Presented by the Tank at Standard Toykraft
September 22 – 25, 2016
“Nothing is held on to, but everything is explored,” Nadia Tykulsker said of her piece Saw You Yesterday. It is a response to what she calls a “violent, desperate moment in our history”—heightened by the hateful rhetoric flooding the media in this election season. Tykulsker and her performers explore physical extremes and “community cohesion” at the heart of these tensions at levels ranging from the interpersonal to the national. The piece is a mash-up of postmodern disorder that mirrors the senselessness of violent incidents and the randomness of whether they get attention. The piece is coupled with Jennifer Harge’s movement installation Mourn and Never Tire, which serves as inspiration for her black community and a eulogy for black lives lost to police brutality.
Standard Toykraft, a performance space more usually in the service of experimental theater and puppet workshops, is up the stairs on the third floor of an industrial building that once housed the toy manufacturer of the same name. The forty or so audience members take their seats in wooden church pews and foldout chairs, entering an atmosphere of groovy music, incense, and a picket fence bar hung with porch lights. The crowd seems like an intimate sampling of the young dance community, with a few others scattered in the mix. Stickers, graffiti, and mural art give texture to the walls, and beyond the large round stage piece in the center of the floor is an arched altar offering candles. The exposed theater trappings and DJ booth in the back corner hold our attention until street-clothed dancers walk out and place a chest on the ground. The dimmed light commands silence and then the dancers break it, talking to one another in low tones as they pin photos to the Altar.
Tykulsker grew up dancing at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange and was nurtured by the resources of the City’s modern dance scene. She then studied the spectrum of modern western dance at the University of Michigan, before starting her career back in Brooklyn. “I’ve always been really interested in improvisation and choreography from when I was a young person. I think the buzzword around it is ‘the thinking dancer.’” The result is that Tykulsker is a director more so than choreographer in some ways. She creates pieces, including this piece, in collaboration with her performers: “As a maker, I had a creative vision and a directorial sense, but then I couldn’t do it without them. There’s a lot of performer choice inside of the world that we create together,” Tykulsker said in our phone interview.
Four of the main performers in Saw You Yesterday have known Tykulsker for many years, dancing in each other’s works; Katie Dean, Jennifer Harge, Tara Sheena, and EmmaGrace Skove-Epes go way back into the last decade. Racial and gender inequality is a momentous topic for a movement piece, and these bonds imbue a sense of trust and comfort in exploring the “deeply personal” material that arises in the piece. The dancers are comfortable in their vulnerability. Each hoists her individuality on the piece through expressions of cultural and personal history, improvising and “feeling into” physical and emotional states together.
Before the collaborative and conceptual process began, however, there was the stage. Set designer Hiroko Ishikawa helped Tykulsker realize her vision of a stage upon a stage: a rotating circular platform, sixteen feet in diameter that comes apart and can be stored. Built in Ishikawa’s backyard in Bushwick, the stage makes possible a production in the round, but it also serves as a constant reminder of this critical topic: Revolution, for it is Tykulsker herself that turns the stage.
Along with another dancer, Tykulsker fastens onto the back of her pants two hooks that are roped to the rotating stage. The others pose on the stage and lean forward, swinging their legs back and then sharply crossing them in front of their bodies. A rhythm begins as Tyskulsker and Lydia Mokdessi orbit the stage, setting the platform in motion. The onstage movers make physical statements and pause for reception. They lunge together in Warrior II—sustained and extended limbs. A few jump off and crouch by the stage, adding their efforts to spin the wheel. The dancers breathe and work through it. Angle in; out; wrap. Elbows overlap. Crouchers stand when walkers pass. The space is constantly moving and provides no one angle or entry point for the audience to follow.
Much of “Saw You Yesterday” takes the form of postmodern prose poetry. Wanting to engage more politically and socially in her practice and work, Tykulsker set out to create the piece as reflective, in its own disintegrative way, of lived experience adding to conversations in the dance community and in the country.
Printed in the program:
The work is through a lens of…
This work is layered, it zooms in and out
it is a web of our thoughts as a collective curated by me
ethics around femininityracelabor.
