Last December, I took a one-and-a-half-hour “Choreographic Tools” workshop with Christy Funsch at Shawl Anderson Dance Center. One and a half hours is not a lot of time to make work, but Christy is very good at time management.
We began with an exercise Christy called “Building” (influence: Julie Mayo), 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-minute improvisations that are “maybe towards making a phrase.” Christy admits to being very cautious about the word “phrase,” noting that it can be a “structure that gets in the way,” making her panic about beginnings, middles, and ends, about the trajectory of a piece: “It’s too early for that.” In fact, she tries not to do phrase material in her choreography: “If I see it in technique class, it shouldn’t be in my choreography. There are phrases but they are not organic, not concerned with conventional pathways of momentum or tried and true pathways of movement efficiency.” Christy suggested we use one minute to arrive, 3 minutes to ask what’s happening in the body, 5 minutes to explore what is interesting about what is happening in the body, and 10 minutes investigating one of those tiny interesting things. I got very interested in digging my elbows into the floor and then shouting “Timber!” in my head as I let my forearms fall; the palm makes a nice slapping sound on marley, in case you were wondering.
Christy started performing and making work in the Bay Area right about when I started writing here, so my eyes watching her perform have grown up with her performing. She has long matched an understated, anti-spectacular performance personality with breathtaking precision and subtle wit. These qualities bear out in her teaching as well. During the workshop she offered a poetics of movement exploration, a process of “disclosing a state, quality, body part, mood, memory, functional basic body action,” that felt accessible in no small measure due to the way she awkwardly (her word) inhabits her position of “power in the working room.” She told us, “I have a practice but no authority. I’m following and challenging my own interests in making work.” Like Ann Patchett’s essay “The Getaway Car,” Christy’s workshop was not “an instruction booklet,” but rather “an account of what I did and what has worked for me” (Patchett). Not a manual but a way of holding our hands nonetheless.
Like her performance persona, Christy balances her sharp intelligence with a genuine humility. There is a fierceness that accompanies her shyness, which made me trust her in the vulnerable space of dance making. We learned that she never starts with an idea that she wants to make manifest in movement, something she finds “patriarchal, belittling.” She finds the idea in the movement—“What’s in the body right now?” We wrote together (influence: Tere O’Connor), showed each other excerpts of our (non-)phrases, danced together, meditated together (influence: Daniel Nagrin). Christy’s got tools and she knows how to use them.
Recently, we’ve seen a lot of Christy on stage with Nol Simonse—“17 years working together; I consider him a brother and soulmate.” Their duets are a demonstration of the gorgeous ways opposing movement qualities can work together as rituals of intimate interaction. This April, Christy and her company Funsch Dance Experience will celebrate 15 years of dance making in the Bay Area with a full-length work entitled Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel (MSDM), co-produced by ODC Theater. At the time of this writing (January 2018), Christy wasn’t sure Nol would physically appear on stage, devoted as it the piece is to “10 women dancers and pillars of the current Bay Area dance ecology.” But she assures us that he is present in the work: “All the work I’ve made has been in conversation with Nol, directly or indirectly. It’s been really hard for me to make work without him in it and yet I feel like I must do it sometimes. It’s my effort to grow. But maybe that’s some kind of capitalist default. Maybe instead of growing it’s to do the deeper thing and stay with this movement partnership we have and ride it for all its worth, for as many years as we have left together.”
Christy was not only unsure about Nol’s role in MSDM—she wasn’t even clear about her own: “I just wrote myself a note in my notebook, ‘Christy maybe you’ll actually choreograph some material for this piece.’ For this new work, I haven’t come in with a lot of made, sequenced movement material that’s come from my body. I’m asking, Where am I in this?” I asked if she was experiencing a mini existential crisis around the work: “I wouldn’t call it mini. I started in the fall with the new work to generate the material, and I was doing an all-consuming project with Nol, so I was having dancers generate a lot of material. I feel good with the situational choreographic moments we have and the interrelatedness of the figures within the piece. But the vocabulary and risk to myself and my phsyiological intimacy with the new work isn’t really there yet. So in the past couple weeks I’ve come up with a plan to address that.” And what’s the plan? “I can’t say what the plan is! I’ll say what it is knowing that the whole thing will collapse at any moment.” And yet, there’s a plan: “It’s a structural pathway. Stuck with where I am in the work, it’s easier to think of myself as a structural rather than content component, if I work in some interstitial way, in and out of the piece, constructing 20 moments, maybe I’ll use six or something. I’m in out, it’s a blip and then gone, I’ll talk about something, have an experience, draw from my own child movement experience as I have asked the performers to do. I trust that there is a relationship between my body and the work. It’s there, but I have to unearth it. I’m just worried it’s January and I haven’t seen it” (laughter).
Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel is constructed out of two types of bodily archives: embodied memories drawn from a cast of Bay Area dance artists over the age of 40 (Chris Black, Laura Elaine Ellis, Aura Fischbeck, and Nina Haft), and photographs of the California Dancing Girls, an early 20th-century San Francisco dance troupe directed by Anita Peters Wright. When Christy encountered the California Dancing Girls archive in the San Francisco Museum of Performance + Design, she felt as though she had come face to face with the women who “made possible what we’re doing.” The “we” here refers to Bay Area women choreographers from Judy Job, Anita Peters Wright’s niece (and Christy’s Tai Chi teacher) to Margaret Jenkins, who studied at the Peters Wright School of Dance to her current collaborators: “I’m interested in the personal histories and early movement memories from a cast of women who are mostly over 40, who identify as mothers, teachers, administrators, producers, dancers. In my estimation, they’re the connective tissue of the Bay Area dance ecology.”
Although Christy and the dancers occasionally take shapes from the photographs to choreograph the work in rehearsal, the project is more about a “way of being with these women, conjuring a connection to our maternal past. How am I reaching back into history to access and pay homage to this particular group of women and how am I making a contemporary piece? Where is my own physicality, my own body, my history situated in the piece?” To answer these questions, Christy has asked her guest collaborators to remember, reenact, and reinvent movement histories, real and imagined. Nina explored early memories of improvisation and flamenco guitar music, while Chris was asked to write a fictionalized account of one of the women in the photographs: “We’re not using the text. I don’t want to read it. I wanted her to have a private thing, to find ways for her as a performer to inhabit the material with this text that was personal and lodged in language.”
Also involved in the work are two longtime Funsch Dance Experience collaborators, Chinchin Hsu and Courtney Moreno, who “serve a different function in the work”: “What’s driving me in the room are Chinchin and Courtney and the relationship we have built over the past few years. We can go to places physically that I find exiting. Conceptually, they’re this river of time, they’re not themselves, more this embodiment of ongoingness. This is the connection to Funsch Dance history, not just the superstars coming in for this work. They’re the meat and potatoes of my choreography.”
It wouldn’t be a conversation with a Bay Area artist if the issue of space and cost of living didn’t come up. “What’s heartbreaking is, in production, all the money is going to space. I’ve been on the cusp of leaving San Francisco for 20 years. It’s healthy to constantly reexamine and challenge the parameters that you’re making work in. There’s a crisis of space here, and it would be great to take some power back there. I can see not producing, but I can’t foresee not making dance. It’s the way I reorganize space, take power from constructs that are made without my permission; the way I investigate power, gender, momentum, physics, humanity. If I didn’t have any money and I had to do that kind of investigation with my own body and with whatever limitations of space, I still would. If it came to not being able to make work here anymore, I would leave.”
Happily for us, for now, Christy is staying: “I am feeling fierce, I am shedding, I am pushing on.”