JODY OBERFELDER PROJECTS: THE BRAIN PIECE
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Wednesday, June 28, gala benefit $200, 7:30
June 29 - July 1, $25-$35, 7:00 & 9:00
New York-based director, choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder’s The Brain Piece, premiering at New York Live Arts June 28 – July 1, continues her exploration of our internal organs, following on her extraordinary 2013 piece, 4Chambers, an immersive, multimedia, interactive journey inside the human heart. Performed by Oberfelder, Mary Madsen, Pierre Guilbault, and Hannah Wendel along with ten dancer docents, The Brain Piece is divided into two parts, “Mind Matters / Head Space” and “World of Brain,” combining film, visual art, installation, dance, music, and text for an audience limited to 72 members. The cerebral, multimedia piece includes her award-winning short film Dance of the Neurons, made with Eric Siegel, which turns firing synapses into a colorful, joyous dance. Oberfelder, a travel and yoga enthusiast and former lead singer of the punk band the Bagdads, founded Jody Oberfelder Projects in 1989 and has previously presented such works as The Titles Comes Last, Moved, Re:Dress, and Throb. The charming, gregarious, always energetic creator took a break from rehearsals to tell twi-ny all about The Brain Piece.
twi-ny: We recently bumped into each other at the Whitney Biennial, where you were serving as a docent for Asad Raza’s “Root sequence. Mother tongue,” an installation of living trees paired with specific objects, one of which you contributed. As museumgoers made their way through the exhibit, I couldn’t help but think of it as a kind of improvisatory dance with nature, especially with you there. What was that experience like?
jody oberfelder: We’re actually called caregivers. The people who pass through sometimes don’t know we’re positioned as such as we, as you describe, do this improvisatory dance with people in conversation. The show has been up since March and we’ve seen the trees go from bare, to blossom, to leafing, and now they can’t wait to get planted outside. Many people have passed through. Asad’s work balances organic, inorganic, and human all in the space. Having a person in the room is as important as the trees and the caregiver’s placed object. I’m learning that conversation is often this invisible thread that links things together in the present.
twi-ny: Your work is very scientific; were you interested in science when you were a kid?
jo: I would not say I grew up with a scientific bent. I had a fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Dowd, who explained the digestive system with panache (“...and out the other end” — we were all snickering). I’ve come to science through the body, and through a curiosity about what makes us alive. There is a beautiful ecosystem within us and a giant cosmos outside of us. Did you ever see that film by Charles and Ray Eames — Powers of Ten — it’s all about zooming out and zooming in. That, to me, is what science is about. Things can be very specific and very vast.
twi-ny: Yes, Powers of Ten is quite eye-opening. How did you find/choose your science collaborators — Dr. Wei Ji Ma, Cecilia Fontanesi, and Ed Lein — and what did each one bring to The Brain Piece?
Word of mouth.
Cecilia is a dancer and a neuroscientist. She met one of my dancers, Mary Madsen, at a party. I loved talking with her from the very beginning. The thing she said, “The brain is everywhere in the body,” totally clicked with my premise of dancers illuminating brain life.
Wendy Suzuki, who helped illuminate the brain-body connection for me, introduced Wei Ji to me. Wei Ji has been a great collaborator. He comes to rehearsals to “fact check” and advise. He’s in Dance of the Neurons. I audited his class at NYU on illusion. We did a combo lecture / performance in Amsterdam.
