This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

TWI-NY TALK: JANET BIGGS: within touching distance

Janet Biggs tries to erase painful personal memories in “Written in Wax”

Janet Biggs tries to erase painful personal memories in “Written on Wax” (Janet Biggs, “Written on Wax,” 2015. Two-channel, HD, video installation with sound. Length: 5:36. Courtesy of Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York, NY, Galerie Analix Forever, Geneva, Switzerland, and CONNERSMITH, Washington, DC)

Cristin Tierney Gallery
540 West 28th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through February 20, free, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

In our 2011 twi-ny talk with Janet Biggs, the Pennsylvania-born, Brooklyn-based video artist told us, “I am drawn to the ends of the earth. Locations that represent empty lands and blank spaces are ripe for interpretation. Even though these once unknown places have been mapped and surveyed, increased knowledge has not replaced my endless fantasies of discovery in these regions.” Biggs’s previous adventures have taken her to a sulfur mine in the Ijen volcano in East Java (A Step on the Sun), the Taklamakan desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (Point of No Return), a coal mine in the Arctic (Brightness All Around), and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (Vanishing Point). For her latest show, “within touching distance,” which has just been extended through February 20 at the Cristin Tierney Gallery in Chelsea, Biggs ventures into new territory, deep into the human brain while also turning the camera on herself. In the four-channel installation Can’t Find My Way Home, Biggs interlocks three separate narratives: Inspired by family members’ battles with Alzheimer’s disease, she follows a mineral collector at a gem exhibition, films University of Houston PhD candidate Mahshid Sadat Hosseini-Zare as she studies a rat’s brain in a lab, and hikes down into the Merkers salt mine in Thuringia, Germany, to see its remarkable crystal cave, where the formations resemble the plaque found in a brain with Alzheimer’s disease.

In the two-channel video Written on Wax, Biggs makes herself the subject as she participates in an experimental study in which she receives jolts of electricity while looking at quick clips from her videos, focusing extensively on her experiences with horses as well as such athletes as synchronized swimmers and wrestlers as she attempts to turn positive associations into negative ones. With Can’t Find My Way Home and Written on Wax, Biggs explores memory in intimate, poetic ways, facing recognizable, everyday fears with beauty and grace. For this latest twi-ny talk, the engaging, thoughtful, and funny Biggs discusses erasing remembrances, riding horses, Alzheimer’s disease, Charles Baudelaire, and where she’s going next while her husband and occasional cinematographer, Bob Cmar, weighs in on the risks they both sometimes take.

twi-ny: At one point during the gallery opening, you were being crowded by well-wishers as you stood in between the two video pieces, both of which feature you prominently. Is it difficult to watch yourself onscreen, especially in front of other people?

Janet Biggs: I am much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, but there comes a point in the process, especially during editing, where I stop being self-conscious. I don’t see the protagonist as me any longer and I can make decisions without worrying if the shot is flattering or not. It’s almost as if the piece takes over and I’m along for the ride. When I watch the work, I’m aware of the ideas behind it rather than my image . . . at least most of the time.

Video artist Janet Biggs goes deep down into the Merkers salt mine in Germany to explore the human brain in “Can’t Find My Way Home”

Video artist Janet Biggs goes deep down into the Merkers salt mine in Germany to explore the human brain in “Can’t Find My Way Home” (Janet Biggs, “Can’t Find My Way Home,” 2015. Four-channel, HD, video installation with sound. Length: 8:19. Courtesy of Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York, NY, Galerie Analix Forever, Geneva, Switzerland, and CONNERSMITH, Washington, DC)

twi-ny: You’ve now appeared in several of your latest videos. In our 2011 twi-ny talk, you said that you appeared in In the Cold Edge for practical considerations. How did that change for Can’t Find My Way Home and Written on Wax?

JB: I was on an artist’s expedition in the high Arctic when filming the flare shot for In the Cold Edge. I was the only one certified to shoot a firearm so I had to make my first appearance in front of the camera.

Can’t Find My Way Home traces very specific memories of my family. Memory tracing became part of the conceptual underpinning as well as part of a physical exploration in this piece. I frequently mine my personal history as part of my process, but in a much more general way. With Can’t Find My Way Home it felt false to use an actor. It was essential that I document my personal journey.

My grandfather was an amateur mineral collector. Long past the time when he could recognize his children or other family members and friends, he could tell you detailed information about the samples in his collection . . . details like where they came from, specific extraction information, and their scientific names. I wanted to figuratively and at times literally place myself inside the minerals as a way of immersing myself in my grandfather’s experience, to physically inhabit his moments of presence in the sea of loss that occurs with Alzheimer’s disease.

As part of my research and production on Can’t Find My Way Home, I spent a lot of time with neuroscientists. I learned about new work being done on memory altering and erasure. Having just completed a project on a disease that strips memories, I was fascinated by the idea of voluntarily choosing to alter or erase a memory. I volunteered as a subject for a human study on altering and erasing memories and used some of the information I gained through the process as inspiration for Written on Wax.

Written on Wax was also too personal to ask someone else to undergo the process . . . especially as it involved electric shock to change a positive memory to a negative one.

twi-ny: What drove your decision to make Can’t Find My Way Home in three distinct sections and turn it into a four-channel installation?

JB: Can’t Find My Way Home exists as both a four-channel installation and as a single channel piece. [Only the installation is shown at Cristin Tierney Gallery.] I rarely create pieces that exist in multiple forms, but occasionally some subject matter demands that I look at it both in terms of an experiential and immersive installation, and also in terms of its emotional, intimate impact, better conveyed in a single-channel video. A minute detail, a small gesture can be as powerful as being surrounded by twenty tons of gigantic crystals!

The three distinct sections grew out of a desire to explore memories from my personal perspective, imagine them from my grandfather’s perspective, as well as try to understand them from a biological perspective.

Exploring the crystal cavern allowed me to feel as if I had stepped inside a geode. I decided on the Merkers crystal cavern in Germany for a number of reasons. It was definitely immersive, absolutely gorgeous and otherworldly, but there were some specific details that made me sure it was the right location. The shape of the cavern is a negative of the shape of the hippocampus, the location of memory within a brain. Also, the crystal formations had an uncanny similarity to the shape of amyloid proteins and tau tangles in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

I also thought that the conditions in the cavern, the extreme heat and the need to filter particles in the air with a respirator, might challenge me physically and cause disorientation . . . some of the same sensations that my grandfather experienced as the disease progressed.

So, on one hand, I have this intense physical experience inside the cavern that alters my perceptions of things around me, which I juxtapose with the sterile, quantifiable, scientific methodology of a bio/chem lab.

Things like seizures, brain trauma, and Alzheimer’s disease all cause a hyperactive state in the brain. For my project, I filmed a University of Houston PhD candidate, Mahshid Sadat Hosseini-Zare, as she takes a disembodied brain from a rat that was bred for predisposition to seizures and places it under a high-powered microscope that can identify individual cells in the brain. She uses audio sensors and permeates the exterior membrane of two individual cells, induces a seizure, and records the sound of cells communicating in a hyperactive brain such as one with Alzheimer’s disease. I used both the visual footage of this process in my video and the recorded sound as part of the soundtrack for my piece.

