David Neumann at Mass MoCA: Choreographer is a man for all disciplines


‘Multidisciplinary" is one of the buzz words resonating through rehearsal and performance halls and galleries at Mass MoCA.

And it's the term that David Neumann prefers in characterizing his work. Neumann is a choreographer and an actor, and he participates in opera and film as well -- all disciplines in which he enjoys discovering connections.

He and some of his collaborators have been sharing a residency this week at Mass MoCA; their purpose: Continue the development of Neumann's first new solo work in a decade.

"I Understand Everything Better," a piece on which Neumann has been working for a year, will be unveiled as a work-in-progress in a program that will include some of his earlier artistic efforts, 8 p.m. Saturday in Mass MoCA's Hunter Center for the Performing Arts

Presented in association with Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, "I Understand " explores the impulse to report on calamity, the consciousness of traumatic change and one's own proximity to dying, according to Neumann.

"The themes of the work come from very serious places, posing very real questions that emerged from doubt and fear of death, darker places," explained Neumann who lost both of his parents -- who had been ill for some time -- within a four-month span.

"['I Understand '] is partly to come to terms with what the experience meant as a reflection of myself," Neumann said in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I was very curious about what the internal experience was for them -- I considered that a lot of the time while I was taking care of them."

A union of theater and dance-making methodologies, his piece, incorporates innovative technologies, weather reports and personal narratives, all within a framework embracing elements drawn from classical Japanese dance and theater.

Neumann notes that his parents passed away just after Hurricane Sandy. "And here's a parallel," he suggests. "I drew together the process of a person dying and the weather reports during the last two hurricanes, especially Hurricane Sandy. In both cases there were people who were reporting an oncoming event that was enormous -- a huge change, an unknowable change, and I couldn't help but draw a metaphor.

"Essentially what I have is a

comparison of the dying person's individual experience. I compare that in the way the weather is reported: Are these the signs of the end?"

"I Understand " will share Saturday's program with three other solo works, all shorter, from earlier times. Two of the pieces tender a rather Chaplinesque persona for him.

"DOSE," performed to music by composer and balladeer Tom Waits, is part of a larger group work with text by American playwright Will Eno. "In ‘DOSE' I really was trying to physicalize the spirit of the music I'm dancing to, taking in the vocal quality, the meaning of the words, the style of music," Neumann said.

"tough, the tough," seen at the Pillow in 2011, is a bit more innocent, Neumann says, reflecting influence of Chaplin or Buster Keaton,

The score of "You Are in Control" is a brass choir of six trombonists, Neumann said, an excerpt from the piece "Feed Forward" with text written by interdisciplinary artist Karinne Keithley. "It's really sort of an image of a pitcher on a mound," Neumann said. "I was trying to imagine the thoughts in his mind."

"I Understand Everything Better" will receive its premiere in March, 2015, at the American Dance Institute in Rockville, Md, with a performance at the Abrons Arts Center in New York the following month.

Collaborators on the piece are playwright and performer Sibyl Kempson, and Tei Blow, the project's sound designer. Two other performers, Jesse Hessler and Andrew Dinwiddie, are assuming several roles. "They're acting as assistants to the various personas I wear inside the performance," said Neumann.

Neumann and Blow have discussed an electronic sound score -- "stuff we've recorded digitally the sound sources will be mostly records, some sound effects done live, and old radio plays. Recordings will reprise my parents' lives. They had 600 to 700 albums -- a wide range of things, classical, jazz."

Neumann said only 24 to 28 minutes of "I Understand " will be presented Saturday; ultimately the work will become a full evening's experience.

Even with this dark material, spectators will find humor here. Neumann's reputation is that of an artist exploring serious matters laced with humor.

"But humor is not the intention, it rather emerges from the process," he said, "certain juxtapositions or attitudes that I find funny. It's a reflection of who I am rather than a predetermined methodology of working.

"I don't go into a process planning on making a work that has serious undertones funny, That it is also quite funny emerges as the work evolves."

He said he recognizes what he calls "the enormous questions" addressed by "I Understand "

"There's a danger in being very self-indulgent in taking therapy from the audience," he conceded. "There's a place for that, but that's not what I'm doing.

"I'm looking at it for myself. Am I prepared to die? What does that mean, what does it mean to prepare for these enormous questions? We don't hear about that in this culture. It's something we avoid. Death becomes more real with a situation."

The audience is very important to Neumann. "I believe the main reason I'm interested in performance is it's live," he says. "We're all in that room thinking about things, and I leave some of the meaning open to interpretation."