Another neuroscientist introduced Ed Lein to me: Gary Marcus. My company manager at the time, Clare Cook, was giving him private Pilates lessons. Gary and I had several conversations, which culminated in him saying, “You know, you should meet Ed from the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He specializes in the biology of neurons.” Ed and I had a back and forth on a kind of Skype sketchpad, and he drew little pictures of how neurons are formed that eventually became the literal storyboard for Dance of the Neurons. I embellished, of course, and played with all the ways neurons “dance” and form synaptic connection. I’m most grateful to these scientists, who are also artists.
twi-ny: Without giving too much away, how will the physical space of New York Live Arts come into play? Only the second half will take place in the theater on a proscenium stage, correct?
jo: It’s my hope that there really is no separation between the sections, that the more experience-based portions of the work continue to inform the world of the brain in the theater. There are nine films in part two. When you go to movies, you don’t question that the actors are not that big. I think the problem with live theater is that we’re in a long shot for too long. I’m creating an atmosphere of a giant brain with moving parts. I think this is the nature of brain plasticity: zoom in for close-ups, see what the alignment of neurons are doing at this time, how we’re constantly in a perceptual loop.
twi-ny: 4Chambers involved a significant amount of interaction, at one point bringing the audience into physical contact with the dancers. Will there be anything similar in The Brain Piece?
jo: You’ll see.
twi-ny: Good answer. I only recently learned that the doctor who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein actually removed his brain and brought it home to study. What is the most unusual thing you learned about the brain while making this piece?
jo: That the brain is a noisy place and we’re constantly trying to figure things out and make sense of the world. And that our bodies are the vehicles for us to sensorially enter the world. Ask a neuroscientist to define “mind” and they have no clear thing to pin down. There were philosophers, then psychiatrists, and now great discoveries in seeing the pictures in the brain, seeing what makes things go off, decay, or become more plastic, make connections: That’s the dance of neurons. But the mind — it’s like vapor. We breathe in present and past. It’s in constant motion. And dancers are the perfect vehicles to convey this movement.
twi-ny: How have the two works brought the heart and the mind together for you?
jo: The heart leads to the mind. When working on 4Chambers, I interviewed Wendy, who talked about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and how all the way down from our brains our hearts operate. We feel our hearts, but it’s triggered by the mind. You know how what your brain is doing by what your heart is doing, and vice versa. “I can put my hand on your heart and feel your heartbeat, but if I put my hand on your skull, I can’t feel your thoughts.”
twi-ny: Regarding Dance of the Neurons, your choreography has always been very cinematic, and The Brain Piece includes that short film, which has been garnering prizes at festivals. How do you see the two disciplines merging in your work?
jo: Thank you. Someone at a festival said I was a filmic choreographer. I like that. I’m pretty visual. Like a filmmaker, I’m in the business of arranging time and space and hidden narrative. I use a lot of improvisation around ideas and look for dancers who can take the ball and run with it. I like to think that if I give the performers imaginative tasks, the content will form, and it’s my job as a director and choreographer to prepare for a rehearsal with a loose storyboard of possibilities, then go deeply inside the physical investigation for the interaction with audience members, the films, and the onstage content. Devising content is a matter of honing in on what feels right.
I worked with a wonderful dramaturg this time around: Jessica Applebaum. The piece has had many renderings. She helped me not be afraid of the complexity of the subject matter and to go forward making. Details and big picture always in mind. Jessica has also left me a lot of space these last months to figure it out on my own. Today our neuroscientist, Wei Ji, was there to see me finish the finale in our last moments of our last rehearsal!
I love it now. I’m even surprised by it.
twi-ny: I’m very much looking forward to being surprised by it as well. This might be an obvious closing question, but now with the heart and the brain covered, do you anticipate continuing to explore the mind-body connection with different organs as the focus?
jo: The sex organs will probably be combined with the guts. Like when you feel something in your gut. Intuition. Power.