The final component in Can’t Find My Way Home is footage of a mineral collector that I met at a gem and mineral exhibition in Denver. He ties the other two visual elements together by symbolizing a kind of presence, a sense of self, within the extremes . . . of loss, of a diagnosis like Alzheimer’s, of overwhelming and extreme physical conditions.

Janet Biggs and husband Bob Cmar take a break in Germany

Janet Biggs and husband Bob Cmar take a well-earned break in Germany (photo courtesy Bob Cmar)

twi-ny: In some ways, Written on Wax is a melding of your past, present, and future, as you react to clips from your personal and professional life. Besides the general positive and negative reactions we see on your face onscreen, what else was going through your mind as you watched the clips? What kind of memories did they stir up?

JB: As I’ve mentioned, I was thinking about willingly altering or erasing memories when so many experience loss that is out of their control. I was also thinking about how we are remembered; the role memory plays in our individual senses of self, as well as cultural memory in relationship to past, present, and future. I was thinking about moments of intent and moments that are inadvertent; both can be personally and historically pivotal.

twi-ny: In the catalog to your “Echoes of the Unknown” show at the Blaffer Art Museum, Barbara Polla compares you to Baudelaire. What do you think of the comparison? Have you been directly or indirectly influenced by his work?

JB: Barbara Polla is a wonderful writer and I was honored and inspired by her comparison. Baudelaire was certainly someone who struggled with the complexities of individual survival, self-definition, and morality, never turning away from things hard to witness and always willing to confront the unknown . . . something I aspire to.

I have always said that the act of pointing my camera is political, whether at a sulfur miner working inside an active volcano, at someone struggling with an extreme diagnosis, or at the disappearing Arctic. While there is certainly an activist side to my projects, I judge their success by my ability to find poetry.

twi-ny: Many of your works feature men and women either performing dangerous actions and/or risking their health, and ultimately their lives, because of the type of job they do. What attracts you to these kinds of situations?

JB: I am attracted to extreme locations and situations, and to people who have found a way to exist and define a sense of self in the extreme. I didn’t originally intend for my work to address risk in terms of occupations. I originally looked at risk as an extreme athlete often does . . . a possible result of an action, but one well worth taking for the chance to excel at one’s given sport.

As my work developed, it began to focus on extreme landscapes and often included high-risk jobs within these landscapes. The stark, elemental, and otherworldly locations that draw me also often included sulfur dioxide fumes, frozen seas, methane gases, blinding salt particles, and molten lava. To hold a job in these landscapes can often mean unimaginable health risks.

twi-ny: What about your own health and safety?

JB: For me, “feet on the ground” filming can include experiences with a degree of risk, but I’m a tourist, a momentary witness of the risk taken by the people I focus on.

twi-ny: Bob shot all of the scenes in which you appear, including descending into the crystal caves in Germany with you. How was he as your photographer?

JB: Assisting me is no easy job. Bob has assisted me on some of my more extreme shoots, including riding camels for eleven hours a day in 120+ degrees across the Taklamakan desert of western China and filming inside an active volcano in Indonesia during an earthquake. He occasionally asks me why I can’t just make a project in the south of France.

I think he considers the crystal cave a fairly easy project even though he had the added pressure of being primary camera . . . It was only eight hundred meters down, twenty-six kilometers into the earth, and only around one hundred degrees.

twi-ny: Bob, what was the shooting like for you?

Bob Cmar: Shooting the footage for Can’t Find My Way Home was actually quite pleasant. We’ve dealt with far more difficult conditions — A Step on the Sun required a hike up a steep, tropical volcano — lugging backpacks filled with heavy equipment. Once inside the volcano, we’d shoot until almost asphyxiated. We alternated sleeping on the rim in gas masks with hiking back down to eat a bowl of rice at the one local guesthouse, wash it down with coffee (as we couldn’t trust local unboiled water), catch sleep, then start again in a few hours. Luckily, the rainy season began on our last day.

The crystal mine, on the other hand, is located near a small, pleasant resort town in the former East Germany. The shoot itself was tough — hot as hell, but once we got out, we were back in civilization and creature comfort. Janet always travels on a tight budget, but the hotel provided luxuries we don’t usually get on shoots — WiFi, color TV, and sit-down toilets. I also got to watch the Germans win the World Cup in a local strip club!

twi-ny: Do you ever worry about Janet when she goes off to these unique, often dangerous locations, or are you used to it by now?

BC: Do I worry? Of course, and with increased awareness, I probably worry now more than ever. Janet and I often talk about safety and risk. The thing is, once she gets a vision (“Filming motorcycles while hanging off a truck at one hundred mph!” “Armed salt miners in a war zone!” “Kayaking around icebergs to film polar bears!”), there is no stopping her. We both know the reality of risk. We’ve had close calls, she’s broken bones, and we’ve mourned the loss of other artists, people she’s filmed, and journalists who have pushed safety limits. However, we both know that life isn’t worth living without taking risks.

twi-ny: Janet, you’re an accomplished equestrian, but a while back you suffered a severe accident in a fall. Written on Wax includes new footage of you riding a horse standing up, learning equestrian vaulting. Was it easy to get back up on a horse like that?

JB: My accident actually occurred when I was on the ground, hand walking a horse, so getting back on wasn’t a problem. I’ve done quite a bit of riding since my accident (although it’s been about five years since the last time I sat on a horse). Standing on a horse, especially when it’s cantering, is a completely new proposition.

twi-ny: Would you say you were doing it primarily for the video, or for yourself, or is there no difference between the two for you?

JB: Passion, desire, fear, pleasure, pain, freedom, terror, success, and failure all coexist in my work as they do in life.

twi-ny: Where might you be going for your next piece?

JB: I recently filmed local Afar militia and Ethiopian Army soldiers as they patrolled Ethiopia’s northern border with Eritrea, part of the Afar Triangle region. The landscape is extremely harsh and volcanic, with daily temperatures hovering between 100 to 115 degrees, but also extremely beautiful and breathtakingly otherworldly. It was once named “the most unlivable place on the planet” by National Geographic magazine, so I was curious about the people who lived there and were defending a land that much of the planet thinks is unlivable.

I’m now hoping to travel to Eritrea and Djibouti. I want to witness the other sides of the borders that split the Afar Triangle.


Cooper Davis rides Compact during the third round of the World Finals (photo by Andy Watson)

Cooper Davis rides Compact during the third round of the World Finals in Las Vegas (photo by Andy Watson)

Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 15-17, $25-$207 ($505 for PBR Elite Seats)

Professional bull rider Cooper Davis had quite a 2015. The Wharton, Texas, native turned twenty-one, had a son, got married, and, in October, became the first rookie since Jody Newberry in 2003 to win the World Finals, earning him a check for a quarter of a million dollars. Davis will be in New York City January 15-17 for the Professional Bull Riders Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, when the best riders in the country will be battling bulls and the clock at the World’s Most Famous Arena for the tenth consecutive year. Started in 1992 by twenty bull riders from the rodeo circuit, the PBR has been growing ever since; in April 2015, it was acquired by entertainment, sports, and fashion heavyweight WME | IMG, which owns and produces such live events as the Miami Open tennis tournament, distributes more than 32,000 hours of sports programming each year, and represents such stars as Oprah Winfrey, Cam Newton, Ben Affleck, Adele, Wayne Gretzky, and Serena Williams. Davis recently took more than eight seconds — the time a competitor must stay atop a bull in order for the ride to qualify — to discuss his family, his weight conditioning, his favorite bulls, swimming with sharks, getting hazed as a rookie, and coming to New York for the first time in this exclusive twi-ny talk.

twi-ny: Congratulations on winning the World Finals event in Las Vegas. You surprised a lot of people with the victory; did you surprise yourself?

