Early on in the semester I reached out to Jackie Courchene and Yukina Sato Crul (two fellow 1st year MFAs) to ask them if they would like to collaboratively create a group piece together. We decided to see what we could make while maintaining social distancing rules. I offered to them a costume idea from a piece I had been working on for the last year: hazmat suits.
The hazmat suits provided a very specific impetus. We quickly realized that making a piece about Covid-19 was inevitable with these costumes. There was no way the would been seen outside of the contexts of this pandemic. Through out the beginning of our collaboration this was a fun topic to address. (Later, as Covid continued to be a central concern in our lives, the topic became a frustrating one with which to wrestle). How do we convey the heightened suspicion that people have as they walk around in public? How do we convey the anxiety of getting the virus? The fatigue that isolation produces? The transmission of not only the virus, but of misinformation and fear?
A photo of Yukina, Jackie, and me with our professor, Susan.
The first few rehearsals were brainstorming sessions, coming up with physical relationships we could create in choreograph without needing physical contact. Some ideas we came up with included: cause and effect; action and reaction; advancement and retreat; advancement and avoidance; hunter and prey. We also enjoyed dancing together (dancing with people was something we were all missing at that point), so we also made some phrase work to get ourselves moving.
During our first showing, we shared a few disjointed chunks of movement ideas. The general sense we got from our fellow MFAs and professor was that the message was coming across. We were “technicians under scrutiny, surveillance” and the piece was “cold, factual, industrial, medical.” The main question that arose was how will we approach the ending? What statement about Covid-19 are we trying to make? Will we leave the audience in a hopeful state? Or will the piece devolve into chaos, confirming for the audience that the world is, indeed, ending?
For that first showing we used a track by Alva Noto (U_07 feat. Anne-James Chaton). In the track you hear a man speaking a sequence of monotone numbers and phrases in French. We chose this track because in addition to the agitated vibe that the base track created, the spoken numbers had a simultaneously official and nonsensical quality. After hearing the track, Susan told us that she thought it was likely referencing The Conet Project, an album of sound bits from radio stations of unknown origins believed to be operated by government agencies in order to communicate with deployed spies. Her comment led us down a pathway of crafting sound design for the piece, which became a substantial project of its own. We used a number of tracks from The Conet Project, a portion of the original Alva Noto track, and recorded Jackie’s partner, Jordan Spayd giving obscure instructions as if over a loud speaker at a hospital or factory. I volunteered to engineer the sound design, something I was eager to do without realizing how enormous of a project it was. I was glad for the practice to weave together so many different voices, to tell a story with evolving layers of sound. It was something I was working on consistently for the next month and a half – returning home after every rehearsal with notes of changes to make, and adjusting it within every rehearsal in response to our choreographic timing and how the track sounded over speakers in a large space.
Incorporating a sound track that we could manipulate to meet our needs allowed us to have a way to communicate elements of the Covid experience we were having a hard time communicating prior. The sound became a fourth character, creating environment, emotional atmosphere, and disembodied authority. With the sound, the piece was more surrounded by doom and gloom, so we decided to exaggerate our performative reactions, adding a layer of humor to the piece. We each developed exaggerated reactions to the virus: Jackie, the obsessive cleaner; Yukina, the policer of social distancing; me, the person who has had it with the damn masks. We incorporated some extra props (gloves and wet wipes) to communicate these characters.
With three collaborators and the added extra project of creating the sound design, this ended up being a long process. It was the first piece I started all semester and one of the last to feel complete. In the end I think we were ready to be done working on the piece. Not because we were sick of each other—I really enjoyed working with Jackie & Yukina—but because we were sick of making work about coronavirus. We were over-steeped.
I think this piece will become something similar to a time capsule. It is something we could only make during the current moment, and it will be a piece that will always reference this time in history. An artifact from the times of Covid-19. Clear. Proceed. Again.