This has recently begun to present problems with my initial proposal and how non-specific I was with even the phrase "mental illness".

After reading some of Thomas Szasz's writings on mental illness, I started to question what I considered mental illness and why. I had originally chosen to focus on anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder but even those are too broad and unrelated. I think a better choice would be to shift into non-specific disorders and focus more on the manic/depressive cycles that include all three of those disorders. 

What constitutes a "mental disorder":

• A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning

• The condition leads to significant distress and/or disability in social, occupational, or other important activities of daily life

• The condition is not an expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or personal loss

• Socially deviant behavior (such as political, religious, or sexual) by itself is not a mental disorder; it can, however, be the symptom of a mental disorder, if it can be shown that the deviant behavior is a part of a clinical syndrome reflective of an underlying dysfunction of mental functioning

• The diagnosis of a mental disorder should have clinical utility; that is, it should assist psychiatrists in developing treatment plans and help them in the determination of expected treatment outcomes and prognoses (however, DSM-5 clarifies that the diagnosis of a mental disorder does not by itself indicate a need for treatment)

Current issues of mental illness/mental health in dance?

Artists for further study

  • Martha Graham (was she crazy?)
  • Nijinsky (definitely crazy)

Do bursts of creativity and artistic breakthroughs only occur in conjunction with dark moments?

In both the show Flesh and Bone and the movie Black Swan (two of the only popular culture references that include portrayals of professional dance and mental illness), the above is the case. The characters suffering from mental illnesses are able to perform their best and most "perfect" when they are most acutely suffering. Why does this "make sense"? There have been so many incredibly influential people in the arts who have suffered from severe mental illnesses - some to the point of suicide. Why is this the case? 


This is a lot to work through for today. Hopefully my next post will have a narrowed-down core thesis and my main argument. There is too much to read until then!

Interview: Lil Buck's Jookin' Jam Session

Written for VOICE Magazine on October 21, 2016.

Collaboration in the field of dance, especially with a talented musician, has the potential to connect with audiences in unexpected ways. A clear example in recent history is Charles “Lil Buck” Riley’s viral video performance of “The Swan” with Yo-Yo Ma. The short clip, filmed on a cell phone camera by Spike Jonze, has been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube. A further exploration of a freestyle originally performed by Lil Buck at New Ballet Ensemble and the first collaboration facilitated by Damian Woetzel, of New York City Ballet fame, has pushed Lil Buck into the spotlight - a place where he seems very comfortable.

Another performance in UCSB Arts & Lectures Dance Series at the Granada Theater, A Jookin’ Jam Session should be an evening showcasing Lil Buck’s “elegant ripple of movement and footwork, exuberant and seemingly gravity resistant” (The Wall Street Journal).

Woetzel has a keen interest in this type of collaborative work. “I am passionate about connecting different artists with different strengths. This mix [of Lil Buck and musicians from all over the world] — feels so right. The style of this performance is a blowout of the collaborative concept: a real jam session, where Lil Buck and the musicians can entirely be themselves.”

The musicians, Sandeep Das, Johnny Gandelsman, Cristina Pato, Wu Tong, Kate Davis, Eric Jacobsen and Grace Park will be playing a broad range of music for Lil Buck and Ron “Pryme Tyme” Myles to “interpret”. Each artist, regardless of their instrument, will be attributing to the larger conversation of sound and body. “The idea is that they all get to be themselves,” says Woetzel. “And then, at the same time, be saying, ‘yes, but what can we do together?’” 

Lil Buck, freshly coming off Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour, expressed excitement at the collaborative process thus far, “I am excited to collaborate: this whole thing is about the power of unity and collaboration, coming together as one to create something beautiful and to do it on levels that touch on different subjects that people understand.” This was most clear to him in the original collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma: “The interpretation of the Dying Swan to me felt like it was my last time performing. I was appreciating things that I usually take for granted, the flowers around me, the breeze… I had the utmost appreciation for everything around me.”

Woetzel says the relationship of this collaborative work with social media has not only skyrocketed Lil Bucks’ popularity but also given a platform to other artists to get their work out into the world. Woetzel’s endeavor to showcase music and dance from different cities and geographies has been aided by social media and the ability to connect with audiences all over the world. Not a replacement for live performance by any means, this new surge of excitement about forms of dance that do not often see the stage bring fresh life into the field of American dance.

As for Lil Buck, his story is not over yet; with even more projects in the works, he seems to just be hitting his stride. After recent performances with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet and in Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: OneLilBuck looks forward to even more of this kind of work in the future. “I believe that dance has the power to break down geographical and economic boundaries. It’s all about connecting with people.”

Review: Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Written for VOICE Magazine on October 8, 2016.

As the first performance in Arts & Lectures’s dance series, celebrated contemporary ballet company Alonzo King LINES Ballet brought two works to the Granada Theater this past weekend for a program full of extraordinary virtuosity and thrilling physicality. Based in San Francisco, LINES Ballet has developed a reputation for innovative choreography that stretches the boundaries of contemporary ballet.