Cooper Davis: I don’t think I really surprised myself because I put a lot of hard work and dedication into preparing for that event. Since I started working out three months ago, that was my original goal — to win the World Finals. I didn’t expect to win an event before the World Finals, because I knew it would be a process getting my weight down and adjusting my riding to the new weight.

twi-ny: Yes, you recently dropped a lot of weight. What do you think your ideal weight is?

cd: Going into the finals I was 144; I think my ideal weight is 145–150 pounds.

twi-ny: What kind of diet are you on to maintain your conditioning?

cd: Two thousand calories a day — two thousand good calories, not fried chicken and burgers. Eating healthy and clean and continuing to go to the gym will be critical to my performance here on out.

twi-ny: You recently got married and have a baby boy. Does having a family change the way you approach bull riding? For example, how do you balance the desire to earn more money to support the family with the need to be safe and healthy for your wife and son? Or is it that you’re only twenty-one, so anything goes at this point?

cd: Bull riding is going to be a dangerous sport no matter if you have a family or not. You have to put that in the back of your mind — take one bull at a time and don’t put the pressure of providing for your family on yourself. You know, it does feel good though when you can provide for your family doing something that you love.

Cooper Davis poses with his wife, Kaitlyn, their son, Mackston, and a big check at the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas (photo by Andy Watson)

Cooper Davis poses with his wife, Kaitlyn, their son, Mackston, and a big check at the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas (photo by Andy Watson)

twi-ny: How did you get involved in professional bull riding? You played football and baseball in high school in Texas as well, but you started riding bulls when you were fourteen, is that right?

cd: Yes. I didn’t start riding until my sister started dating a guy (to whom she is now married, Clayton Foltyn) who rode bulls professionally. He even went to the PBR World Finals a couple of times. I looked up to him a lot and learned a lot from him. I have to give a lot of credit to him.

twi-ny: Does it get scarier or easier as time goes by?

cd: You have to learn how to deal with the pressure. When I’m out there, I don’t think a lot about the bull riding aspect of it. My mind is pretty blank when I nod [the signal for the gate to open and the ride to start]. I can sit on the back of the chutes beforehand and hang out and joke. I don’t get very emotional about it.

twi-ny: Nothing else is going through your mind that split second before you nod and the gate is opened?

cd: A lot of the time you can study a bull and try to figure out his patterns. However, I think the less you think about it, like I do, is better so you can react to him. He may not always follow the pattern that you study.

twi-ny: You’ve said that Black Betty is your favorite bull, all fifteen hundred pounds of him. What makes riding him so special?

cd: It was one of the first bulls that I got a 90-point score on. He was really showy. I like a few other bulls now, but he will always be one of my favorites. Any bull you can be 90 points on is going to be on the favorites list.

twi-ny: What is the experience of riding a bull like?

cd: I went swimming in Cancun over the summer with some whale sharks, and it was the same type of adrenaline rush. It’s like you’re looking right into the face of death sometimes, and I guess the closer to death you get, the more alive you feel.

twi-ny: Do you have any rituals you perform the day of an event?

cd: I will go to the gym and run two to three miles depending on how I feel. If I am sore, I will stretch and try to work it all out. I’ll then go to sports med and try to get to feeling the best I can. I am not very superstitious, though. A lot of guys won’t eat chicken beforehand, because you are what you eat!

twi-ny: When you’re not riding bulls, you’re a student. What are you studying?

cd: I don’t go to college anymore. I went for a semester and figured out that college was not for me at this point in my life. I didn’t want to waste my prime years of bull riding and then wake up years from now wondering what I could have done.

twi-ny: Might law be in your future, down the road?

cd: While I did want to be a lawyer when I was younger, now, however, I would go back for occupational therapy. I would like to work with special-needs children.

twi-ny: As a rookie on the PBR tour, is there any kind of hazing or teasing you get from the other riders?

cd: Some of the older guys like to pick a lot, like J. W. Harris. I’ve been around him a lot. He likes to joke and pick. One time I came into the locker room and my gear bag and rope and helmet were tied to the ceiling. There’s a lot of picking, but they do give you good advice, too. You just have to go with the joking stuff.

twi-ny: Does any of it change after winning such a big event as the World Finals?

cd: No. All of the guys like to pick around. And, I like to joke as well so I don’t think it matters if you’ve been there fifteen years or are a rookie — there’s a lot of picking going on.

twi-ny: The PBR will be celebrating its tenth anniversary at Madison Square Garden January 15–17. In general, MSG is more well known as being home to the Knicks and the Rangers, boxing and the circus, and the Grateful Dead and Billy Joel than country music, rodeos, and bull riding. Will this be your first time riding in New York City, or first time in NYC at all?

cd: It will be my first time in New York. I am really excited about it. It’s one of the events I’ve been looking forward to all season long. It will be neat to ride in MSG because it’s not something New Yorkers get to see every day, and it will be a different atmosphere for me, as well.

twi-ny: What do you expect from the fans?

cd: While I would expect they won’t be as familiar with the bull riding as fans in southern cities, they may actually enjoy it more because they’re not around bull riding as much.

twi-ny: While you’re here in the city, is there anything you’re looking forward to doing aside from competing, like seeing any specific sights?

cd: I am going to walk around Madison Square Garden and take in as much of it in as I can. I will probably only go there once a year, so I am going to try to see as much as I can.


Raquel Cion

Raquel Cion goes glam in show exploring her lifetime obsession with David Bowie (photo by Crystal Durant)

The Slipper Room
167 Orchard St. between Orchard & Allen Sts.
Monday, November 16, $15-$20, 8:00

It’s a particularly good time to be a David Bowie fan. After a long hiatus, the Thin White Duke has been busy of late, releasing new albums, composing music for Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and even writing a television series theme song. That especially makes Raquel Cion happy. The New York songstress, whose alter egos include cabaret performer Cou-Cou Bijoux and a city librarian, included Bowie tunes in her previous one-woman show, Gilding the Lonely, but her latest work is dedicated exclusively to music by the artist formerly known as David Jones. In Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie, Cion explores deeply personal aspects of her life through the lens of Bowie and his long career, from his days as Ziggy Stardust to his acting in films and onstage and ultimate transformation into an international icon. Wearing a series of glittering glam gowns that would make Iman proud, Cion tells stories and sings hits and deep cuts with a crack live band, all while projections of both her life and Bowie’s pop up behind her. Cion is taking the ever-evolving show, previously performed at Judson Church and the PIT Loft, to the Slipper Room on November 16. As she prepared for this latest iteration of Me & Mr. Jones, twi-ny talk returnee Cion discussed the making of the show, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and having her mother in the audience amid all the raunchy revelations.

twi-ny: You’ve performed Me & Mr. Jones at several venues in the past, including Judson Church and the PIT Loft. How has it evolved over time? For people who might have seen it before, how will it be adapted for the Slipper Room?

