In Practice: Mary Armentrout Dance Theater’s listening creates an opening

By Sima Belmar

An image of people lying on a grassy hilltop during sunset.

Choreographer Mary Armentrout is my dear friend and Feldenkrais practitioner. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about Mary Armentrout Dance Theater’s (MADT) upcoming show at ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival, listening creates an opening. Mary and I talked for three hours and never even got to a description of the piece, so my apologies in advance.1

listening creates an opening began as a commissioned project of EMPAC, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Mary and her collaborative team, Evelyn Ficarra (sound/installation) and Ian Winters (video/installation) were invited by EMPAC Associate Curator of Theater/Dance Ashley Ferro-Murray for a two-year curated residency to develop and perform listening. Ferro-Murray first encountered MADT’s work in Oakland, while a graduate student in performance studies at UC Berkeley. (Yes, Ashley is also a bosom buddy of mine.) At the time, MADT was creating evening-length, site-specific works at the Milkbar, Mary’s home studio, which was located in the repurposed Sunshine Biscuit Factory in East Oakland, and the industrial landscape reminded Ferro-Murray of the landscape of Troy. In her curatorial note, Ferro-Murray writes, “I was interested in how her approach to sites and the borders of those sites might probe EMPAC’s architectural bearing on the precipice of both the small and bustling town of Troy, NY, and the nation’s first technical university, Rensselaer. But I wasn’t sure what it would look like to take Armentrout’s practice, which had been so deeply rooted in Bay Area sites for over two decades, and move it elsewhere.”

Now Mary’s work is being moved elsewhere again. San Francisco audiences will witness listening “re-sited.” Mary explained to me that when a piece is re-sited multiple times, it becomes a challenge to define what it is, to claim any sort of essence for it: “This modular way of working doesn’t have to privilege the first instance. The show gets mapped site-specifically every time so a lot of meaning markers are going to shift just because the space is different.” Audiences are invited not to think of the work as an original piece that has been reproduced but rather something more like a score that is reactivated in different time-spaces.

As a dance critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian in the late 90s and early 00s, I watched Mary pull herself in and out of a turtleneck for the better part of a decade, so I know she doesn’t shy away from deep, slow investigation of an idea, movement, or concept over long periods of time. listening features manifestations of this process: Winters’ time-lapse video, Ficarra’s soundscapes, and Mary’s Feldenkraisian invitation to audiences to move with the performers while paying mindful attention to the space around us and to our own embodied experience.

The Feldenkrais Method encourages a patient exploration of embodied experience, and lies at the foundation of Mary’s creative process. But so does her “wacky, ass backwards dance training” that started in central Pennsylvania: “I got to start dancing where dancing meant making dances. I had an amazing dance teacher, Betty Jane Dittmar, who was really smart about teaching composition at a young age. She studied with Louis Horst and Doris Humphrey at ADF in the 50s, but then went back into the wilderness to teach people creativity as a way towards spirituality. Learning to dance by making dances is a radically different thing from going to a dance studio and learning that you don’t know how to do steps well. If taught the right way, making dances gives you super powers. It makes you feel, ‘I know how to do things. I can say what I want to say. I have a voice.’ It’s so radically important. I was lucky to have that training from age 6 to 14. Dittmar had an amazing place in the summer on the side of a mountain with an Anna Halprin-style dance deck. You could look out down the Appalachians 400 miles on a clear day, trees growing up through the deck. So I did site-specific dancing in nature my whole life growing up.”

After four years of “horrible RAD training” and “strip mall jazz and modern dance in LA,” Mary arrived at another radical dance site—Sarah Lawrence College. There, everything she had begun to doubt about her earlier experience as a child in the mountains was validated: “Sarah Lawrence is basically choose your own adventure. The structure was such that I felt at home there. Choreography was super highlighted. We didn’t do repertory. We didn’t do choreography by the teachers.” Sarah Lawrence gave her the time, support, and resources to become a choreographer: “It was still the Bessie Schonberg era—you choreographed all the time. I created my own work every year that was in a show presented by the dance department. The teachers weren’t so powerful over us psychically. We felt empowered and supported to really do our own stuff.” At Sarah Lawrence, Mary danced in Jennifer Monson’s work and collaborated with John Jasperse. After a year abroad in Paris, she graduated and left for West Berlin to be with her partner, philosopher Randall Amano (they’ve been together since high school!), returned to New York City in 1986, where she spent most of her time modeling for artists, and then moved to the Bay Area in 1987.

Alongside dance, Mary studied philosophy, and between college and arriving in the Bay Area, she struggled to draw the two fields together: “I couldn’t figure out how to make dances about the things I wanted to make dances about. I knew how to choreograph. I’d been choreographing since I was six years old. But how does my philosophical thinking fit with dance? I can’t make it say what I want to say.” Driven by existential questions—in particular, “Why go on living?”—Mary landed on a notion of (dis)continuity: “How can we map the reality we have, which is made up of continuity and discontinuity? Since my Sarah Lawrence days, a lot of my work has been about understanding the strange way we are both continuous and discontinuous.” Fortunately for Mary the choreographer, these questions don’t merely swirl around her mind, but meander through, lodge themselves in, and work themselves out through the body: “The thing that was important about the philosophy I was studying was not so much the content but the deep exegesis of text, which we know from dance making. Dancemakers get good at recognizing that there’s more than one meaning in a thing, that reflection takes time; listening to the many layers of self requires time.” Hooked on the “super slow” reflective process of philosophical inquiry, Mary seeks to create and present work from and in that state of being-doing: “I live in this crack between dance and philosophy. That’s why it’s so important to me that multidisciplinarity is supported because there are cracks everywhere and experts are going to steer you away from the cracks.”

