Pretty brain melty: Interview with Almanac Dance Circus Theatre
This Mexican Week, FringeArts presents two one-night-only shows by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, An Homage to Whatshername and A Door in the Desert. These shows, made in collaboration with Mexican choreographer and performer Emmanuel Becerra, have been nurtured over the last six months with intensive, long rehearsals, deep conversations about the things that divide us, and Almanac’s signature compassion. Artistic director Ben Grinberg, Emmanuel Becerra, and company members Evelyn Langley and Joseph Ahmed were kind enough to talk through their process, and how Fronteras (the umbrella title for both works) came to be.
FringeArts: How did the title FRONTERAS come about? And then how did the two titles—A Door in the Desert and An Homage to Whatshername?
Ben Grinberg: Fronteras is the Spanish word for “borders.” My collaborative relationship with Emmanuel Becerra has always been about sharing our different cultures, and, in a way, asking questions about why cultural perceptions and stereotypes exhibit themselves in the ways that they do. When we started talking about the project we would work on together, it was at the height of the presidential election season, and of course—and unfortunately—our writing grants to bring a Mexican artist to the United States to collaborate began to feel like a political statement. Emmanuel took this idea and started to get very interested in the idea of boundaries and borders, both politically as it pertained to his experience of working in the United States, and in investigating the borders and boundaries that exist between and within people. When we traveled to Mexico City this summer, Emmanuel shared this research with us in the form of a series of collaborative workshops, which culminated in a site-specific performance in a four story building. When the audience arrived, we asked them to write a border that they struggle with internally on a piece of paper. We took all of these pieces of paper and put them in a bag, and as the bag got passed between performers in various parts of the house, the papers took on a votive significance.
The audiences followed the bag all the way up to the top floor of the building—we would have used the roof had we gotten permission—and then watched from above as it was passed back down the building, the papers were taken out and lit on fire with the scent of cinnamon. Although this performance was advertised as something called #IAMMADEOFSTARS, in retrospect we called that project FRONTERAS. We were excited by the power of our collaboration and by continuing to investigate those themes, so we took the name as a platform guiding our work and research during Emmanuel’s residency here in Philadelphia.
Emmanuel Becerra: Although the idea of this collaboration had been discussed since 2014, the title Fronteras was born last August after Almanac’s tour to Mexico City. At that time I was living in the city, and motivated by the visit of the company, I decided to make a performance experiment between the company and a group of artists whom I worked with in Mexico, Karen Martinez (Mexico) and Fausto Jijón (Ecuador). What I was most interested in exploring were the cultural differences and the fact that not everyone spoke the same language. Between English, Español, Spanglish, and an alternate and unidentified language, we explored the idea of boundaries and the questioning that there is something beyond any border, beyond our physical traits, sex, religion, nationality, education, and interests that allows us to connect as humans?
Thinking about the titles A Door in the Desert and An Homage to Whatshername, Honestly I do not know how they were decided. I remember that between late night talks and jokes both pieces had different titles, and one day, as if by instant generation, the titles sprang into existence as agreed upon and collectively accepted titles.
Robin Stamey: As with most things Almanac, the titles of the individual pieces came about from many conversations, brainstorms, and getting in the room with each other. There was one night, within the first week that Emmanuel was here, that we were up too late, had eaten delicious food at what we call “family dinner” and had perhaps a few glasses of mezcal, that we were brainstorming titles. For some time after that, we thought A Door in the Desert would be called Fronteras: Back Terrace—say it out loud for full effect—maybe more than once—and that An Homage to Whatshername would be called Said & Meant or That’s What She Said… and Meant. Then we had a very productive company meeting—which to be honest, is not always the case—and we finally settled on the current titles.
FringeArts: Can you briefly describe the basic premise for both pieces?
Ben Grinberg: So given these themes of “breaking down barriers,” these pieces were originally conceived as bringing that intention to gender in the case of An Homage to Whatshername and culture in the case of A Door in the Desert. Whatshername is really an experiment in process—although Almanac’s processes are generally pretty egalitarian, the piece’s power structures and rules of creation are specifically designed to counteract both the power structures that exist in society that subjugate women and the ingrained biases that lead us to those power structures. So the men are present, but we’re limiting the amount that we’re talking, and we’re not making many decisions.