Raquel Cion: The response to the show has been amazing. The previous two shows were standing-room only and now at the Slipper Room, which is just such a beautiful venue, we have the room for our audience. Big, gorgeous high ceilings, it’s part club, part jewel-box proscenium with really good acoustics. The band is going to sound fantastic since there’s a great backline and sound system to support them. This band freakin’ rocks! We have Bill Gerstel on drums, Jeremy Bass on guitar, John Brodeur on bass, Chris DeAngelis on piano, and on vocals DM Salsberg and Matt Cleaver. They’re amazing. We can’t wait to fill that space. We’re gonna really be able to kick out the jams!

The projections by Dusty Childers and video edited by Jason Speenburgh will be much more visible since they’re above the band. Not to mention that my coat and gowns, designed by David Quinn, will look fab in the Slipper Room.

My wonderful director, Cynthia Cahill, and I have streamlined the script. I’ve added a bit of research I’ve been doing on the brain, how listening to music affects us and our limbic system, which is the neurological seat of love in the brain. I feel that Bowie has very distinct neurological pathways in me.

At the PIT Loft we did a live request where the audience called out a song and me and our former bassist, Keith Hartell, played it on acoustic guitar. Since this venue is bigger and we want things to be fair(ish), we’ll be giving out ballots with seven images of Bowie from different eras (my director reined me in and kept me to seven), so each audience member will choose their favorite era. The seven choices cover eras that we don’t cover in the show. We’ll be doing an encore from the time/album that has the most votes for an encore. Majority rules. Maybe we can do the second and third or more runners-up if they’ll let me. The first time I did the show at Judson Arts Wednesdays’ Open Swim we toyed with the idea of having the audience call out Bowie songs and having me sing a little bit of said songs acapella. We ended up not doing it because it felt a little like a parlor trick. But, hey, if anyone wants to spend some time with me, I’ll gladly turn that DB catalog trick for you.

twi-ny: The subtitle of your show is My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie, and you indeed share some very intimate details about your personal life. Is that difficult for you, or is it more of a liberating experience? You really get into the whole sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll thing; what was it like to perform it in front of your mother and other relatives at the PIT Loft?

RC: Is it difficult or is it a liberating experience? My answer is yes. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I love Bowie. I wanted this show to be based in that “soul love” for Bowie, but I really wanted to dive in and look at why we love who we love, the lengths we go to connect with that entity, whether they are someone who we are sleeping with or someone who we have relied on as our emotional touchstone for decades. My last show, Gilding the Lonely at Joe’s Pub, was about loneliness, and I wanted to examine and embrace another emotion. Maybe a more silver-lined emotion, and I thought “love.” When I think of what or who I love, who has been my most devoted, chosen relationship, I think of David Bowie. As I say in the show, “His is the voice I have heard the most in my lifetime.” Of course, when I began working on creating the show, what showed up but loneliness. Damned if you do. . . .

I’m actually a pretty private person. So revealing things about myself that are maybe a bit messy is difficult. It’s a risk to own your stuff, your quirks, your heartache, because we’re all in that together, “not alone” and “wonderful.” Having the structure of the script, the incredible songs, the presence of the band, it all creates such a safe space. I love performing this show; it is an absolute joy. Really revealing the depth of my love for Bowie and how it reverberates throughout my life is indeed liberating and difficult.

In terms of having my family there, well, they’re somewhat used to the fact that I’ll say some things that will make them a bit uncomfortable, but they also know that seeing me perform is where they’ll most likely find out that information. My family can handle it. They’ve known me a long while. My mom, she takes pride in both my and my sister’s creative work. Hell, we grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, and she has one daughter who sings Balkan music for a living and me. I think she enjoys her moment in the show where I talk about her dropping me off at gay bars as a teenager. Oh, she’ll be there, along with lots of the mishpucha next Monday. Hopefully she doesn’t show up during tech, though.

twi-ny: There’s been a flurry of Bowie activity recent, with the surprise release of The Next Day in 2013, the new song “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” in 2014, Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop opening later this month, and his new album, Blackstar, due in January. How has all of this impacted your intimate relationship with Mr. Jones, both personally and in your show?

Raquel Cion

Raquel Cion is joined by an crack band for unique Bowie tribute show (photo by Jason Speenburgh)

RC: Isn’t it great to be amidst a flurry of Bowie activity? There’s a section in my show about when he released “Where Are We Now?” and The Next Day (though I don’t name the album) in 2013. There was something in the last incarnation of the show about “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” and “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” but they didn’t make this draft’s cut. There is, of course, a bit about Lazarus and the new single and Blackstar. Oh, I have so much to say.

Let’s start with Lazarus. I have been losing my fucking mind over this since it was announced in April. New York Theatre Workshop is probably my favorite theater in New York. Ivo Van Hove is my favorite director. Enda Walsh is an incredible playwright, and, well, it’s Bowie. New music from him. Really, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the announcement. They’re rehearsing now. He’s going to rehearsal. I’m beyond excited about it, and at the same time my heart is aching because, well, he’s right there. Right there. Doing the kind of work I love. I would give anything to be in that rehearsal room. Anything. Uh, so, yeah, that’s been my state of mind since April on that. I’m going to the show five times. And, uh, I don’t think five times is enough. I feel like I have to learn that show. Every piece of it.

I really could go on and on about the new music, which I really love. What I think is fascinating, though, about all of this is how brilliantly Bowie claimed his place in the psyches of his die-hard fans, new generations of fans and the media. He’s doing all of this on his own terms, creating because he is an artist and it’s ontologically necessary for him to create. I mean, there were whispers about new music coming over that near-decade of radio silence from him but two years of recording without it being leaked. It’s astounding in this age of constant “This is what I’m doing, eating, seeing . . . right now.” It’s a testament to the longevity of his brilliance and his relevance. He’s speaking only through his art. Not giving interviews. Not touring. We get the sound and vision through video, incredible short films he’s been making — hell, has always made — and the music. That’s it. He’s above the fray, and his work is unexpected. He’s working in different genres. Continually pushing boundaries. Please, put any of your readers in touch with me if they want to discuss any of the albums in detail. For real, I’d love to do that.

Obviously, I can’t wait for the new single. I’ve YouTubed the hell out of The Last Panthers opening credits to learn that song. Word on the street is the new album and single are gonna blow our minds. I’m all in.

Oh, you didn’t mention the song being written for the new SpongeBob SquarePants musical on Broadway. That’s happening too!

me and mr jones slipper room

twi-ny: Yes, I did indeed skip that one. At the PIT Loft, you encouraged the audience to take photos and video. Will you be doing that again at the Slipper Room? Do you not find that distracting?

RC: I describe this show as a play disguised as a Bowie tribute show. Since it’s more toward cabaret or a tribute show, the phones come out anyway, so might as well embrace it. It’s kind of the way of the world right now and, well, it actually helps get the word out for the show. We do ask that the phone is silenced. Believe me, if I get distracted by someone’s phone, the whole audience will know about it.

twi-ny: Over the course of your love affair with Bowie, are there some songs you might have not liked at first but have since rediscovered, and are there others that you perhaps have grown tired of?

