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This past weekend I had the great fortune of collaborating on what I think is one of my favorite projects of the year. I wanted to throw out a little postmortem on the project for folks who may want to understand how it came about and why four tech spinners got together for the utterly insane goal of creating three and a half minutes of choreography in 10 hours over two nights in New York City.
It started at Burning Man this past year--Noel Yee had asked me one day on the playa if I was interested in doing a performance project with him. He described it as an attempt to shake up the tech world--to challenge people to take their tech beyond merely showing off and to use it to create choreography and performances. We reasoned in this conversation that the tech world had become very competetive in trying to create new and unique tricks--what if we could create the same kind of competetive spirit in creating finished performance pieces? He suggested Kate McCoy and Jen Swanson as possible collaborators, suggesting that putting so many people so well-known in the tech world into such a piece would create a very powerful message.
His ideas dovetailed well with many of the thoughts I myself had been wrestling with. At Summer Wildfire, I'd worked to create a piece that owed as much to the modern dance world I'd been exploring the past two years as it did to the tech poi I'd been videoing constantly during the same period. I was terrified at the time people wouldn't accept a piece from me that integrated so many dance ideas and I was pleasantly surprised by how well my piece was received. I was coming more and more to believe that for poi to branch out and become a serious art, we needed to create pieces that didn't just showcase technique, but were filled with intentions, ideas, and narrative.
Noel's suggestion was music to my ears, as it was to both Kate and Jen. I honestly think that based purely upon the names involved, all of us would have signed on regardless of what the project was, but it helped that it dovetailed with my own intentions for performance. The four of us began collaborating on regular conference calls--throwing out ideas and talking about process. In October, Noel and Kate got together for a weekend to carve out some choreography ideas. In November, Jen and I did the same. We batted around a number of thoughts on the phone for a central narrative and concept, but nothing really crystallized.
Thus, when we walked in the door of Triskelion on Friday, December 16 where we'd reserved the cavernous Studio A from 10 PM to 3 AM, there were still more than a few questions about what the piece we were creating would become. We'd decided at this point on a piece of music ("Above & Beyond" by Bassnectar) and decided to split into working groups to hammer out individual sections. And that's when what had previously seemed like a good idea morphed into a great idea.
Almost all of the choreography and ideas we'd developed in the weeks before were immediately thrown out and we started from a new collaborative place. The result of this was that what we created was very much a product of the moment and the energy in the room. In many ways, it was like working on a 48-hour film project wherein a film is created from scratch in as many hours.
We worked back and forth between creating moments of interaction between all of us and working out technically precise passages we all knew would be a challenge. We were very lucky indeed that we all were at a level in which learning that choreography could be accomplished in a rapid fashion. At the close of the first night, we had developed the repeating thematic motifs of having moments in which we seemed to be hanging by a single body part and coalescing the group back together for three-dimensional composite movement.
The second day was a bigger challenge because we had to put the pieces together and see how they integrated with the music itself. Now we had to bridge between moments and it was here that we began throwing out ideas we'd written the night before that were found not to work either with the other movement motifs or that we just didn't have enough time to visit. We were battling exhaustion and lack of sleep and much of the polishing work the second night was considerably more of a chore than the first.
At 3 AM the second night, it seemed we had worked out how all the pieces fit together, but only on paper. We had yet to perform the piece from top to bottom. We decided to remain in the studio an extra hour and complete the project rather than waiting till the next day. We were all hungry to see the pieces fit together and the energy in the room was palpable.
We blocked the song out without our tools twice, focusing on our staging and how we would have to move in order to tie all the pieces together. We still had discoveries to make in terms of how much and how little time we had to fill with many of these sections. We worked through the piece with tools for the first time and we all agreed it was a lackluster performance. We'd had many trip-ups and timing issues, so we opted to do it again. We discussed working through the performance an additional 5 times and to begin recording after another take. Just in case, we set the cameras rolling for our next run-through and the result was glorious.
The performance crystallized beautifully. It wasn't technically perfect, but we all felt that it was something special. After the fall that closes the piece, each of us had to exercise a huge amount of restraint to avoid breaking out in celebration instantly. We knew the moment we stood up that that was the peak performance of the evening and opted to sit down and decompress rather than keep pushing for a better one (bear in mind it was 4 AM at this point). Most of this discussion was recorded on Noel's camera and I hope to see that footage make it to the web soon :)
Ultimately, we were hugely satisfied with the outcome of the project. We all felt as though we'd done justice to creating a piece with intention while keeping the tech at a level we felt our peers would appreciate. Even now, days later, I still feel an emotional high when I think about what we did in that room. I feel as though we channeled into something very special and that each of us brought a unique contribution to the finished piece that is irreplaceable. We've always intended for this project to inspire other people to embark on similar journeys, so I hope those of you reading out there are motivated to try and work with others to create pieces like this. It's one thing to spin a cool trick, it's another to pour a piece of yourself out into a piece and the pride and relief you feel from having it come together is comparable to nothing :)
Thanks so much to Noel for dreaming up this idea and Kate and Jen for following us into it. You guys want to do it again? ;)