Emmanuel Becerra: For me both pieces have as a premise the need to explore boundaries that define and differentiate us and rethink what are the ideas that invite us to recognize ourselves and identify with other bodies. A Door in the Desert is a piece that talks about the world we have been building. Day by day we still building our identities, layer upon layer we piled ideas and belief to create, strengthen, and sometimes tear down our own walls
FringeArts: What are some of the “source” concerns of the pieces?
Joseph Ahmed: These two pieces feel more overtly political than much of Almanac’s work up to this point. A Door in the Desert stems from the cultural interchange between Ben and Emmanuel over the course of several years, but the stakes have gotten much higher over the course of the recent election. As we sit in rehearsal we are aware that this sort of exchange, and even Emmanuel’s presence here, is something that feels precarious. The work springs out of this feeling—wondering about where the borders between us came from and what we do about them. In many ways An Homage to Whatshername has also picked up new meaning recently, in the intensely gendered nature of the election. It also connects deeply to the role of women within both circus and the arts as a whole, and within our own company. Though Almanac has a record of working to present stories with well-crafted female perspectives (Exile 2588) many members of the company have been craving work more expressly driven by the female members of the company. Like the issues of A Door in the Desert, this feels more relevant to us than ever. Artistically, we are also inspired by the challenge of creating with the largest group of ensemble members we have had, in processes much less expressly driven by narrative. Whereas our two most recent large works, Leaps of Faith and Exile 2588, were largely narrative driven, that has not been a focus of our work thus far on Fronteras. We are much more curious about elements of process and exploration of themes than we are narrative. We have also never created two full-length pieces side by side before.
Ben Grinberg: We always create work that starts from us and our own experiences and the real tensions that exists within Almanac, so it’s unavoidable that both of these pieces are being pretty heavily influences by the political moment. We look at the work we do as inherently political, especially in terms of mission and process, but here we are letting politics inform the content as well. I’ll say that “THE WALL” is obviously the largest metaphor and image that is a direct connection between our work and political discourse. To literally build a physical wall between us and our southern neighbors is so abhorrent to me, not only because of the way that it literally divides us, but because of how totally ineffectual it is—it is in some ways a synecdoche for the whole administration for the way that it completely ignores reality and any reasoned future-oriented outlook in order to try to divide people. So the wall, or nearby it, is where we set A Door in the Desert. The desert is also an image that has a very different significance to Mexican people than it does to Americans, and that difference in perspective is ripe for us.
Door is also specifically drawing on a couple of events that have happened in my relationship with Emmanuel, and our friendship is source material for the piece. So here’s a long-ish short history of that friendship! We met at a dance camp in the woods of Maine—where we also met Almanac company member Evelyn Langley—in the summer of 2014. We were roommates, we were responsible for cooking dinner for 20 to 30 people together each night, and Emmanuel spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish. The second night we were there, Emmanuel and I both ate a mushroom that we were promised was completely edible and delicious, and spent the night in and out of the bathroom vomiting and explosively shitting: we bonded quickly. Many late night chats lead us to contemplating the nature of authority and the problems with American culture. Fast forward a couple of months and we overhear the 95-year-old matriarch of the camp, a camp founded on the principle of equality and acceptance of all people, say something completely and overtly racist about Emmanuel when she thought he was out of earshot. It was a sad and sobering moment for him, and for me I was mostly indignant and outraged. Will that be me in fifty years? Reverting to some kind of backward attitude I’ve never had time to question? Or sinking back into the ease of judging others according to their categories? Or is that me now in some way? Labels have purposes, and cultural identities are to be celebrated. Yet now and frequently they do all of this harm and damage. Later in Montreal, on the last day that we were training in a space, someone accuses Emmanuel specifically of stealing a wallet out of a jacket. There were several people around the space but the accusation was leveled at the Mexican man. All of these experiences are moments that I think will find their way into the piece. In working on Door we are trying to bring ourselves into a “non-social space”—a space where we are unable to edit or filter our communications, thoughts, and actions. The idea is that by forcing ourselves to enter this space, we are all shedding some layers of our identity that are learned. Maybe from that place, we can really connect.
