Melissa Briggs has a thing for trains. While the Brooklyn-based choreographer, who is currently an artist-in-residence at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) in Park Slope, doesn’t state this explicitly in conversation, it’s implicit in her work, where trains play a significant role both in her CityStory (2002) and in her latest work The Book Project. Here, trains link three very different, but equally fascinating pairs of classic literary characters. “Trains have a really interesting part; they’re a symbol of industrialization,” says Briggs. “As these scenes move [chronologically] through time, it’s what ties them together.”
The Book Project, which will be performed as part of BAX’s First Weekend Series in April, draws upon difficult scenes from three novels: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. These are novels that Briggs has read and loved and while they are mostly classics; later, if she expands the piece, she will consider creating a scene for Jane Hamilton’s Disobedience.
In each 8-12 minute duet, dancers (Toni Melaas, Thad Wong, Marika Chandler, Molly Wilson, Mindy Nelson, and Lawrence Casella) reenact passages from the novels through stylized movement and gestures. The chosen scenes from the novels “pinpoint a moment in the story” Briggs finds revealing, though not necessarily pivotal or well-known.
According to Briggs, she chose instead “discreet scenes that weren’t very climactic, but had interesting exchanges of power, or explored what wasn’t said instead of what was said.” In fact, no words are spoken in these danced scenes, adding a dramatic silent-film feel, which was the theater-loving Briggs’s intention. As Briggs explains, she is striving to “meld theater and dance in a new way…into pictorial moments that may seem like film.”
As with the most successful, affecting films, the heart of each duet in The Book Project is the human relationships portrayed, whether between a man and his female lover or between two women.
Though each scene serves as a window into the characters’ inner lives, each dancer is physically characterized by a myriad of movements and gestures. “In the Anna Karenina scene, there’s a big swooping waltz,” Briggs notes. “That scene starts with more classic dance material, then descends into a smaller place.”
In yet another duet, during a particularly climactic moment, one dancer stands on the other’s lap. In all three scenes, though, “Gesture is a big part of how they speak to each other,” Briggs explains. “There’s a lot of attention to time, stillness, and stops and starts; swift changes between slow and sped-up time, like hitting pause on the VCR.”
In keeping with the train theme, Briggs is considering showing The Book Project “on location” at an old railway or train station. Another gifted choreographer/dancer using short, structured “scenes” to tell a story is Briggs’s fellow 2004 BAX artist-in-residence, Nami Yamamoto. Once described as “a human projectile” by the Village Voice, Yamamoto embodies intense energy and passion in her broadly-themed works.
Originally from Ehime, Japan, Yamamoto began dancing at the age of three. In 1993, she graduated from New York University with an MA in Dance Education; since then, she has choreographed and danced in numerous shows across Manhattan and Asia (she returns to her native Japan on a semi-regular basis). She has also dabbled in music and dance collaborations, and recently tried puppeteering, which she found to be an expressive medium.
Her newest dance/performance piece, with a working title the last word was Papirepose is a series of six character-based vignettes featuring Yamamoto along with Ryutaro Mishima, Darla Villani, and Jean Vitrano. Similar to Briggs, Yamamoto uses each scenes short timeframe to tell a story about the characters’ inner workings, while luring audiences into “mysterious, imaginary worlds.” The segment titles add to the intrigue: Straight Forward, A Green Leaf on a Tongue, Fully Empty, In the Fountain, Monkeys in Love and Straight Backward. For Yamamoto, all of the scenes are linked by a connecting theme—”consciousness, unconsciousness, and dreams; being here, but at the same time not here,” she explains.
Yamamoto considers Papirepose “more distinguished” than her past works, perhaps because she consciously strove to move beyond traditional “choreographic tendencies” and, here, aimed to cover new terrain. One way she did this was by limiting each scene to three minutes, a technique she first used—and enjoyed—during a workshop last summer with Dean Martin. “Because it’s so short, I only put what I need in there,” Yamamoto explains. “[It forces me] to really define myself and what I want to do in the piece.”
“Untraditional” and “abstract” are two of the resulting ways in which Yamamoto has defined herself. According to her, Papirepose relies heavily on repetition, gesture and facial expressions. “Looking is important to me—how the performer looks in the space, or looks at the audience,” Yamamoto says.
Weight is also important—she’s one of this planet’s lucky few that adhere to the notion that heavier is better. Not literally, unfortunately. But in orchestrating this work, she made a point to instruct how heavily a dancer carries herself. The physical weight that is thrown into a performance affects its look, feeling, and resonance—at least in theory, Yamamoto tends to favor dense, more substantial movements.
No matter how long these two under-the-radar choreographers share the spotlight at BAX’s First Weekend Series, it’s clear that they will continue to create fresh, original work. Keep your eyes open.
Laura Barcella is a freelance writer based in Park Slope.