Over the course of 32 years and counting in the Bay Area, Mary has made dozens of works in this crack. A rent-controlled apartment in the Berkeley hills and working first as a paralegal then in the restaurant industry made it possible to pay for studio time. After rehearsing for years at the Blake Street Hawkeyes space in Berkeley, Mary and art partners Merlin Coleman and Ian Winters took over a space in the Sunshine Biscuit Factory in East Oakland, where the Milkbar performance series was born. When they lost the Biscuit Factory in 2015, they mobilized to find another space. Now the Milkbar has its home in Richmond at the Bridge Artist and Storage Space.

Having a space of her own to choreograph, rehearse, and perform in is key to Mary’s continued productivity as well as to how she navigates the institutional demands of theater spaces and presenters: “I had done my first solo show in 1996 at 848 Community Space. It was perfect for me. They were like, turn off the lights before you go home and don’t burn it down. They gave me the freedom I really needed but I also yearned for the support and interest of the dance community.” Mary got some of that support in the form of multiple artist residencies and grants, including the most recent adventure at EMPAC. Although this support is welcome, Mary often finds herself at odds with a variety of institutional expectations: “There’s a flow of how dance production is done, an expectation of an orderly rehearsal process, and being done and ready to do tech week. Institutions are just trying to institute best practices for the statistical mean. But these practices can shut off other possibilities. In many situations, if I just change one variable—maybe we’ll use the lobby or the bathrooms in the theater as performance space—it starts throwing monkey wrenches everywhere. And once you’ve solved the physical problems, there can be a lot of mental armature under these things, people are resistant.”

Listening to Mary, the tension between her desire and gratitude for institutional support on the one hand, and her resistance to the norms that undergird that support pulsates and constitutes an ambivalent mode of institutional critique: “I feel I still can’t do what I want to do within the theater model. If I only work in the institutionalized spaces, which all theaters are, my the work doesn’t show up. I have to be able to work site-specifically, even and especially within ‘theater’ spaces for my work to show up. I used the Biscuit Factory as my rehearsal space for 8 years before I premiered a show there [the woman invisible to herself in 2010]. I knew you weren’t allowed to do shows at such a space—it’s off the map, it’s not a production facility, there’s no audience coming to the Biscuit Factory. If you do a show in a space like that, you’re putting yourself in a ditch. That’s why we spend the money to do a show at Z Space. That’s how the institutional network works. So you climb the network: you do a show at 848, then you get into Dancers’ Group, then ODC, then Z Space, then you hope to get into Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts]. You have to make smart choices relative to that or else all the money you’ve invested in prior shows doesn’t pay off in letting you lose more money in the bigger space. I’m not kidding! I’m a mid-career artist in the Bay Area and so for me to go backwards and do a show in an unknown space seemed a dangerous career move. The fact that it’s my space only makes it worse.”

When I countered that the Milkbar is not an unknown space but itself an institution where people want to show their work, where audiences do come, Mary sighed: “Inside my story, I still feel pretty much not allowed. When Ian came into the mix around 2003, we found ways to empower ourselves, to support our vision of performance. Our space is fluid and not really such a good space for proscenium production, which is what makes it work for me. It’s an informal rehearsal space with just a whiff of proscenium. I’m still learning how to make my work live inside or alongside these more rigid institutional spaces like EMPAC, Z Space, or university theaters while disrupting them in the ways I want to.”

When I asked Mary what San Francisco audiences may expect from listening that may be different from the original EMPAC performance, she immediately reminds me that we’ve already rejected the notion of an “original”: “There’s a piece called reveries and elegies that I did at the Biscuit Factory that I also set up to move. I did it four times in four months—in a little tiny gallery in Temescal [Oakland], at CounterPulse, at the beach, and at Milkbar. That piece didn’t change, I just had to remap it. I was interested to see what the mapping was doing to the piece. Then, because I loved that title so much I wanted it to be the title for the rest of my work until the day I die, I did a different version—same title, same theme, same structure but completely different—in Brighton, in the firehouse at Fort Mason for the San Francisco International Arts Festival, on the Mendocino River, at Louisiana State University, and at the University of Roehampton. In a certain way, the EMPAC performance of listening is really a version of reveries because the structure is very similar.”

Ok, Mary, but what do you want audiences to know in advance about this iteration of listening?: “How does this strange thing called performance, the two hours of your life spent as an audience, connect to other parts of your life, you, person watching this thing called dance, whatever that is. How does my double-pronged approach help, where on the one hand, your body is going to show up for you more in my work, and what does that mean, and how is that related to the fact that there’s both discontinuity and continuity between the theater space and the rest of the world? Where does the art start and stop? Does it happen in your memory? Your sensations? These are the major questions that push me. It’s an attempt to make performance that examines what it means to live here in this body right now. How does dance approach that experience, the localness of our lived lives, the feel of sitting at Sima’s kitchen table on this day in March? When you take me out of my real life and put me on stage, it’s a no man’s land, a beautiful, tech supported no man’s land, which makes me just want to drag my whole life back into that picture.”

All this questioning reminded me of my 2001 San Francisco Bay Guardian “Critic’s Pick.” I wrote, “A newcomer to Mary Armentrout’s work might conclude that she is, to put it mildly, out there. I can attest to the fact that while Armentrout is out there, she knows what she’s doing.” Over the past 18 years, getting to know Mary as an artist, somatic practitioner, and friend who basks in the light of not-knowing, I stand by those words today.

1. “At once a site-specific performance meditation and a technology/embodiment puzzle, listening creates an opening asks how we listen and what we hear. Leading in a listening state, from a Victorian storefront through the alleys and parks of ODC’s Mission neighborhood, into and out of the ODC Theater, to end looking out over the rooftops of the city at dusk, listening creates an opening poses the further question of what we do next – once we have started to hear?” From the ODC website.

This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of In Dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to