Fain Opens the Flood Gates

By Stephanie Linakis


On June 8 & 9, Liss Fain Dance will premiere Flood, gracing the stage of the YBCA Theater with its signature synthesis of fast-paced modern dance and the clarity and vertical lift of ballet. Flood, a 32-minute work for seven dancers set to the last two sections of Louis Andriessen’s contemporary opera Writing to Vermeer, conjures the Dutch Republic during 1672, the “Year of Disaster” when river dykes were breached in order to prevent an invasion by the French. The opera’s libretto imagines letters of warm domesticity written to Vermeer during this same period when the country was literally inundated with chaos.

Celebrated for blazing new approaches to integrated collaborative performance, Liss Fain matches Flood with a torrent of artistic talent: visual designer Matthew Antaky, filmmaker Drew Takahashi, and art director Richard Kizu-Blair. Together, Fain and her collaborators explore the bounty of creative and political issues that surface when individuals struggle to uphold normality in personal life when surrounded by political turmoil.

In Dance writer Stephanie Linakis recently caught up with Liss Fain to find out more about her creative process and inspiration for Flood.

ID: Many of the dances you create find their origin in books or music. How were you introduced to Writing to Vermeer and what about it moved you to create? Are you also inspired by Vermeer’s visual aesthetic?

Fain: I read about a performance of the opera in the New York Times, and bought the CD. What intrigues me about the opera is that the libretto is very simple in its intent, while the music encompasses a dramatic range of emotions and images. The idea behind the libretto is very simple: the three women in Vermeer’s life—his wife, his mother-in-law and his model—are writing letters to him while he is away for two weeks. There is no personal intrigue, deception or death. The opera takes place during the Dutch “Year of Disaster”, however, when there was enormous political upheaval that culminated in the violent assassination of two prominent politicians and the deliberate opening of the dykes to flood the country in order to prevent an invasion by the French. The music reflects the domestic calm and personal yearning of the three women as well as the turmoil of external events in a score that combines orchestral and electronic music. I found the duality of the situation portrayed in the opera to be pertinent to our political landscape today—we have created chaos and destruction in parts of the world so removed from us geographically that we are able to live in isolated comfort.

In terms of aesthetic, I love Vermeer’s limited and intense color palette and quiet compositions.

ID: According to your press release, Writing to Vermeer “addresses the tensions arising from the surface stability and calm of people’s lives clashing with the growing turmoil from political unrest.” How do you reveal so much meaning through abstraction, pair libretto with movement, tell a story, yet omit narration?

Fain: I am not trying to actualize the libretto. I have three women who represent order and stability—the three sopranos in the opera—and five other dancers who represent the growing discord that surrounds the household. Flood reflects the duality of the opera and the music without telling a specific story. There is an arc to the piece that is non-narrative yet has an emotional and visual element. The story arc begins with order and clarity and gradually diffuses this with external disorder. The final sounds of the opera are of the water flooding the countryside. This sound and image is overwhelming in its power, and dictates the direction of the piece.

ID: Although you do not identify as a political artist, can you expound upon the issues and ideas that feed your interest behind the tensions inherent in this piece?

Fain: Since the Bush presidency, we have had a government run by a dogmatic, rigid and insular branch of the Republican Party. Their agenda has undercut the economic stability of important institutions at home and created horrific destruction abroad. Andriessen’s opera struck a chord when I read about its story and heard the emotive and multi-layered music.

ID: Your ambition for Flood is enriched by Matthew’s visual design, Drew’s film work, and Richard’s art direction. Describe the creative process of this multi-faceted collaboration. In your conception of the dance, the music, and the visual environment as an indivisible unit, how do you and your collaborators ensure that their input upholds the centrality of the movement?

Fain: The four of us are independently interpreting the central idea—the need to maintain the norm of one’s life, its stability, despite encroaching tumult—as well as working with the architecture of the space­—how the placement of images in space illuminates an idea—and then coming together to discuss our ideas. Drew, Matthew and Blair come to rehearsals to watch the dance as it develops, to show their work and talk about what does and doesn’t fit well. Drew and Blair and I are using the music specifically as we structure the movement and video images; Matthew is using it in a more general way for the lighting and set. We comment on each other’s ideas and their execution; how this ties into the ideas and music.

ID: Since your experiments with dance and video in the ‘80s at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T., the integration of dance and technology has persisted throughout your work. How does Flood advance or stand apart from previous works with dance and technology, such as Frames of Light in 2001-3 or Eclipse in 2004? What new challenges you take on with this work?

Fain: Flood is more adventurous than my previous collaborations. I am working closely with all the collaborators, including the costume designer—Eimaj Designs—to create a tightly unified piece in which all elements contribute to the story arc. I have always worked closely with the music and with Matthew Antaky to portray an emotional arc; here everyone involved in the creation of the work is discussing and assessing their ideas as they evolve. The ideas that are so powerfully expressed in the music need to be as clear and compelling in all spheres. Eclipse was much shorter than Flood (12 minutes instead of 33), and was more a tone poem than a story. Frames of Light gave each choreographer leeway to interpret an underlying theme independently, with Matthew and me designing the weave that would hold it all together.

ID: What are your upcoming artistic goals?

Fain: To continue to work on collaborative projects. I like to hear and see how other artists envision in idea or image. Combining these visions during the work process and the final piece makes me think more broadly than I do when I work with only choreography.

This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of In Dance.