MASKED MAN Looking Behind George Stamos New Work
Montreal-based choreographer George Stamos will premiere his duet Cloak, with perfomer Clara Furey, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center June 16-18. Building a reputation for strong imagery, intense physicality, and surprising twists of humor, Stamos works with a seamless interdisciplinarity. For his new work, this includes electroacoustic music by Tomas Furey, video design by Dayna McLeod, and lyrics by Clara Furey. MJ Thompson spoke with Stamos in May about Cloak, a study of masks literal
MJ Thompson (Rail): What’s the link you see between masking and heightened forms of presence and intimacy?
George Stamos: I’m interested in the ironic element—when we mask ourselves, we at the same time liberate ourselves, to be reinvented or to be closer in some sense to what our deeper desires might be. When you’re traveling, when people don’t know you, when you’re in an anonymous situation, there’s kind of a freedom. What happens when you’re free of your supposed social identity—that interests me.
Looking at the fractured self, the multiple selves can raise the idea of dysfunction. That was the way I was looking at it, too. But through the research I came to see, okay, what happens if you accept the reality of that multiplicity? That seems really exciting.
Rail: What do you mean by research?
Stamos: I use the word “interdisciplinary” because the work has that. I’m working with video people, with sound designers, working with voice. I’m coming more from a performance art approach to the process. I’m really involved with the concept, and how it shapes every aspect of the work. Cloak began as a solo, as research. And then the research became: how does this transform into a duet, which brought up this thing about dysfunction because there’s a lot of stuff in a solo that can look like someone is going through a journey or exploration of self.
Rail: The solo gets read as biography?
Stamos: It does. But we can accept the more fractured representations of self in a solo. But when you put it in a duet, it starts to look like a fucked up relationship. Even if artistically you’re thinking that you’re not doing it, you are because there are two people on the stage. That fact encouraged me to get to the humor and the more positive aspects of the fractured self.
Rail: You’re looking at this big universal theme from a variety of aesthetic angles. How much of that is you, and how much of it is your training, as someone who has studied multiple techniques and performed with many different choreographers?
Stamos: Having the postmodern training already proposes that you cut and paste things; you’re reframing things to create something new. So that opens up that the cohabitation of different universes is possible. In a similar way, in my career as a dancer, I’ve danced for a lot of people, with very different aesthetics and shifting from one aesthetic to another, sometimes within the same day. And in training too—I’ve studied release technique and taken a Cunningham class in the same day. It’s like, “Oh, you’re too soft,” in one class and “Oh, you’re too hard” in another.
Having adaptability as a practice, thinking about how we inhabit the body in different ways and maybe looking at the distance dancers have from themselves. You have to stand back a little to navigate your role as a dancer but at the same time, when you’re working with the senses, you have to really inhabit your body. These things are at play in the job of being a dancer and more so with choreographing and being in my own work.
Rail: With Cloak, it sounds like you had a pretty strong concept from the start; is that how you usually work: idea first, material later?
Stamos: Idea first, generally. I really enjoy grant writing, and writing about the work because it helps me ground the ideas. With Cloak, because I do different kinds of work with different masks, I knew right away that this was not about arriving at character. Or a particular identity of the mask. It was about looking at the process of masking. And so we have blank masks.
Rail: Some of them are very disturbing.
Stamos: That’s what people say. Did you see the blue bunnies? They’re a lot more in the spirit of playfulness and reinvention.
Rail: How did you find those masks?
Stamos: I’ve always been a really big fan of Leigh Bowery, in the 1980s, early 1990s, who was not disturbing at all [laughs]. I didn’t really know him that well but we hung out in the same places in London and he was always coming into the club and doing his thing and I really had that influence. That mask is a very Leigh Bowery moment. It’s faceless. That reference is there.
Rail: I’m thinking about the idea that “movement never lies.” Can movement be a mask?
Stamos: We can mask our behavior. Isn’t that what actors do? The tricky thing is to separate out performance techniques—professional techniques—that involve belief. Or working with a belief system in which you are the thing you’re doing. That can create a kind of resistance to admitting that you’re not actually the character or the movement because it becomes part of the practice at that point, and you have to be so committed. It becomes part of the movement; it’s part of the training. But, in fact, no. [laughs.]
In theater, you are framed by a particular thing that is not the same as when you’re walking on the street. It’s a different frame.
Rail: Can you describe the use of video in this production?
Stamos: Thematically, we use the video screen like a mask. Like the moment where part of the body is behind it, performing, and there’s a projection overlaid on the screen. It happens in a few different ways, that wedding of the screen and the body. There’s an invitation to hallucination: at what points to you start do see one body?
Rail: Who are your influences?
Stamos: Definitely Benoît Lachambre is one. Leigh Bowery, whom I mentioned. Sara Shelton Mann, and Contraband.
Rail: How do you know when the piece is over?
Stamos: A work needs to be performed before its over, but certainly it’s over at the moment of transmission to the audience. That’s the endpoint: it’s all theoretical until that moment. Whether you’re happy with it, that’s another story [laughs].