The first work, “Shostakovich,” opens with a selection from Shostakovich’s string quartets. The dancers move fluidly in and out time with the music, their long limbs moving in time with plucks on the strings and whirling rapidly through longer strokes. In this series of twists and turns, we see King’s innovative and liberating style of ballet that disassembles the standard vernacular and replaces ordinary transitions with waves that radiate through the whole body. 

The duets in this work are particularly thrilling, showcasing a great deal of flexibility and strength through lifted legs, arched torsos, and grand sweeps across the floor. In the wildness of these movements, however, are moments of captivating stillness and subtlety. A single horizontal line of light rises steadily higher as the dancers enter and exit in more duets and group work full of rippling arm movements that reverberate throughout the bodies of the dancers onstage. There are many well-placed moments of silence in this work and even more well-timed moments of harmony and discord as the dancers move in and out of tensile movements that beg for release.

The second work, “Sand”, is set to the work of Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran. A more playful piece than “Shostakovich,” this piece begins with the company facing the audience, moving slowly to one side of the stage and then the other, as one or two dancers arch suddenly backwards and then slowly right themselves. As the music accelerates and becomes more dynamic, we see the same virtuosic expression translated into longing reaches and battements of legs by the women and the men in the company barreling through space with many turns and leaps, possibly in an attempt to defy gravity.

Dancers dart in and out of sight from behind the lighted scrim as though they are remnants of a dream or vision, dancing with light and energetic feet. At the culmination of the work, there is a curious duet between a man and woman, full of caresses and carrying. It ends abruptly with a turning of the head and stillness, almost teasing the audience with an interpretation, creating a crowning moment of abstract expression to a full evening of beautiful movement.

VIM VIGOR: Someday You Will Understand

Written for VOICE Magazine on September 23, 2016.

VIM VIGOR is a contemporary dance-theater company dedicated to creating and performing original works by Shannon Gillen, elevating and nurturing the professional lives of young dance artists, and to cultivating public interest in the dance-theater art form. VIM VIGOR Dance Company members are: choreographer Shannon Gillen, Jason Cianciulli, Rebecca Diab (apprentice), Martin Durov, Laja Field, and Emma Whiteley.

After a successful stint in Europe both as a dancer and choreographer, Shannon Gillen returned to New York City in 2014 to found Vim Vigor Dance Company. Since then, Vim Vigor has become known for both its physically demanding and highly theatrical style - creating a level of contemporary dance-theater that combines “heroic physicality, electric emotional life and cinematic imagery” (VIM VIGOR). In residency at the Lobero Theater through DANCEworks for the past three weeks, Gillen and her dancers have been fully steeped in the creation process of the brand newFUTURE/PERFECT, a work centered inside a narrative of a camping trip that shifts dramatically to allow for a mix of reality and surreal spaces. Inside a work both more acrobatic and more theatrical than most physical theater, the characters in FUTURE/PERFECT confront the paradox of hope and doubt and wrestle with the age-old assurance, “Someday you are going to understand.”

This work in particular is inspired by camping trips and its psychological effects on different people. Gillen says, “Camping on the East Coast is often abreak from life while camping on the West Coast seems more like being available to the idea of receiving a sign from the universe… [or] being open to the signs around them or not.” In FUTURE/PERFECT, this idea expands into a colossal adventure through an extreme supernatural encounter and hallucinations by each character as they navigate the aftermath of the encounter. Set between the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,FUTURE/PERFECT’s original soundscape evokes nostalgia for an earlier time with its pulsating synth and bass. One of the most remarkable things about Vim Vigor is that all of the collaborators - composer, lighting designer, and costume designer - have worked with Gillen through multiple seasons, allowing the entire creative team to come together as a “think tank” to keep potent the vision of the work. Every element of the performance meshes together to create an immersive experience around the choreography and physical theater. 

In building an entirely new work in just three weeks, many challenges can arise. To further evoke the setting of the campsite, the entirety of the Lobero stage is covered in mulch: this provided some challenges in traction for some of the more physical elements of the work. Additionally, Gillen says a work of this scale usually takes about three months to create which allows for more time to wrestle with both movement and ideas in the studio. Through this accelerated process inside the theater itself, creation of material and progression through the narrative take precedence. The company will later take this piece back to New York and pull it apart, taking time to look at it again from a different perspective and give feedback on what they created.

Talking to Shannon Gillen, you can feel the energy and passion she has not only for her craft but also in expanding the dance audience. In the process of merging acrobatic contemporary dance with a theater space, Gillen says, “This kind of work gives audience members access to a rare experience of not needing a certain level of cultural acumen to fall headfirst into a production… It comes back to the person and connecting with the audience, figuring out what works best for the audience to create powerful image.” Through creating strong imagery and a storyline that can instantly bring the audience to the edge of their seat, Vim Vigor’s FUTURE/PERFECT bridges the gap between the moving, breathing, human past with a much less tangible, other-worldly future.

Survival Mode - Outside Looking In

I have already been away from home for 54 days. In this time, I have felt myself changing. I threw myself into an entirely new way of life in the first five weeks in Virginia, for another three weeks in Germany, and will continue to do so in my two weeks of travels after my program ends.I feel that I have broken habits, have shifted my values, and view the world with a slightly softer lens.