JODY OBERFELDER PROJECTS — 4CHAMBERS: A SENSORIAL JOURNEY INTO THE HUMAN HEART
Arts@Renaissance, Garden Level
2 Kingsland Ave. at Maspeth Ave., Greenpoint
January 21 - March 22, $60 before February 1, $75 after, Thursdays at 6:30 & 8:00, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:00 & 8:30
Last summer, New York-based choreographer, director, and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder presented 4CHAMBERS on Governors Island, an immersive journey inside the human heart in which six dancers led twelve audience members through an abandoned, specially renovated former officer’s house, each room representing another chamber, incorporating film, interactive video, factual information, and plenty of physical contact. “You will be touched by the performers, both literally and figuratively,” we wrote back in July. Although it was her first site-specific installation piece, 4CHAMBERS is not the first time Oberfelder has delved into the nature of the human heart; she previously examined the blood-pumping, life-giving organ in 2012’s Throb. For more than two decades, Jody Oberfelder Projects has been addressing such emotions as love and the search for social identity in such works as LineAge, The Title Comes Last, Approaching Climax, and Sung Heroes. Oberfelder is now bringing back 4CHAMBERS, restaging the sixty-minute piece at Arts@Renaissance in Greenpoint, in a building that previously was home to, appropriately enough, a hospital. A few days before opening night — the show runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from January 23 to March 22, with bonus performances January 21-22 — Oberfelder discussed transformation, collaborating with her husband, people’s hunger for real experience, and more.
twi-ny: 4CHAMBERS was initially performed on a hot and sweaty summer weekend on Governors Island, and now it will be performed in what so far has been a pretty cold winter. Even though the performance takes place inside, do you think the weather will have any impact on the audience and dancers? Cold and heat do have very different effects on the heart.
Jody Oberfelder: On Governors Island, people came in from an outside temperature of about 98.6, matching their actual body temperature. There was something beautiful about this, since our piece has so much to do with getting under the skin, an internal experience. Thankfully, at Arts@Renaissance, we have our thermostat set to a comfy 72 degrees. It’s perfect. This time people will venture out from cold, nasty weather and to an inside space that is warm and breathing and atmospheric.
twi-ny: How did you find this new space in Brooklyn?
Jody Oberfelder: I’d seen Then She Fell at Arts@Renaissance in fall of 2012. The creators, Third Rail, did a tremendous job of transforming the space as a trip down the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. A@R has a competitive open call for their three-month residencies. Lo and behold, my project was selected.
It was clearly a raw space with potential. After several site visits with my video collaborator, Jason Bahling, lighting designer, Kryssy Wright, set designer, Juergen Riehm, and a couple of dancers (Mary Madsen and Mercedes Searer), we found where each of our four chambers could live, figured out how to create passageways that would need to be created for arteries and veins, etc., and drew up a plan of how to site this particular work. At the time of our application, we’d not yet been given the Governors Island opportunity. Our first rendering was in an old officer’s house, with built-in metaphors of house as heart — with plumbing, walls, and corridors — whereas A@R is a former hospital.
Sited work is particular. It’s not like transplanting a proscenium work to a stage where you adjust the lights and wings and find out how many steps to the green room. We have transformed the entire floor level to a labyrinthian sensorial journey.
twi-ny: Did you have to make significant changes to the space to incorporate the main themes of the show, or did you make any changes in the performance to mold it to the space?
Jody Oberfelder: One of the challenges was to carve out the flow of traffic. We conceptualized this piece as a moving in one direction like the flow of blood, through four chambers. And each room has different needs in terms of architecture, lighting, technology, and space. The floor was too hard for the performers to really go for it, so we built a custom sprung floor and created specialized wall space. (I don’t want to give too much away.)
twi-ny: You mentioned your set designer, architect Juergen Riehm, who is also your husband. What is the collaboration process like between the two of you? Is it possible to separate the professional from the personal?
Jody Oberfelder: Fun question. Let’s just say we have a rule. We set up appointments to talk with each other about the piece. Otherwise I’d be bugging him first thing in the morning, at every meal, etc. There is crossover, of course. It’s great to have a production stage manager (Katie Houff) as intermediary. On the upside, Juergen Riehm knows me, and is very sensitive to my needs, won’t let me go the way of kitsch, or schlocky, catches my abundant imagination and helps me hone.