Evelyn Langley: Robin has been saying lately that the making of Whatshername is “intentionally dismantling how Almanac works best.” I like that phrase because I feel like it says a lot about the impetus for this piece. As makers and collaborators, we strive to create in a way that upholds everyone’s voices and impulses on equal footing. We reject hierarchy of one person’s ideas being elevated over all others. In a rehearsal room, this can be extremely messy and even humorously chaotic—we joke that no one ever knows what’s going on. But it works! We play, we bicker, we negotiate, we propose something new, we launch into five things at once, we land and we wander again closer and farther away from elusive consensus. I say elusive because though we strive for this egalitarianism in our creative processes as well as administrative work . . . our REALITY also includes the fact that some voices are quite a bit louder than others. I should say those voices come from male-bodied humans, who have been nurtured socially to speak LOUD and speak OFTEN. I love the men in the company intensely. I love the women in this company. And out of this love I find it absolutely necessary that together we glare critically at this unequal power arrangement, that we pull it from something silently problematic into actions around change. So, An Homage to Whatshername is an effort to make an Almanac piece led/guided/propelled entirely by the women in the company. To amplify our particular voices, our ideas, our bodies, our skills and our life experiences. To push ourselves to be bold and unapologetic. Meanwhile, the guys are practicing stepping aside—making space for us and awaiting instruction.
Emmanuel Becerra: Cultural exchange. From my perspective, relating with “other” identities creates a possibility of leaving, physically and mentally, from the quotidian to observe from a distance the patterns that form my cultural identity. It is a space of juxtaposed ideas that favor dialogue and reflection. The presence of you before me is the presence of a body that recognizes another me, beyond expression and reason. I think that in contemporary society, where the distances of time and space are so relative and the connectivity between different parts of the world is as simple as opening an app on your cellphone, it is necessary to create communities that allow us to confront and understand our own identities beyond understanding what is yours and what is not.
FringeArts: Can you talk a bit about the movement? And what are the other elements you are playing with?
Robin Stamey: As primarily a designer, performing in something is a new challenge for me. It’s difficult to divest myself from my designer brain so I’m always thinking about how the lights might look for a specific moment, or what props we might use, or what we could be wearing to help us tell our stories. An element that is sticking out for possible inclusion in Whatshername are wigs. For so many women, a relationship to one’s hair is something that is struggled with throughout one’s life. What does it mean to have hair that isn’t yours? What if your relationship to your hair was unexpected or changed midway through your life? How do you think about, talk about, and alter—or not—your body hair? For Desert, I want us to look at what exactly the door in the desert is. Is it wide open? Can you see through the other side? Do you have to unlock it before going through? Is it even important to go through, or is one side of the door fine for now? Do we need a door onstage to share these experiences?
Emmanuel Becerra: Talking about movement there is not much to say, Almanac is a company who play with circus, theater, and dance skills. Right now we have been working and exploring our physical skills to create a sensitive, fun, and intelligent piece. I can say that I am deeply interested in have some kind of space intervention that allows the audience active participation in the piece. The relationship with the audience is important to me, I want them to experience the piece from the moment they come into the building.
Ben Grinberg: For the first time, we have all ten Almanac company members plus Emmanuel working on these projects. So the possibilities of what we are able to do choreographically and circus-wise are greatly expanded from our previous major projects, which have had four or five bodies on stage at once. In working on Homage, we are using circus sequences to expose the natural differences between feminine and masculine energies—maybe they are universal, maybe they are particular to the groups of specific individuals. For example, when Cole, Robin, and Lauren pass Evelyn between them in a ball, there is a beautiful sense of tenderness, care, and connection; but when Joe and Emmanuel and I take turns jumping up and flipping downwards off each other, there is a sharpness about what we do, and a quality like we are all waiting our “turn” to get to be the one in the air. For Door, we are creating abstract shapes that have symbolic significance—a human wall, a human door—but we are also exploring some movement scores that are pretty brain-melty: simple rules like “you can only speak when you move, you can only move when you speak” that contain paradoxes and force you to censor your inner self way less and to perceive the world in an altered way. For both pieces we are playing a lot with clothes, wigs, and other markers of identity, and circus mats because they are big walls that you can safely crush people with.
FringeArts: What do you anticipate you will be working on most in fine-tuning the two works?
Robin Stamey: Personally, I’ll be working on fine-tuning the acrobatics. I’m not the traditional body type that one may think of when they think of a circus performer, but the challenge of precisely nailing a virtuosic acrobatic move is completely foreign to my body. Until now.
Ben Grinberg How many bread crumbs to leave. Especially in works that have political content in them, it’s important not to be too didactic. At that same time, both of these works are abstract, and we don’t want to baffle.
Evalyn Langley: I think it will be, what’s is the difference between the two pieces? Because even though they both have already specific themes and we know the conceptual difference, they still have been part of the same general idea and have more or less the same company members.
Thanks Almanac! For more information/to get tickets, visit FringeArts.com.
Interview by Josh McIlvain.