With crocodile face and hip thrust and people not
pretending to be white dudes who give a fuck
Watch us die or diary entry
I’ll see you later – We saw you yesterday.
disengage and defriend
but mark as saved for the future
or you can google them or just write a book about it
We see you but we don’t need you to see us or want us but it’s nice when you hold us
close before we leave, we’ll say this
when I leave, I won’t die but there’s a chance I will and that chance means you’ll find out four days later
The work is disjointed, fragmentary, and scrappy. It challenges the authority of signified meaning through gesture, word, and space—as well as through the authority of reliable narrators who morph in character, temperament, and movement choice. Though deconstructionist critical theory is a dense approach for such a make-what-you-will-of-it piece, the dancers pierce the complex layers of the topic by embracing the chaos and playing within it.
Recognizing her privilege as a white woman, Tykulsker takes on the question how to raise and navigate these conversations responsibly. The piece, according to the program notes, “attempts to scrutinize the nature of whiteness, its ability to exist in an escapist state that allows us to try on much and not have the responsibility to hold any.” Against the stark relief of police originated racial violence, this yields discomfort and certain aspects of Saw You Yesterday deliberately test the audience’s endurance to withstand this discomfort.
Expressing heavy socio-political topics through dance is a tall order and Saw You Yesterday meets the challenge by emphasizing process not product. “We started with a really physical task of feeling into the extremities of our physicality and building from one state to another: one emotional state to another, one muscular state to another,” Tykulsker said. “How can you access all of the multiplicities that are inside your body? We have access to all of that as trained movers—themes, images; [we] embody characters, create relationships and comment on them. Nothing is held on to, but everything is explored.”
At one moment, after a transition back to the stage, Katie Dean takes heavy steps, pauses in a prayer position, and turns hand to hip akimbo. There is unity in a controlled “all fall down.” The dancers play in the chaos they’ve created, belching out squeaking sounds, and provoking discomfort and annoyance in the audience. Amidst a round of body percussion, Sheena holds a pose and yells out: “Please don’t let me die.” Is this drama and urgency necessary? It feels awkward and unmerited. That seems to be the point.
In unison they are warriors again, invoking some lyricism: step, shuffle. Each dancer occupies a separate space and simultaneously executes an individual movement phrase on repeat. There is a moment of physical confrontation, like basketball blocking, then wrestling: head into stomach. A wail and a proclamation: “Exercise!” followed by a series of knee dips from the floor holding the stage. The dancers begin to shake, subsumed with an orgasmic energy punctuated with hip swivels and gyration. They drape across each other’s bodies. Bright, fluorescent lights turn on and a shift in the creative organization takes place: the performers take the turn of curatorial director asking questions and making requests.
“Cut the song,” says dancer Jennifer Harge, “put on something gospel […] Beyoncé counts as gospel music if that’s all we have […] Okay, Frank Ocean, that counts.” The dancers step out of the conventional stage area and into the alleys along the seating. “Cut Frank.” There’s some fumbling around the macbook on the DJ booth: “I wish we had WiFi.” Dancer EmmaGrace Skove-Epes blesses the audience, anointing the first row with lavender essential oil.
Throughout Saw You Yesterday, though most pronounced at the end, is a blur between scripted “acting” and in the moment decision-making through onstage conversation. The proximity of the action is intimidating as the audience performance boundary is also blurred and, depending on your ambition, you hope you either will or will not be called up and cast in a role. Let there be no mediation between the messenger, the message and the recipient.
Saw You Yesterday is followed by Jennifer Harge’s movement installation Mourn and Never Tire. Harge, a Detroit-based dancer and choreographer began by reading out an introduction that begins: “What does it mean when someone who looks like me dies? It feels personal, familial—it feels like Hennessy being passed around at Christmas, the spades table, getting my scalp greased with Dudley’s. Black loss has always felt like a black memory.” She continues and touches on the form of the piece: “I feel responsible for their eulogy and discovering the ways in which I can offer my body as a container and vessel for their names and stories.”
After Tykulsker’s piece finished, the dancers are stationed at different levels on the stairs, reading names, dates, and locations of black victims of police violence. They read and run in place, keeping pace and losing breath. At the bottom entrance level, Skove-Epes alternates jumping and jogging in place; names with recent media attention—Alton Sterling, Philando Castile—burn your ears amidst too many others. Skove-Epes finishes and the voices of the other dancers ring as they make their way to finish the list. Harge runs down the stairs and outside to the sidewalk, breaking away from her own stalled confines.
The installation is more concrete in content and form than Saw You Yesterday, which welcomed frustration and discomfort in its chaos and lack of clarity. Though the meaning and structure is easily understood, grappling with the weight of the topic is trying and the result is powerful. Through the dancers’ demonstration of physical endurance and resilience, we can see emotional counterpart required to mourn and never tire.
GILLIAN JAKAB is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.