Thankfully, there are other key collaborators. Video artist Jason Bahling has been part of this piece almost from conception. And visual elements figure in prominently. Sound is now a major factor — since Governors Island, Sean Hagerty has come in and worked some magic.
twi-ny: On Governors Island, the performers did multiple shows in one day. Will some of the dancers again be doing back-to-back shows? The performance is extremely physical. Is there any special training involved?
Jody Oberfelder: The dancers do two shows a night. Physically, dancers are athletic and endurance poses no problem. I look for dancers who are unique, not cookie cutter, whose “technique” is present and ever felt. What takes energy in 4CHAMBERS is a discreet attention to audience members. It’s like being in a relationship for a night. The ratio is 1:2. We call the performers “docents” — we guide the audience, as a museum docent might, and encourage audience members to be in their bodies — to connect. That’s an evening of intensity.
twi-ny: There is a lot of interaction between those “docents” and the audience members, whom you refer to as “guests,” including a lot of touching. Were there any surprises for you regarding how that relationship between guest and performer played out on Governors Island?
Jody Oberfelder: We’ve found that people are hungry for real experiences. That putting away multitasking for an hour and slipping into a present dilated moment is something we all are craving. The performers are instructed to try to meet guests where they are and guide. We don’t have a “toolbox” of techniques for this but have practiced and learned each guest is different. It’s individual. The most intellectual people living in their heads also have a body under their necks, and once you crack that code, the rest is porous and smooth sailing. Yes, some guests are self-conscious at first, but that goes away. That’s why we’ve chosen to do it this intimately. There are no outside voyeurs. It’s intimate.
twi-ny: What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned about the human heart during the whole 4CHAMBERS project?
Jody Oberfelder: Everybody has a human heart. The body is a container for this vital organ. We often do a drive-by of living, plow through life, with our heart doing its job of keeping us alive. I’ve learned that the heart and the mind work together. 4CHAMBERS gives people a sense of being alive.
4CHAMBERS runs January 21 - March 22 at Arts@Renaissance and is performed by Megan Bascom, Zachary Denison, Rayvawn Johnson, Joey Kipp, Mary Madsen, Shane Rutkowski, Mercedes Searer, Lonnie Poupard Jr, and Lily Bo Shapiro, with set design by Juergen Riehm, lighting by Kryssy Wright, sound by Sean Hagerty, and music by Matt McBane, Richard Einhorn, and Jonathan Melville Pratt. Film and video feature appearances by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Edward Einhorn, Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki, Dr. André A. Fenton, Sarah Trignano, Lonnie Poupard Jr, Christina Noel Reaves, Jake Szczypek, and Jessica Weiss.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, choreographer and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder (Throb, Re-Dress, Come Sit Stay) and her Dance Projects company are ready to present the opening of their latest piece, the site-specific 4Chambers. Six dancers will lead an audience of twelve through hallways, corridors, and four main rooms of Officers’ House #15 on Governors Island, equating the human heart with that of the structure, which boasts a historic past. Oberfelder has reimagined the ghostly quarters as the circulatory system, with the chambers representing the visual, the physical, the synaptic, and the pulsing. Meanwhile, the “artery of knowledge” features films and scientific displays about the heart. “We want the audience to feel their own hearts, to feel something inside, something you can’t see or touch,” Oberfelder says about the work, which she calls “a sensorial journey into the human heart.” The multimedia piece will be performed live by Michele Jongeneel, Mary Madsen, Zachary Denison, Jake Szczypek, Joey Kipp, and Mercedes Searer; appearing in the films are Edward Einhorn, Ishmael Houston Jones, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, Dr. Andre Fenton, Kathryn Merry, Sarah Parton, Lonnie Poupard, ChristinaNoel Reaves, and Jessica Weiss. Juergen Riehm designed the set, with music by Andy Akiho, Richard Einhorn, Matt McBane, and Jonathan Melville Pratt and videos by Jason Bahling and Jake Witlen. Admission is free, but advance RSVP is required; two more preview performances are scheduled for July 5 at 12 noon and 1:30, after which 4Chambers runs Saturdays and Sundays, July 6-21, at 11:30, 1:00, 2:30, 4:00, and 5:30.
Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Pl.
December 25 - January 1, $25
In 2006, the original orchestrations for Kurt Weill’s 1922 Zaubernacht, his first work for the stage, was found after eighty years, lost when Weill fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and then found in a locked Yale safe. The children’s pantomime for solo soprano and chamber orchestra was last performed in New York in 1925, so it should be a treat to see the family-friendly tale when it is revived March 14, 15, and 18 by Jody Oberfelder Projects and the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. New York-based choreographer Oberfelder, whose 4Chambers and The Brain Piece explored the human heart and brain, respectively, now turns to the world of children as a fairy brings toys to life and characters emerge from fairy tales in what might or might not be a dream. “I’ve devised a fresh fairy tale, told through the lens of a child, about overcoming darkness, developing resilience, and finding one’s place in the world,” Oberfelder said in a statement. The Lower Manhattan-based Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, now in its tenth anniversary season, returns to the Battery Park City museum after 2012’s “Music for the Tempest Tost: A Tribute to Emma Lazarus,” 2013’s “Banished Genius: Emigre Composers in America,” and 2014’s “Pièces de Résistance: Music Celebrating the Polish Spirit.” The seventy-five-minute Zaubernacht features a nine-piece instrumental ensemble and a troupe of dancers performing such sections as “Lier der Fee,” “The Kitchen Stove Enters,” “The Children Awaken,” and “The Tumbler.”
Hunters Point Park, Gantry Plaza State Park, Queensbridge Park, Socrates Sculpture Park
July 8-9, free, 12 noon - 7:00
If free, outdoor, site-specific dance is your thing — and really, if it’s not, it should be — then you need to check out INSITU, taking place July 8-9 in four parks along the Long Island City waterfront. Each day, from 12 noon to 7:00, multiple dance companies will perform several times in various sections of the parks; the schedule has been arranged so it’s possible to catch every company in a single day (with the help of guides). Produced by KINEMATIK Dance Theater in community partnership with Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement, Hunters Point Parks Conservancy, Chocolate Factory Theater, Socrates Sculpture Park, and LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, INSITU features an impressive, wide-ranging lineup (with the name of the piece they will be performing in parentheses): Hivewild (Raft), Kimberly Tate + Akim Funk Buddha (DANCITECTURE), BS Movement (Peur), Movement of the People Dance Company (Word Is Audubon), the Equus Projects/OnSite NYC (Mandala Insitu), and Christopher Unpezverde Núñez (The Sun Sets Twice on the Same Day) in Hunter’s Point South Park; Zullo/RawMovement (Our Garden / How Exquisite Eternity / The Piers), Kate Moore and Brendan Duggan (The Goodbye Party), Melissa Riker / Kinesis Project dance theatre (Timepiece, or: Another Imperfect Measurement of Us), Carte Blanche Performance/Shandoah Goldman (Hoist + Sulk), Jody Oberfelder Projects (Audience of One), Loni Landon Dance Project (Waterfront), and Grounded View (Bench Talk) in Gantry Plaza State Park; PROJECT 44 (Fragile), Community Workshop and Performance Group, KrisSeto and ShoeySun [VESSELS] (10,500 Departures), Parcon NYC (Beyond Playing Chicken), KINEMATIK Dance Theater (From the Inside Out), and Lucy Kerr (Sleep Piece) in Queensbridge Park; and Dance Entropy/Valerie Green (Immeasurable), Wilder Project (Seed), Only Child Aerial Theatre (Framework), the Blue Bus Project and Tyler Gilstrap (The Great Dictator), tedted Performance Group (Cycles), and violetsound (Terroir) in Socrates Sculpture Park. There will also be a cash-bar after-party on July 9 at 7:00 at Anable Basin Sailing at 4-40 44th Dr.