RC: Tired of, not really. Songs I’m not fond of, yes. This is another thing I’ve been investigating within this show. Why him? I get sick of pretty much everything but Bowie. I have an endless capacity for all things David. There are eras I don’t revisit much but I know all the music within those eras. I somehow always find a way in. It can be a certain melody, a quality of his voice within a song or even a note, a musical phrase or lyric. Once I’m in, I’m in. But I will say, as an example, “Never Let Me Down” let us all down. Hell, he’ll even say that.

twi-ny: When you’re not listening to Bowie, who are you listening to?

RC: I have very diverse taste in music. Lately I’m listening to a lot of Gladys Knight, Paul Weller, Dwight Yoakam, Lizz Wright, Prince — the list goes on and on. My musical choices are very driven by my mood and, well, I have Bowie for all of my moods, so he’s pervasive.

twi-ny: When you’re not onstage performing, you’re a librarian. Do you wear glitter at work?

RC: Ha! Once you’re glittered, it never ever fully goes away. Just ask any of my ex-boyfriends. I do love me some glitter, and there’s always a little residue.


(photo by Dusdin Condren)

Roarke Menzies will celebrate the release of his debut album with an intimate party October 10 at Bunna Cafe (photo by Dusdin Condren)

Bunna Cafe
1084 Flushing Ave., Brooklyn
Saturday, October 10, free, 11:00 pm

Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist, composer, and producer Roarke Menzies knows about collaboration. For the past ten years, Menzies has been working with dancers, storytellers, choreographers, visual artists, and film directors, creating soundscapes and scores primarily using electronics, vocals, and his body. He’s been involved in projects at the Kitchen, the New Museum, Jacob’s Pillow, Abrons Arts Center, the Bushwick Starr, and the Vancouver Biennale in addition to composing music for a VICE web pilot and an award-winning educational app for children. But now Menzies, a self-described “sonic explorer,” is entering new territory, putting himself front and center with the release of his debut album, Shapes (October 13, Coup de Glotte). The record features six soundscapes, running in length from 2:11 (“Man in the Myler”) to 13:58 (“Music for Spatial Shift”), that take listeners on an ethereal journey through space and time, from the gentle, lilting “Those Pretty Lights” to the echoing, wind-strewn “Pulse Inflections.” Earlier this year, we did a twi-ny talk with Menzies and Rome about their show Philadelphia and Other Stories. Now we go it alone with Menzies, as he discusses sonic phenomena and the material world, his rather heady reading list, Aboriginal artist Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, and more.

twi-ny: We first met five years ago, when artist Nuala Clarke invited us, along with several others, to perform at her art opening, “You Delight Me,” on Shelter Island. How’s life been treating you since then?

Roarke Menzies: Yeah, that was a lovely event. Nuala contacted me out of the blue. We’d never met before. I was working on some music with my brother in LA and got an email from her asking me to participate. I think she’d found something of mine online.

I’ve been so lucky, in a lot of ways. I get approached to work on a lot of compelling projects, and between that and my other jobs [in performing arts management] I’m able to earn enough to support myself and pursue creative endeavors.

(photos by Paul Rome)

Roarke Menzies expands his horizons with new album, SHAPES (photos by Paul Rome)

twi-ny: I’m really enjoying your debut album, Shapes, which takes listeners on a fascinating sonic journey. You wrote and play all the music as well as handle the production, recording, and mixing. How long did it take you to put it all together?

RM: That’s awesome. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. These are works that have developed slowly over the past several years. The earliest recorded material on there is from late 2009 and has been revisited and reworked a number of times. I’ve put a lot of thought and care into these tracks. It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely a labor of love.

twi-ny: You describe Shapes as both creating space and filling it up. Can you expand on that a little?

RM: I’m actually referring not just to the sounds on Shapes but to sound in general, and how we interpret sound phenomena in relation to our sense of space.

If you’re on an underground subway platform, every sound you hear reverberates in ways that inform your sense of that space. Even without visual cues, your mind can put together the cavernous space you’re in. That same effect can be simulated artificially using reverb. Sound designers and engineers make practical use of it all the time, in film or radio, for instance, creating the sense of size or the characteristics of the space you’re “in” using only sound. But that space doesn’t actually exist, at least not in the way “existence” is generally understood. It’s a fiction fabricated using particular signs and signals that your mind interprets as a space.

In other instances, the sheer “density,” “mass” or “volume” of a sound can create this feeling that it’s there in front of you — “a sound filled the room” — like you could just reach out and touch it in the same way you can touch a glass of whiskey or a person on the cheek. But sound doesn’t really behave that way either.

One of the curious aspects in working with sound as a material is that it’s not, in fact, material. And yet it seems to have this power to at times convince us of its materiality, even if just temporarily, and to completely change our sense of the material world around us. I’m interested in how those processes play out.

twi-ny: Where do you get your sonic inspirations? I have a feeling that when you traverse the city, you listen to all the cacophony and noise in a different way than the rest of us, gathering ideas for your work.

RM: I’m definitely a sound-obsessed person, and I’m often mesmerized and perplexed by the city’s sound culture. I do a lot of listening and a lot of reading. I find reading fuels my creative life like nothing else, whether articles, essays, books, blog posts, Wikipedia entries. Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 is a recent favorite, and I have a long reading list that I’m slowly working through of texts related to performance, sound and technocultural studies. I think the next will be Brandon LaBelle’s Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary.

twi-ny: That’s some heavy stuff. Shapes includes a tribute to the great La Monte Young. Who are some of your other musical influences?

RM: I feel like my influences are all over the place — Arvo Pärt, Portishead, Fluxus, Sam Cooke’s gospel recordings with the Soul Stirrers, Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s soundtrack for Akira, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, the choral works of Morten Lauridsen, the rugged lands of early RZA, the pop masterpieces of Max Martin, the subterranean cityscapes of Burial, the codeine-soaked tapescapes of DJ Screw, the Courvoisier-soaked jiggyscapes of early 2000s Neptunes, etc. I’m a huge music appreciator.

twi-ny: Who do you listen to on your iPod?

RM: All that being said, there’s really not a lot of it on my iPhone. Other than work-related stuff and that U2 album we were all force-fed (I never bothered to listen to or erase it), all I’ve got on there at the moment is Cocteau Twins, Arthur Russell, Nico Muhly, Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Blake, a vintage Soweto compilation, and a few mixes from the UK music publication The Wire.

twi-ny: What about seeing live music?

RM: Recent highlights that come to mind include Tyondai Braxton’s new Hive project at the Kitchen, FKA Twigs’ Congregata for Red Bull Music Academy, a riveting set from Pharmakon at St. Vitus, the experimental synth duo Long Distance Poison at Pioneer Works, and an improvised set from saxophonist Colin Stetson, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Greg Fox (of Zs) at Outpost.

twi-ny: You also compose scores and soundscapes for Paul Rome’s story presentations, Jack Ferver’s multidisciplinary performances, and such choreographers as Adam Barruch and Meredith Glisson. How does your creative process differ for such diverse projects, or do you approach them all the same?

RM: My approach can be radically different, depending on the project and the working styles of the people involved. I try to learn the vocabulary and codes — “When they say this, they mean this” — then develop an understanding for what will best support the work.

twi-ny: You’ll be celebrating the release of your debut album, Shapes, with a party on October 10 at Bunna Cafe in Brooklyn, and you’ll be joined by Rome, Katie Mullins, and David Kammerer. What do you have planned for the event?

