Outer Space to Inner Space: Universal Themes, Very Different Styles

By Kate Law Hoflich


Amara Tabor-Smith/Deep Waters Dance Theater shares a bill with Cathie Caraker and Katarina Eriksson from March 5-7 at CounterPULSE. Upon first reading the descriptions and approaches taken by the artists, these two projects seem like an odd combination. They were brought together by CounterPULSE’s Winter Artist in Residence (AIR) program and this performance represents the culmination of their work since November 2008. An idea that curators have been playing with (we see it regularly at CounterPULSE, in 2nd Sundays, and for WestWave ‘08) is presenting work in a dance “mash-up” format, presenting seemingly disparate styles and ideas adjacent to each other. I think this particular matching will serve these works well. It will definitely highlight the differences between Tabor-Smith’s dance theater look at food and Caraker and Eriksson’s embodiment of an alien’s first human experience. The following interview with the artists reveals that the pairing will also highlight the two works’ shared universal themes.

Q: Please share a glimpse of what you will be presenting (either a visual description and/or a short overview of ideas and feelings behind the work).

Amara: My piece …our daily bread is a choreopoem/prayer. This piece celebrates our cultural food traditions, the folklore of our food and looks at how the quality of our food and where that food is coming from, impacts our communities and our environment. Weaving spoken word, music, dance, video, and stories collected from our (Deep Waters Dance Theater) families and members of our larger Bay Area community, we tell a story about our individual and shared experiences with how the food we eat shapes who we are. Food is experienced both literally and as metaphor in this show. This piece is a collaboration with the members of Deep Waters Dance Theater, poet and performance artist Aimee Suzara, composer Ajayi Jackson and video artist David Szlasa.

Katarina: ANIMoid is a piece that is inspired by science fiction imagery and anatomically-based movement exploration. We think of it as a post-modern dance laboratory and the experiment we are performing in that laboratory starts with the question: “What would happen if two alien beings came to earth and inhabited human bodies?” We are both dancing in the piece, and Jerry Smith is creating a video installation.

Cathie: Katarina and I have been improvising together, both in the studio and in performance, for several years now. We’re thrilled to finally be making a longer, more set piece together. A lot of the source material for the piece comes from Body-Mind Centering® (BMC) work, which I’ve been teaching for many years. In this piece we’re exploring the body’s fluids systems as a starting point for developing very specific movement states. The fluids systems are constantly changing as they pass through different membranes in the body, providing a great physical metaphor for transformation. We’re very interested in the idea of “morphing” the body, a theme that can also be found in science fiction.

Q: Why was this an important idea for you to investigate?

Amara: I have been very concerned with many issues in regards to food. One being that the pesticides used to raise genetically modified crops are wreaking havoc on our environment. I am also concerned about the number of Americans who suffer from illness related to poor eating habits such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and obesity. These numbers are even higher among marginalized folks of color, who tend to suffer from these ailments in large numbers and who tend to have the least amount of access to fresh, organic food. On a more personal note, I had been recently thinking about how I want to remember the food that I grew up with that is part of my cultural identity. My mother’s family is from Louisiana and she always made gumbo when I was growing up. Though I have been a vegetarian for 20+ years, it feels important to me to know how to make gumbo and food that is synonymous with my cultural roots. Though I may not eat gumbo anymore, I am gumbo. This revelation was also very pivotal in my decision to explore the topic of food in my work.

Katarina: On an aesthetic level, I simply enjoy the contrast between the cool feel of the science fiction theme and the warmth and intimacy of the visceral body states.

Cathie: Yes, having this subtext about being alien visitors gives us the perfect excuse to dive into and explore physical states that might be outside of the normal range of what you would see in contemporary dance … You know those editing voices that inevitably come up when you’re researching movement for a piece, those nasty voices that say, “Oh no, you couldn’t possibly, that’s way too weird,” or “Forget about it, that just makes you look like a bad dancer!” Well, having the sci-fi theme provides a context where that’s all okay—it’s very liberating!

Katarina: The alien idea seems to provide us with pretty much endless inspiration, and it works as a container for our research. Cathie and I share an interest in movement that is on the outer edges of modern dance vocabulary. We like to start from a place of not-knowing when we look for movement material. One of the things that has become a little bit like the “pliés” of our rehearsals is the cultivation of a beginner’s mind; an ongoing practice in staying in the present moment—innocent and questioning at the same time. To look through this kind of lens at human experience brings a somewhat paradoxical experience of detachment on one hand, and strong sense of presence on the other. For me, this becomes like poetry, and it strikes a feeling that inspires me and that I want to share with an audience.

