Directors, Monica Mirabile and Sarah Kinlaw, discuss their latest collaboration, Authority Figure, an immersive choreography and psychological experiment that provokes consideration to the power dynamics and obedient relationships that govern daily lives.
The performance is scheduled at the Knockdown Center in Queens, May 20-22, 2016.
What is Authority Figure?
Sarah: Authority Figure is a huge choreography and installation project, in which we explore the variety of ways we feel, interpret, and relate to power and authority.
Monica: It's about obedient relationships, which is subsequently about authority. It's about power dynamics.
Is your goal in this performance to target many different types of power relationships?
Sarah: We can't touch upon every single type of power relationship individually, but we broadened the project to expand upon many types of these relationships. It’s why the project became so huge.
Monica: There are multiple ways in which we experience things. And we each experience them in specific ways. I experience authority relationships as a woman, as a woman who runs a business, as a woman in a performance duo, as a bartender. There are so many aspects of my life in which I step back and ask myself, “How am I going to position myself to get what I want out of this, and how will this work out for everyone else?” It’s about community. It’s about how everyone has that same story - as a musician, as a girl, as a boy, as a child, as a mother, as an employer, as an employee. We all have these dynamics embedded in our lives. There was a multiplicity in the construction of the performance because it was a collaboration between twenty five people, and each individual brought their own personal experiences.
The majority of the performance is formatted within these overarching systems. There are several different tiers of the performance you walk through. We touch upon big data, surveillance, how we interact with governing authorities like the police. These are big issues in our culture right now.
Sarah: I think, to touch on the interior storytelling, that aspect has become one of the cooler components of the piece. We were able to get to know each other on a more personal level. Through creating a platform for these kinds of stories to be shared in rehearsal, where the performers felt these themes as individuals, not as an assigned actors or singers, the piece became very feeling. This is why the project can at times feel very heavy or therapeutic.
Monica: It’s definitely heavy in the same way as therapy. It's like when you cry out and proclaim that you can't deal with what you are trying to process and then later, after you get out, you start to feel some healing.
How did the participants in the ensemble come out with their stories?
Monica: We started opening all rehearsals with storytelling, and we continually throughout rehearsal asked for people's experiences. It's been a dialogue that we've had throughout the entire process, and it began with the most intense stories. We don't have time anymore, but every session began with everyone in a circle.
And did that influence the direction of the piece?
Monica: In certain ways, yes.
Do you think of this work as political?
Monica: Yes, I mean, I don't think it has the ability to do things like change legislation. And I don't even think it is as diverse as I would prefer it to be. It's hard to convey all the fucked up things that happen in America because of who you are economically, racially... I don't think it's really digging deep enough into those sorts of things I think we need to change.
How has it been managing over 100 dancers?
Sarah: It’s right now approximately 150 dancers.
Monica: I think, at least for me, the managerial part is not easy, but we have some help. We have Christine Tran (Discwoman, Witches of Bushwick) who has been overseeing certain parts of it, and Gina Chiapetta is a godsend! It’s been cool because people have really made themselves available to us. Even if we don’t know how to use them all of the time.
Has the theme affected the way you've been directing?
Sarah: There's a sensitivity. I was clear early on that I don't claim to know more or understand more about these themes or concepts than anybody else. Also, just because we are directing doesn't mean we can control anyone. Because of this understanding, there is a sensitivity to the project as a whole where I do not completely assert myself in the same way one would in a traditional setting where it is scripted and you have your talent and your actors who have their roles...it's not like that at all.
Monica: I've worked with a lot of people before. That was part of the piece’s conceptualization. The way that you are as a teacher is very different from how you are as a student. Structuring a rehearsal, you have to maintain a director’s role. People want to be told what to do, and I've definitely been thinking a lot about how to engage a group of dancers in a way that is personal while also maintaining a structure that everyone can fall into. No one knows how to dance here. Well, I take that back, everyone knows how to dance! They just don’t study dance. It’s not necessarily easy for most people. There are a few people in the ensemble that do it all the time. But most people don’t and they don’t know how to connect the mind to the body yet. The body is something that comes from the mind. To be a teacher, that specific kind of authority, we have to teach without saying "Don’t do that!" It’s more about encouragement, and maybe that method is more ideal for this process. We are trying to be an ideal version of the figure.
There is a lot of darkness in this piece. There is a lot of pain and suffering that is very visible, and that is very much on purpose. The whole thing is intense because we are conjuring up all of these emotions that lie within people. When you talk about trauma, it is usually transfixed in authority and obedience. When you trigger this, you bring out darkness to process, and you hope that everyone gains power and agency from it. That is the goal. For everyone to to go through this process on their own fruition. We aren’t paying anyone. Everyone wants to be here because they want to be here. When you ask someone to be strong, they have to make that decision. They have to say to themselves, “I am going to do that thing (with my body, with my mind) that is strong” and hopefully they will continuously do that again and again.