RM: I’m planning a very warm, intimate event. Bunna’s a great Ethiopian restaurant with a small stage. It’s a favorite spot of mine. We’ll likely open the evening with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Then Paul will read a new story he’s been working on, David and Katie will each play a few new songs of theirs, and I’ll perform a short solo set. The performances will be relatively brief since the focus is really to celebrate with friends.

I actually have a really exciting last-minute addition to the night’s festivities. The Ghanaian xylophone virtuoso SK Kakraba is going to come to Bunna after his show at Bossa Nova Civic Club for an informal late night solo set. I have to thank my good friend Mike Visser (of Imaginary Tricks) for arranging that one. It's going to be a really special night.

twi-ny: What do you do when you take a break from music, if you ever take breaks from music?

RM: I definitely take lots of breaks. When I’m not at work or focusing on a specific project, I don’t like to be holed up in my studio for no reason. I like to get out and see things, or spend time with friends and loved ones.

I recently saw an incredible painting show at Salon 94 on the Bowery. It’s the first solo show in the US by an Australian Aboriginal artist named Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, who along with his family was living nomadically until they were “discovered” in the ’80s. [Ed. note: The show, “Maparntjarra,” continues at Salon 94 through October 24.] Apparently this guy is revered as an important leader and healer among Australian tribes and is also considered one of the most important innovators in contemporary indigenous art from Australia. All I can say is it was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had at a painting show, incredibly inspiring.


Kite introduces its app at Northside Innovation Conference and Expo party at the Counting Room (photo by twi-ny/ees)

Kite introduces its app at Northside Innovation Conference and Expo party at the Counting Room (photo by twi-ny/ees)

The Northside Festival is known for music, but its Innovation Conference and Expo is shaping up on a SXSW model. Thursday’s launch party for the Kite social news feed app was packed, and Kite founder Trond Werner Hansen was on hand to give twi-ny an interview and insight into what Kite is all about. An app for Mac devices (downloadable on the App Store), Kite lets users read and share articles from any website. They can also follow other users to see what sites they read and share so each person’s news feed is socially curated. Users can follow other users who share content they like, just as they do on Instagram, but they’ll see news articles rather than photos. Kite is also a browser that can go to any website, so users can build whatever kind of feed they like — it’s not limited by who’s signed on to Kite — or who’s paid to be there. On the hot summer street corner of Berry and North Eleventh, twi-ny asked Trond — a tall, amiable Norwegian who lives in Bushwick and is well known for his work developing browser software for Mozilla and others: “Why Kite?” He gave three reasons:

Screenshot of sites Trond follows via Kite — and you can too

Screenshot of sites Trond follows via Kite — and you can too

1) The Open Web. As a content platform, until now we have taken that for granted, but in the fall Apple is launching Apple News, and then you don’t have an open free platform anymore. Now they don’t have that control, but we don’t even want to go in that direction.

2) Convenience. You know people are starting to be pushed to individual apps — the CNN app, the New York Times app — and that’s just not the best way for the user. [News sites] should focus on making great content, not on making apps. Kite brings all sources into one container, but when you go to each of them, you go to their direct website, so they control their own thing, but they’re contained within one user experience, so that’s better for the user.

3) The social aspect. We’ve seen now that social curation of content works. I want to read what you read. So there’s two ways of curation: There’s the old-fashioned way — you go to CNN to see what kind of information they have curated for you, that works, and now we have the social curation that works, and Kite brings those two things together, kind of like the yin to the yang. And we also believe while Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or these other social networks cater to sharing, they were not specifically made for content sharing. For example, on Kite I can go on your profile and see what kind of curation comes to you. You can’t do that on Facebook.

“I’ve learned through doing the web browser for so many years that algorithmic curation of things generally doesn’t work over scale over time,” Trond added. “Social curation works; brand curation works. But not algorithmic curation. I like food, so then I’m gonna get food articles. It’s unpredictable. . . . Engineers love to do algorithmic things, because that’s what they can do with their machines. ‘Look, you enter cheese, you can get a lot of articles about cheese!’ But it’s not really valuable or interesting. You can see on the Kite app, when you click another person, you can see his feed and his sites, what he reads. It’s useful, it’s predictable, it’s not algorithmic.”

We clicked on Trond’s feed and it’s fascinating. Try Kite and save some screen space — no need to clutter your iPhone with separate apps from CNN, WSJ, NYT, BBC, Guardian, Economist, etc. ThisWeekInNewYork is starting a Kite feed now, and curious readers can download the app for free on the App Store; during the festival, which continues through June 14 and has a terrific app of its own, you can use the invite code: northside.


(photo by Aeric Merideth-Goujon)

SLEEP NO MORE’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Nick Bruder and Troy Ogilvie, are together again in REPLACEMENT PLACE (photo by Aeric Merideth-Goujon)

Patricia Noworol Dance Theater
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
April 30 - May 2, $20-$30

Numerous memorable pairs have portrayed Macbeth and Lady Macbeth onstage and onscreen over the years, in various interpretations, including Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, Orson Welles and Jeanette Nolan, Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada, Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, and Liev Schreiber and Jennifer Ehle. Nick Bruder and Troy Ogilvie might not be quite the same household names, but they appeared as the ill-fated king and his devious wife in one of the most memorable and certainly unusual versions of Macbeth you’re ever likely to see, Sleep No More, in which the action unfolds throughout the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea. The two are back together again in Replacement Place, being presented by Patricia Noworol Dance Theater at New York Live Arts April 30 to May 2. Bruder, who won the 2011 Falstaff Award for Best Principal Performance in Sleep No More, and Ogilvie, a Juilliard graduate, New Jersey native, and Dance magazine “25 to Watch” pick in 2011, recently discussed working together and their personal and professional ideas of “place.”

twi-ny: Sleep No More has been quite a phenomenon. What was it like being part of that experience? Had you been involved in any type of interactive, participatory performances before?

Troy Ogilvie: Performing in Sleep No More was a gritty, fun, sexy ride. It was an ego trip as well as an exercise in vigilant attention. No, I had never been involved in a performance that was as immersive as SNM. My other nontraditional performance experiences were more “site specific,” as in an installation in a gallery or work done in the outdoors.

Nick Bruder: I cannot express how much I’ve learned from working with punchdrunk and Sleep No More. Mainly, I’m always going to know more about the character and the work than the audience will. And that’s okay. It’s my job to know more. If I have a clear perspective and perform with the understanding that I developed this weird alchemical-like process that actually opens up room and context for the audience to engage with — that’s imperative in Sleep No More, since it’s more likely that an audience member will catch a character’s story from unordered snippets. But this still holds true to a linear performance as well. As for other work, I’ve done a bunch of other immersive or audience-integrated work. In Los Angeles I worked with visual artist Brody Condon on two of his durational performance pieces consisting of wearing a full suit of armor and slowly falling into the floor à la a video game character’s death. Whew.

twi-ny: You played Lady Macbeth and Macbeth in Sleep No More, although you never did so at the same time. Now that you’re both in Replacement Place, do you wonder what it would have been like to have played the devious husband and wife together in Chelsea?

TO: Actually, we did fight, plot, conspire, tease, and descend into madness together for over a year as “husband” and “wife.”

twi-ny: Oops. Sorry about that.