Q: Why do you think that your two very different styles and approaches were put together for this residency?

Amara: I think we represent the broad spectrum of performance work that CounterPULSE represents. This is something that I truly admire about CounterPULSE. They are committed to presenting very diverse works and bringing in an audience that represents that diversity.

Katarina: That is my guess too, and I feel good about being part of such an inclusive and mindful organization. It’s true that our two pieces are very different, but I agree with one of Amara’s dancers who I remember saying she felt a kinship with us because of our interest in the beauty of everyday, mundane things.

Q: How have you (Amara and Cathie/Katarina) interacted through the course of the residency? Is there facilitated interaction? Do you see each other only in passing? Have there been times to view and comment on each other’s work?

Amara: Actually the answer to all of those questions is yes. The Artist in Residence Program that CounterPULSE sponsors is incredible for how they encourage the participating artists in being connected to and supportive of one another.

Over the course of our residency which started last November and ends with our performance in March, we have three scheduled informal work-in-progress showings during which we show what we are working on, and give each other constructive feed back utilizing the critical response tools created by Liz Lerman.

In addition, we have several production meetings in which we work together to decide how we will utilize the performance space given that the work we will present might have very different production needs. These elements, for me, have served to eliminate the feeling of isolation that often happens in the creative process. It has also been inspiring to watch the development of Cathie and Katarina’s work and hear about their process. Though our work is different from each other, I have often left these work-in-progress sessions with inspiration about how to approach my own work.

Katarina: Yes! It’s been great to have these chances to learn about each other’s work and to bounce ideas. As an example of this interaction, I’m thinking of something we are working on right now together with our video artist, Jerry. It’s an idea for a video projection that has its seed in an image Amara had in our last showing. It had to do with the aliens being entangled/bombarded in satellite broadcasting.

Cathie: Amara and her dancers have given us a lot of great feedback in the showings. Without our having said much about our work beforehand, I’ve felt like they’ve really picked up on what our work is about. I think that, although the styles of the work are different, we’re all working with very universal human themes on this program. It all feels connected.

Q: How has creating work in the CounterPULSE and residency setting been different from other creation processes? Has this shaped your approach or led you to discoveries you might incorporate in future creative processes?

Amara: I cannot express enough how crucial and wonderful this residency at CounterPULSE has been for the development of this piece and for me as a choreographer. I have never felt so supported in my creative process as with this residency. The way that so much is taken care of for the artist, allows for you to just focus on the work. I have also always found them to be willing to help with any needed resources in the development of the work. And the most important thing has been the way this program has encouraged me to take risks in my work. I am given permission to chart new territory as an artist and not just rely on my usual creative habits. The way I make work is definitely transforming through the process of this residency.

Cathie: For me it’s also transforming the way that I make work. I’ve been produced by various theaters in New York and Europe but never had the theater be so involved with the creation process before. I’m used to working in a little studio bubble for long periods of time and only sharing the process with a precious few. It’s challenging to be more public in the process, to show the work in its raw stages on a regular basis, but very rewarding. I’m also loving this opportunity to rehearse in the space where we’ll be performing, which is so much more conducive to envisioning where the piece can go.

Katarina: My experience with performance projects has mostly been in settings where the group would hire the producer and be their employer. Here, it is reversed; CounterPULSE has this great established Artist in Residence program with deadlines, outreach ideas, and showings all planned ahead. It has been quite a relief to be able to focus mainly on the creative process and I feel great trust in CounterPULSE’s competence as producers. It is also nice to be part of such a socially conscious organization. I will definitely bring some of the formats of the production timelines, etc. with me the next time I’m in a more self-produced situation.

For more information on the residency process and experience, check out the CounterPULSE blog at counterpulse.org/blog. To see the Amara Tabor-Smith’s …our daily bread and Cathie Caraker and Katarina Eriksson’s ANIMoid, come to CounterPULSE from Thursday-Saturday, March 5-7. See calendar for details.

This article appeared in the March 2009 issue of In Dance.

Kate Law Hoflich is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community. Katelaw.org, bowandsparrow.org