Sarah: I think the more streamlined and clear the message is, whether it be to a seasoned performer or a newcomer, the more confidence one will produce to explore. It's better when you know the why. I really believe that with singers too. If you know the why you can really go for it, and really go for it through your performance.
Do you want people to know your personal experiences in dealing with these constructs?
Monica: I shared this one personal experience with a cast member the other day. It was about the time I was arrested and was directed to Baltimore Central Booking for 26 hours. It was probably one of the worst experiences I had with the police. I experienced it in a very specific way as a young white woman in a bathing suit. She told me how she had been through the process too, and that she still doesn’t know how to think about it. “You are treated like you are worthless,” she said. She felt like she was a "bad person." Adversely, she is a very successful woman, but after that experience she said, "I felt like I was nothing. I felt like I was just thrown away.”
Sarah: I don't think that I have any personal desire for the audience to know my stories and separate them from anyone else’s. I think this a community and this is a story of a community. This is not necessarily my or Monica's personal narrative. We don't see it like that. It is a conversation that is thematic and overarching rather than individual. There are individual experiences woven within all of it, but it is not specific to anyone.
Monica: There are specific stories to be told, to be shared. Without giving too much away, there is a series of vignettes that are more specific. They are abstract in movements but they begin as portraits, and it is fairly clear what is happening. There are a series of stories woven in because you can’t have empathy for something if you have no bearing to.
What do you ultimately want people to take with them when they walk away from the performance?
Monica: The desire for this project to touch people and create feeling is something that has come up a lot in interviews in general. "What is the aim here? How do you want people to leave?" We've said it many times. We can't force a feeling or an agenda, but we can create a platform for a feeling, for a consideration, and you can create an environment where people can form opinions. No one is going to walk through with the same reaction.
Sarah: We all see things happening that are the result of people obeying orders without questioning them and sometimes the outcome is scary and sometimes the human component is missing, the consideration and the sympathy... that is another reason why this is such a broad concept and such a varied show in terms of performances. The hope is that each person will connect, feel, and consider.
Monica: But it's a dance.. I’m excited to see how people experience it.
How did you guys start working together? Was it through the Strict Governing Hands Piece?
Monica: Kind of. That's when we connected. I guess that’s when we became friends, but we started thinking about this after. We wanted to work on a project together that was collaborative piece with opera singing and with choreography. It was supposed to be a small project and then it spiraled.
Sarah: Put a couple cocktails in us, and it just spiraled.
Monica: It's true. It wasn't supposed to get this big, but then we kept asking, "what can we get away with?"
How does voice fold into the dance?
Sarah: Some voice components are composed in terms of song with sound happening behind it. There are other voice components that are more like organic noises as a result of something in tandem with how the physical note might sound when you hit it. There is a marriage between the physicality and the tone.
Also spoken word is incorporated. Colin Self is incorporating words.
Monica: It's so exciting to include the vocal element. We held auditions. We had an open call on social media and then we had the auditioners come in, and we asked them if they wanted to sing. Sarah directed. It was very American Idol.
Were you sitting in a line, at the same table, like judges on the show?
Monica: Yeah at a makeshift table, with two little stands and a piece of plywood and a wooden sheet over it. I don’t sing and I have never experienced anything like this. They came in and sang, and these incredible voices came out. Both of us cried several times from just 16 bars. It’s really powerful to incorporate voice into intimate performances. I’m very excited about it.
And the score of musicians is pretty impressive… How did you start working with Caroline Polachek?
Sarah: I was in Ramona Lisa with her. It was a touring project, and she would play these ambient soundscapes to warm up and stretch to, and I really loved it. So I started talking to her specifically for this kind of music. It fit so well.
Monica: A lot of the musicians created pretty abstracts sounds. Do you know SOPHIE? It's more fragmented sounds, more environmental - it's like the sound of a balloon rubbing against and wooden floor and popping in a box. Ian’s is very much like that and so is Dan’s, actually. When you walk through the performance, you aren’t going to hear music that you would listen to on your apple music pad. They were composed specifically for the piece, like a cinematic score. There’s only one real song, and that is by Hot Sugar. After listening to all of these abstract things, it's nice to hear a beat. One that you can count on.
How does the architecture of the Knockdown Center play into the piece?
Monica: We grabbed a map and created a theme based on a route throughout the space. You can't fight the Knockdown. It's 50,000 square feet. We thought it was big, and then we realized it was much bigger. Every time we turned around it was much bigger!
Sarah: We keep finding rooms!
Monica: We didn’t use all of it, but we tried to use a lot of it. Get ready to walk!
Sarah: Maybe we should send an email about footwear?
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