NB: Hah. We actually ended both of our runs with Sleep No More as each other’s Macbeths. And I couldn’t think of anything better.

TO: Our bond that developed at SNM spilled over into our life outside the McKittrick Hotel, and we are always dreaming up ways to continue to work with one another.

twi-ny: Troy, you’ve worked with such choreographers as Sidra Bell, Andrea Miller, Idan Sharabi, Austin McCormick, and Margie Gillis. Do you find yourself working any differently with different choreographers, and specifically with Patricia Noworol? Do the different choreographers test you in different ways, both physically and mentally?

TO: Yes. Every choreographer has their boundary that they are — to use your word — testing. There’s something that has to stretch in the dancer in order to accommodate the weakened border, something that has to stretch but not break. The stretch is a pleasure, the skill is knowing when the boundary can be re-formed and its new shape celebrated. That moment has to do with the specific chemistry between choreographer and dancer. Patricia has a lot of openness in her process, which can be frustrating but in the end is absolutely freeing and brilliant. Anything is an option, which is a relief and a stress, but it’s exactly where I want to be right now. Pat has a great sense of timing, texture, and emotional build that we can’t wait to share with audiences.

twi-ny: Nick, you’ve appeared in opera at the Met, in a dance piece at BAC, in a mobile production at the McKittrick Hotel, in Shakespeare at the Harman Center, and now you will be at NYLA for Replacement Place. How does the concept of place inform how you approach a performance?

NB: Logistically, each site where performance is presented has its benefits: audience capacity, how close they are to the performers, size of the space, etc. Even the type of audience they attract. When one is performing in so many venues, it can begin to get exhausting adapting a changing performance approach. So I have to be confident that my understanding of character and all the tools I have collected, and some that I’ve thrown away throughout the years, can aid in helping the piece I’m in to be applicable to the venue. This may sound too heady, but I think a formula of audience + performers + space = something that happened in a place. Thinking about that, I hope, relieves the pressure of me having to adapt properly to the site and let the space and work influence the type of place it is to become.

(photo by

Patricia Noworol’s REPLACEMENT PLACE is a collaboration between Troy Ogilvie, Nick Bruder, AJ “the Animal” Jonez, and Chris Lancaster (photo by Aeric Merideth-Goujon)

twi-ny: Troy, in September 2012 you wrote in Dance magazine, “I dance because it is fun. I dance because I love to perform. I dance because I always have. These clichés were all accurate at one point, but none apply today.” Do you still feel the same way?

TO: Yes, but wow, so dramatic! I mean, yes, “fun,” “love,” and “always” are not the words I would use to describe my relationship to dance, but not because it is not-fun, not-love, and not-always. I have less confusion about it now, so there’s more room to actually work and less time spent on proving myself.

twi-ny: Replacement Place features quite an eccentric collection of collaborators, from the two of you to AJ “the Animal” Jonez to electro-cellist Chris Lancaster and designer Vita Tzykun. What have the rehearsals been like? The online videos have been rather tantalizing.

TO: Rehearsals have been a blast. AJ, Chris, and Vita are experts in their fields and are also so generous with their information. We all trust each other and have fun trying on each others’ shoes — sometimes literally. I am really so pleased to be working with this group; kudos for Pat for throwing us all in a room together!

NB: They’ve been like a super-condensed story of the universe. A big bang of inspiration happens which sets ideas in motion which then leads to cool and amazing organisms to exist and grow and diversify with sunshine feeding and warming all the beautiful animals and plants when all of a sudden a little dark rain cloud comes overhead and starts spilling out its watery guts until you notice that it’s actually a black hole that is sucking you and everything you know into its gullet while you lose hope by the minute only to spit you out on the other side with a new big bang and then you’re like hmm . . . must have been a wormhole. Pretty typical artistic process. It’s awesome.

twi-ny: Whew is right. In regard to place, do each of you have somewhere you go in order to get away from it all?

TO: No. I try to be here as much as possible.

NB: I’m always in the thick of it.


(photo by Ayodele Casel)

Ronald K. Brown will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Evidence, a Dance Company, at the Joyce starting February 24 (photo by Ayodele Casel)

Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Ave. at 19th St.
February 24 - March 1, $10-$49

When he was in second grade, Brooklyn-born dancer and choreographer Ronald K. Brown wanted to be Arthur Mitchell, the first African American to dance with the New York City Ballet and founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 1985, Brown, then only nineteen, formed his own troupe, which he named Evidence, a Dance Company, to honor family, ancestors, teachers, tradition, faith, and the African diaspora. From February 24 through March 1, Brown, who has also choreographed works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago, and Ballet Hispanico in addition to The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess on Broadway, will be celebrating his company’s thirtieth anniversary with a pair of special programs at the Joyce. Program A includes 2014’s The Subtle One, about experiencing the love of another, with live music by Selma composer Jason Moran and the Bandwagon; the gorgeous Grace, created for Alvin Ailey in 1999; and the excerpts “Exotica” and “March” from 1995’s Lessons, the latter set to the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., performed by Annique Roberts and Coral Dolphin. Program B comprises the Evidence premiere of 2014’s Why You Follow/Por Que Sigues, commissioned for Havana’s MalPaso Dance Company (who will be at the Joyce March 3-8); 1999’s Gatekeepers, a piece originally for Philadanco that delves into Native American mythology and African traditions; excerpts from 2007’s multimedia One Shot: Rhapsody in Black & White, inspired by Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris; and the New York premiere of Brown’s 2014 solo piece, Through Time and Culture, which brings a unique perspective to his long career. A charming and engaging Guggenheim Fellow and dedicated Brooklynite who is currently an artist in residence at BRIC in Fort Greene, where Evidence will perform in November 2015, Brown recently discussed his life and career, particularly about these past ten years.

twi-ny: Back in 2005, we had lunch together and talked about your twentieth anniversary season. How has the last decade treated you and Evidence?

Ronald K. Brown: The time has been full since that conversation ten years ago. These past ten years have brought Evidence and me more than we could have imagined. In 2010, we had a U.S. State Department tour as a part of DanceMotion/USA and went to Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa; we were gone for twenty-nine days, performed five times, and taught classes for all ages during our time away. We did have one day off in Grahamstown, South Africa, and were able to go on a safari and relax . . . but the work was great.

I choreographed my first work for Chicago’s Muntu Dance Theatre, and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which opened first at the American Repertory Theater and then on Broadway.

In November 2013, Evidence moved our offices to Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, so for the first time our rehearsals, summer workshops, and daily administrative operations are in the same building — down the hall. That feels great.

twi-ny: Back then, you said, “We have to find out what’s going on in the world. We can’t be disconnected and feel like we’re safe.” How does that relate to you and your work today?

RKB: One thing that I have also learned is that we have to make sure we are connected to those close to us . . . and then that opens up the capacity to be connected to the world. In one of our pieces, On Earth Together, we added dancers from the community in Brooklyn for performances a couple years ago, in South Bend, Indiana, last week, and right now in Pittsburgh. Creating a large cast, talking about grief and compassion, unlocks things that bring the cast closer together . . . and then we can share that compassion with the issues that are happening in the world. Just in talking about the work in South Bend, first an elder confessed that she had lost her husband a month prior. The next day a ten-year-old boy broke down; he had lost his granny two years prior. Then another elder confessed that she had recently lost her husband. And finally, on the last night, a mother and daughter who were in the cast mentioned to [associate artistic director] Arcell [Cabuag] that this particular night was the anniversary of them losing her other daughter. So here we are in this dance, On Earth Together, and the compassion and support was real onstage. Then we could talk about the other things that were going on in the world that were in the recent news.

