At Mass MoCA, a work-in-development shakes up your comfort zone

NORTH ADAMS — It could be a warning for wallflowers: a "hands-on theater-and-sculpture piece" in a space that's "general admission, standing room only." But don't think of it that way. Because if a choreographer, a sculptor and a theater director can push past their comfort zones to make something new together, it only seems fair to politely invite the audience along as well.

"It just puts people in a very different mode of watching, when they can't quite be comfortable sitting in the dark just observing," choreographer Lee Serle says. "They have to be more active than that, even if they are still very passive. There's always that possibility that they may have to participate in some way. It puts them in a different state of being."

"And I think people just pay attention more in that state," he adds.

The work-in-progress Saturday at Mass MoCA's Hunter Center is an exploration of movement and perspective that crosses lines of media and genre, of place and time, and even the traditional boundaries between audience and performer. It is a collaboration between Serle and sculptor Mateo Lopez and theater director and performer Maya Zbib. As an experience, it considers the ways people interact with one another today, how we configure and reconfigure in space, and inevitably touches on some of the pressing social issues of we face.

"It reflects on modern day migration, travel, and changing demographics," Zbib says. "And how in a time of xenophobia and hate speech we can think of love as an alternative way to encounter difference."

And a big part of that is how the piece is experienced, the breaking down of what you expect you are supposed to do as an audience.

"It's a very interactive piece," she says. "The audience is involved physically. They don't have to perform, but they are a part of it, they are not sitting in chairs. They can move around, share the space with us."

The work is performed by Serle and Zbib, along with performers JinJu Song-Begin and Simon Courchel. It also includes lighting by John Torres (the only American in the production team, Serle noted) and sound design by Australian Alisdair Macindoe, who created three different soundtracks that align with the sculpture."When the sculpture fractures the soundscape fractures, and when the sculpture reassembles it becomes whole again," Serle says.

The three will present their work as part of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival's off-season programming at Mass MoCA, with funding from the Irene Hunter Fund for Dance. All three of the artists were also part of the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative, which pairs prominent older artists with rising young ones, but also encourages cross-disciplinary work among the next generation of artists. The work comes from a series of meetings over the years and discussions about ways they wanted to collaborate.

A centerpiece of the work is a large, mobile sculpture by Lopez — a series of interlocking frames on wheels, covered in canvas that can be moved and rotated. "Not only is the sculpture modular and moveable, but the audience is as well," Serle says. "Everything is in constant motion and there is no fixed place for anything or anyone."

Lopez, a native of Bogota, was trained in architectural drawing, and his earlier work has a sense of moving between dimensions and time and space. For instance, for his "Travel Without Movement" (2010) he created a series of sculptures based on sketches and drawings he made during a 1,300-mile Vespa trip around Colombia.

He described his work for this weekend's performance, entitled "Threshold," as "trying to imagine an architectural shape or model or stage or sculpture you could interact with and engage during a performance."

For the Rolex initiative, Lopez was paired with South African illustrator and filmmaker William Kentridge, who encouraged him to "try to imagine in your practice a more open range of possibilities and collaboration with different people."

"When you find yourself in that position, you feel an interesting release, that you can do many things ... you imagine yourself not only as a habitual artist, doing exhibitions one after another, but imagine that you are part of a bigger network, of dancers, choreographers, theater makers, musicians, writers."

In addition to the sculpture and the dance, there are some theatrical elements, including texts, what Zbib described as "bits and pieces people can assemble" rather than one thread of a story.

Zbib is based in Beirut and since 2006 has been involved with a theater collective called Zoukak that creates pieces based on folklore arranged by thematic cycles — including interpretations of ancient stories like the epic of Gilgamesh, and addressing current issues like the status of refugees in her homeland. She said her work has always been collaborative and innovative, as part of the DIY necessity of working in a climate with little financial or structural support for theater.

For the Rolex program she was assigned as a mentor Peter Sellars, the opera director known for his bold interpretations of works that challenge orthodoxies and rile conventions. She says he helped her understand her desire to create work that generates conversation and leads to practical change, and how to balance political engagement with creation.

"These are not separate things, your work and your daily life are really who you are."

Serle, who is originally from Melbourne and now lives in New York, was paired with dancer Trisha Brown. He says he appreciates all the formal elements she brought to dance, the structures and lines, and her commitment to abstraction. "There is no narrative but there's a human-ness about it because each performance is not portraying anything or anyone so they can be completely themselves on the stage."

He recalls performing several of her pieces in museums and galleries, which poses a question about the practice of dance that he says has continued to intrigue him. How even while in "performance mode" to maintain a sense of naturalism and normality so as not to alienate the audience. In other words, how to perform "so the audience doesn't always know if you're performing or not."

He's explored that idea in his own work, including 2013's "POV," which was performed at the New York Public Library, in which the dance took place among audience members arranged around the space. He further developed the idea with 2016's "Multimodal," which included guiding part of the audience through a set of sound and smell experiences. Meanwhile, Serle has continued to explore cross-platform collaborations, including designing the movement for Kanye West's video for "Wolves" from his last album.

The idea of collaboration and connection is important for Zbib, who describes living in a region rife with sectarian disputes and social disruption. She described working on this piece as a kind of break, of the relief of working with a sculptor and dancer who begin from a more abstract place.     

"The politics will not go away," she said. "The work can't be self-indulgent. It can't be about your talent as an artist anymore. We don't have space for that in today's world. We have to talk about issues that affect other people and create moments where people reflect about things that are important and engage with one another in a different way. But we can also escape a bit."


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