The Onion is the name of a charismatic building in the Valley community of North Hills. "Six Twelve One By One" is the name of what could be described as a charismatic contemporary dance work to be performed there on Saturday, March 16. The Onion is a dome and wooden-beamed building that houses the inquiring Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society. "Six Twelve One By One" is a dance involving six very pregnant women carrying, in utero, six babies all performing inquisitive movements.
Artist Emily Mast is pregnant -- she's asked choreographer Hana van der Kolk to develop the performance with her. For the past several years, Mast has been producing works of smartly performed art that, as she says, "encourage the audience to question the authenticity of their own reactions to a piece." For example she staged the avant-garde anti-play play "Offending The Audience" entirely with elementary-aged children. In 2009 she created "Everything, Nothing, Something, Always (Walla!);" a live looping play that questioned the stability of theater, of language, and of one's own identity.
Hana and Emily's current work is described in press release as "a task-like series of actions"..."highlight(ing) both the women's solidarity and solitude, examin(ing) aspects of pregnancy including the comic, inane, mundane and grotesque." Commenting on how this dance fits into her theatrical oeuvre, Emily Mast says:
"With my work I like to assume many different roles and I've always wanted to assume the role of the dancer even though I am pitifully uncoordinated. The idea of bringing a group of awkward, unbalanced women together to move delighted me. There is a lot of humor and irreverence in this piece. This was an opportunity for me to not take myself so seriously while seriously considering ideas around femininity, feminism, physicality and awareness."
To find out more about their expectant work, I asked Emily and Hana about "Six Twelve One By One:"
How did the project come together?
Emily Mast: Hana and I are close friends, when I found out I was pregnant I asked her if she would be interested in creating a performance/practice with me. The more we discussed our intentions and goals, the more we realized we wanted this piece to be witnessed by others. I suggested we cast a group of pregnant women. Hana was a little wary of this, but the more we talked the more it made sense. I found five other pregnant women, all first time moms, via a casting agency, friends, and social media. We began rehearsing in late January. Hana isn't in L.A., so she joins us via Skype and then we discuss everything.
Simultaneously, I was invited by Machine Project to present a performance for Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in LA. I wanted to present this piece in a dome-like environment to echo the shape of the pregnant body and to enhance the intimacy of the experience. The Onion is the perfect response to these needs -- it's beautifully strange, womb-like and oddly intimate even though it's rather spacious inside.
Hana van der Kolk: After we decided to work on something, I began sending Emily simple movement assignments to start playing with. The idea was to come up with simple tasks that anyone would be able to do while being present and mindful to her pregnant body. They would have to be able to continue doing them throughout pregnancy. We decided to bring in five more pregnant women to further explore the content beyond Emily's personal relationship to it.
Pregnant bodies provoke feelings of envy, disgust, arousal, etc., and that has interesting implications in terms of feminism and performance. Giving an audience permission to see these bodies going through a range of physical states, in order to reflect on a range of attitudes towards pregnancy is our interest.
Can you give an example of the movement task for the mothers-to-be the two of you came up with?
HK: Balance on one leg. Try different ways of balancing. Hold your lifted leg low close to the ground, or higher up. Hold your raised leg in front, beside, behind you. Test your balance. If you lose your balance you could switch legs...you can switch legs whenever actually.
EM: A lot of our material is a response to historical works (i.e. Bruce Nauman's 1968 "Walk With Contrapposto") that we found particularly strange and solipsistic. We try our best to perfectly replicate Nauman's movements in this task.
We tried a variation of Trisha Brown's 1973 "Spanish Dance" which consists of many (slender) bodies all tightly sandwiched together -- the task is transformed completely when enormous bellies are introduced.
The last task in the piece consists of each of us standing with our arms held out horizontally for three minutes straight. This is an incredible challenge for us as it starts to ache after about 30 seconds. One of the performers in the group introduced us to this exercise because it's something she practices on her own to get ready for labor. It's an exercise in focus, concentration and will power. Like many of the tasks, it's quite psychological and we hope that some of what's going on inside will translate to the audience.