I’m grateful for the openness of folks who come to the audition and the classes, not knowing that there will be a space to share themselves in a safe place.

twi-ny: From February 24 through March 1, you’ll be presenting your thirtieth anniversary season, at the Joyce. How did you go about choosing which of your pieces will be part of the two programs?

RKB: When we put a program together, we want the evening to have a flow that makes sense. That feels right. I also want to make sure there is a range in the work, things that are new but with something different added, like having The Subtle One being performed live with composer Jason Moran and his group the Bandwagon. I also want to make sure there is work that has not been seen in a while and again with an added surprise. This year the male duet “March” will be danced by two women.

twi-ny: What was the impetus behind creating your new solo piece, “Through Time and Culture”?

RKB: Through Time and Culture was commissioned last year by the American Dance Festival. I wanted to build a solo that demonstrated a sense of perseverance and pressing through, because of the support that family and teachers have given me.

I selected music that would allow me to show the connections of dances from around the world. The dance also is a way that I could breathe the stages of grief as I dealt with the transition of my father to join the ancestors a couple years ago, and my mother in 1996.

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Ronald K. Brown will perform a solo piece as part of anniversary season at the Joyce (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

twi-ny: You travel around the world, adding elements of African movement to your work. Where have you been recently that has influenced your choreography?

RKB: My last two trips to Havana, in 2013 and 2014, definitely had an impact on the work. Seeing the social, folklore, and contemporary dance and work helped me understand more fully what I do, similar to seeing artists in Nigeria during that 2010 trip, where I saw B-Boys, breakdancers, folks improvising, traditional artists, young people showing Evidence some dances from Atlanta, and a choreographer who has been creating Contemporary African Dance for over fifteen years. All these moments helped me understand the expansion of the dance world and what is possible.

The lessons are really to continue to study and then go in to the studio to create, grateful to have an increased sense of freedom with more techniques and rhythms to call on.

twi-ny: You’ve now choreographed five pieces for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Is your approach to that different from how you choreograph for Evidence?

RKB: When I choreograph on Ailey, or any other company, for the most part I create something that is specifically for them. I generally have three weeks to set a work on Ailey; that first day I am teaching material so that I can identify two casts, and by Wednesday I need to provide a list of dancers selected for the piece. With such a set deadline up front, I come to the studio with some material to teach.

With Evidence on the first day . . . I have the title . . . some music . . . and perhaps some written text and images that I use to fuel the movement that will come once I get in the zone of discovery . . . in the moment and dance it out. This cannot happen with Ailey until I have cast it.

The great thing about Ailey is that the artistic staff there continues to give me time to clean up and clarify things in further rehearsals before the New York season and U.S. or European tours.

In Evidence, the dancers will let me know that I can continue to clarify and shape the piece and make changes to allow the piece to be . . . what it is meant to be, and as long as I am not taking time away from us rehearsing repertory. For the most part, Evidence agrees. . . . “Ron, finish the new work and we will do our homework for when you are ready to rehearse us in the older work.”

twi-ny: You mentioned earlier choreographing the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. Do you have any future plans for more Broadway productions?

RKB: This past fall Arcell Cabuag and I worked with director/writer Moises Kaufman on an Afro-Cuban musical version of Carmen. It premiered at the University of Miami, with four professional actors from New York and the other roles played by students form the theater department of U of M. I’m not sure what the life of the piece will be after that, ideally a regional theater further development of the work and hopefully a Broadway run. But that is the hope, who the creative team will be. . . .

A couple years ago I met with a company that commissions works for Broadway and I have begun thinking of some ideas and will begin writing something soon. I will look for collaborators when the time is right.

But right now, I’m focused on Evidence and our upcoming season at the Joyce, a project at Williams College, and a new work for Ailey in 2015. I am also talking to a company in Detroit about setting something. If someone comes to me with a fit for Broadway and it works out time-wise, I would consider it . . . but the commitment for Porgy and Bess was major. Incredible . . . but major. The Porgy national tour was also a wonderful revisit. But the timing made sense. Complicated, but it worked out.

twi-ny: You have a special relationship with Brooklyn. You were born and raised there, and your company has been based there from the beginning, becoming an integral part of the community. And you recently moved into the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Center for Arts and Culture. How has that move gone?

RKB: The move to Restoration in November 2013 was a nice move for Evidence. In December 2014 we had to move all of our costumes and props there as well.

It feels great to have a home. We have rehearsed at Restoration for over ten years. When the company is in rehearsal down the hall, I can take care of admin assignments and then go to the studio to rehearse, give notes, and go back to my admin hat.

A few years ago, when we moved our Summer Dance Workshop Series from Medgar Evers Preparatory School to Restoration, the staff at Restoration and Arcell both saw how much sense it made for Evidence to have our educational efforts also happen at BSRC. When our office was in Fort Greene, there was the additional chore of bringing the set-up supplies to another location. Now we just walk down the hall.

I think the dancers who come from all over to take our summer workshop and/or my weekly Tuesday-night class appreciate that Evidence has a home. I also appreciate that it was the first place I took a dance class when I was eight years old and where I competed in storytelling contests; mine was the collection of Anansi the Spider. (The contests took place in the atrium, what used to be an ice-skating rink.)

twi-ny: Brooklyn has changed significantly over the last thirty years. What would you consider the best and worst parts of that change?

RKB: I know that there is an effort to increase the presence of new business and create new corridor around Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza. The farmers market across the street from BSRC and some of the new businesses are wonderful assets to the community.

The worst parts are the multitude of condos going up surrounded by folks who cannot afford them. Improvements in neighborhoods for the people who live there is a beautiful thing, but when folks are displaced or outpriced . . . this is another thing. We all deserve healthy food choices and respectful neighbors.

twi-ny: Congratulations on your thirtieth anniversary. When you were a kid in Bed-Stuy, dancing at home, dressing up as Arthur Mitchell, did you ever think that things would turn out this way?

RKB: Thank you. I had no idea of how things would turn out. There are models of what is possible. Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, Arthur Mitchell, Pearl Primus, but also my grandfather Ruben McFadgion. I remember two conversations I had with my Poppi; every summer we would drive down from Brooklyn to Raeford, North Carolina, where my grandfather (Poppi) was building a house.

I asked him, “Where are the plans for the house?” He responded, “I don’t need plans; I know what I want.”

This house is five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a basement the same length of the house, where we would roller skate (until he finished).

I asked, “Why is the house so big?” He said, “So you have somewhere to go.”

Flash forward: I’m in the house working on the laptop and he says, “You went to school for that? I would never be able to do that.”

My response: “No, Poppi, I did not go to school for this. . . . I think I have your genes.”

His response: “That’s right, Kevin . . . keep God first.” [ed note: Brown’s family calls him by his middle name, Kevin.]

I tell people, there is freedom in listening and obeying. I try to do that. . . . I had no idea things would turn out the way they did.

But the Most High did and does.