When I left Santa Barbara on June 1, I was hurting. I had been running at full speed since 2011 and didn't know how to slow down. I was in survival mode: broke all the time, working too much, stretching myself too thin, eating and sleeping poorly, and trying to keep everyone happy and yet still alienating people. In the midst of this, I was not unhappy - I have amazing people in my life and have been blessed with work that is truly fulfilling - but I did have a lot of excess things in my life that I thought I loved but were slowly breaking me down. I made myself like things I didn't like, I made myself do things that weren't my passion, I said a lot of things I didn't mean, and none of it was done knowingly. That's what "survival mode" is like for me. I adopted a lifestyle full of anxiety and bitterness that lacked joy or fulfillment. I can only see that now.

I should have seen the warning signs. I certainly felt them but couldn't recognize them for what they were: social withdrawal, not being able to get out of bed, constant anxiety and pains in my chest, recurring illnesses that kept me from eating or sleeping enough, and intense guilt about taking any time off work because of the pain, anxiety, or sickness. Just trying to survive was causing me emotional and physical pain and draining me mentally and spiritually. The last two years have probably been the hardest of my whole life.

I have some anxiety about going back. Not about going back home: I can brave Santa Barbara, especially because I have had some new opportunities that will lighten my schedule and balance my workload. Not about school: I can brave my independent study project for graduate school because it's something I am passionate about and have given myself some reasonable limits and deadlines. Not even about failure: I am not afraid to fail, as I am aware that I constantly do so and often more spectacularly than most. I am afraid, mostly, of disconnecting from myself again and letting myself get dragged back down into "survival".

Being here in Germany has reminded me of who I naturally am and how I want to be.

I don't want to stop being excited. I get excited about details: the Frankfurt skyline in the morning, the smell of the rain, a piece of interesting graffiti, the look of the sun reflecting on the river, my 50 cent coffee and croissant each morning, carrying everything I need in just my backpack, silence... Survival mode dulled my senses and brought hyper-focus to the road ahead, it stiffened me so I could not notice the world around me.

I don't want to lose my compassion. That I love being with people, I love praying for them, I love talking to them about their lives, I love being honest with them and being sensitive and compassionate to their pain... Survival mode put me in a hyper-protective state where I could not open up and was easily bitter.

I don't want to go too fast. I like taking my time: walking a long distance with no music in my earbuds, no urgency to my steps, no reason to not take in my surroundings... Survival mode made me focus on the future and miss out on the present.

I don't want to stop trusting God. This has been the hardest. In my life and in my field, I have felt the need to push the timeline and plan that God has for me in what I am doing so it fit my ideas of what it looks like to be successful. I have damaged relationships with other people because of this and I have also greatly hurt myself. This has been a larger issue in my life but survival mode accentuated my natural doubt and caused me a great deal of unnecessary anxiety.

But I can do it. There is so much hope for this year, so many exciting opportunities, and so many people that I know will support me when I get back home. Finding balance will probably always be a struggle for me but having the opportunity to step back and reevaluate, like I have done these past eight weeks, will always be available. 

Just pray for me, okay? And maybe remind me every once in a while to chill.


Love always,

Dimly Lit and Deeply Felt: Maurya Kerr's "WW"

Below is a review written on Maurya Kerr's MFA Thesis performance on June 20, 2016.


Maurya Kerr’s new WW invites the viewer to witness a personal moment of weakness while hinting at a desperate desire to transcend the limits of the body. Kerr’s fragile presence and murky lighting hold the audience in a viselike grip while creating an environment that suggests at any second, the vision may disappear.

At first glance, her choice of costume intrigues me: stirrup tights and a loose tank complement her long, fluid limbs but call forth a place and time that seem far removed from this intimate theater. Her dark brown wig creates a curtain of separation, allowing Kerr to avert her eyes and hide her face from the audience. In dim lighting, time slows as she traverses the stage languidly, humming a soft tune to herself and reaching repeatedly in different directions. I begin to feel like an unwitting voyeur, rather than an invited guest, peering closely into this moment of internal conflict and pain. As she reaches, relevés, and rolls in quick succession, I sense her searching to escape her current circumstances. Inevitably, she spirals and stumbles back into the deep vortex of her own misery, bringing the audience with her.

Midway through the piece, Kerr joins the audience with a slow, agonizing crawl into a chair set slightly apart. The lights dim further as she settles her body into the chair and stares back at the empty stage, humming a soft tune to herself. Unable to shake the vast emptiness staring back at her, she sheds her clothing and returns to center of the stage, naked.

In removing her protective layer of fabric, Kerr bares body and soul to her audience. As unwitting spectators in an exercise of self-loathing, we watch a woman give up her quest for transcendence and liberation. She writhes on the floor like a wounded creature, moving in silence with her own pain.

The experience escalates as we watch her obsessive return to reaches and rolls. On occasion, we see her haunted gaze through the curtain-like strands of the brown-haired wig. In her most desperate moment, she beats her chest in an act of self-flagellation, and I flinch as I empathize with her remorse and despair. As the lights slowly fade, we are left with the sound of fists hitting flesh, wondering if her self-punishment will ever end.