Hana, you're helping choreograph six pregnant ladies. Stating the obvious, with pregnancy women's bodies undergo rapid changes transformations in physiology and psychology. How are you finding it working on movement with pregnant women?
HK: Just like any performers these women say what they can and can't do, we work with that. I taught yoga to plus-size women for a few years in New York, that has actually come in handy a few times in this process. I need to imagine what it is to have a big belly or other physiological conditions I don't experience myself. This way I imagine how it will be to perform the things I'm suggesting.
Last fall I was moving weekly in a studio in Boston with a close dancer friend. She was in her last months of pregnancy. I was touching her, moving her, witnessing her for extended periods as she moved with eyes closed. I had so many astounding experiences doing this -- I felt kinesthetic empathy with her, was fascinated, moved, and sometimes disgusted by her body. I had permission to really watch her in this unique state. This influenced how I am working on this piece.
At one point in rehearsal we had the women standing very close to one another and two of the women's bellies were touching. One of them yelped and said, "I just felt your baby kick my baby!" That brought home how unique and special the space we're in together is in this process.
Emily, why are you interested in using pregnancy as a mise-en-scene? And how is it that maternity plays itself out as a device to in this artwork?
EM: I'm interested in and invested in the unknown. To me, pregnancy is one of the greatest unknowns. I had no idea what I was in for when I became pregnant -- I still don't. Making this dance was a way for me to digest this massive experience, and to do it in a way that was not isolating. My work consists of collaborative practices that celebrate the ambiguous position between art, theater, therapy, sociology and education. By working with a diverse range of people in a very personal way we are able to create our own truths through collective experience.
I feel that pregnancy and motherhood are frowned upon in contemporary art. One is hard-pressed to find interesting work on the subject since Mary Kelly's "Post-Partum Document" (1973-1979). I was hoping we could contribute something to a larger discussion that, in my opinion, hasn't really hasn't happened yet.
Do you feel that observing pregnant women is taboo in our culture?
EM: I don't think pregnancy & motherhood is taboo in our culture. In fact, certain facets of it are ever present in popular culture -- however I think pregnancy & motherhood is taboo in the very specific context of contemporary art. I'm not exactly sure why. One hypothesis I have is that baby making threatens the value of art making. Another theory is that many female artists are feminists and we're still not sure how to navigate that terrain; is it more powerful to dedicate oneself to one's career or is it more powerful to have both a career and a family? Then there's the issue of time and how little time one is left with after caring for a creature that depends on you for its survival. Finally I think it's very easy to ooze into tricky territory (nostalgia, sentimentality, navel-gazing) when you're dealing with pregnancy and motherhood, as it's so emotionally and physically consuming.
Emily, what's it like making physical work while you are pregnant, and how are you experiencing your body differently in performance and in the everyday?
EM: I've had to deal with some aches and pains and embarrassment. But I'm not alone, so that's made it a little easier so it's been a pleasure. I barely feel the discomfort in rehearsal because the process is so rewarding and the group is so amazing...Well, that's not true. I feel it; I just don't focus on it as much as I do outside of rehearsal.
I rarely perform myself, I prefer directing. But I wanted to put myself in a vulnerable situation because I'm a control freak. When I found out I was pregnant I felt I had very little control over what was about to happen and I felt vulnerable. I figured if I put myself in a position that framed my vulnerability (framing vulnerability is a refrain in my work,) then perhaps I could transform it into something powerful. And I trust Hana, so that has helped a lot. Directing other mothers hasn't felt so much like directing as much as its felt like molding and nurturing others in a very flexible practice. There is no hierarchy. The other performers have been incredibly dedicated to the process and we have really connected over the past few months.
Do you have any understudies if your dancers go into labor early?
EM and HK: No. One of the performers is due two weeks after the performance so we know going into this that there was a risk that we might not all make it to "opening night." The performers are all irreplaceable -- if someone can't make it we will just have to make do.
"Six Twelve One By One" will be performed on Saturday, March 16 at 6:30pm at "The Onion" UU Church, 9550 Haskell Ave, North Hills, CA 91343, Free. RSVP.