Happy Hour on the Fringe: OhOk Performance Group
April Rose: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m April Rose, the Independent Artist Programs Manager here at FringeArts, and today we invite you to join us in a happy hour conversation with Fringe Festival independent artists Whitney Casal and Britt Davis. You may remember OhOk Performance Group from their Fringe Festival piece Do mirrors burn? This performance is free to view and still available to watch online now. We’ll go ahead and make sure that the link is available in the podcast description to view that piece. Hello, Whitney and Britt, how are you?
Whitney & Britt: Hello!
April: So where are you coming from today? Where are you in the world?
Britt: We are currently based in Berlin, Germany.
April: Awesome! Well, how are you both doing today?
Whitney: Holding up. Doing pretty well.
Britt: Yeah, we’re doing alright. Still in lockdown, but we’re doing alright, yeah.
April: Well thank you so much for being here from so very very far away. I mean, we always have to be at a distance, but you’re even more at a distance than a lot of the artists I’m talking to. So let’s start off: can you tell us a little bit about OhOk and your relationship, your collaboration, and specifically where did this name come from?
Whitney: Yeah, absolutely! So it’s kind of connected to our personal relationship, our friendship; Britt and I met in 2011 when we went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and we studied together there for four years, and then we went apart for a few years and eventually came back together. And, with both of us living in Berlin, we knew we wanted to take the opportunity to really start working and creating together, so we had the impulse to start choreographing and we envisioned this collaborative performance group where we would also bring in other artists to work with all kinds of mediums. So it’s a very new endeavor, but we just sort of began at the end of 2019.
Britt: Exactly, right before the world ended.
April: When everything happened.
Whitney: And, well, the name is sort of a funny story.
Britt: Yeah, you know, we were trying to figure out exactly what we wanted to call ourselves because we didn’t want it to be like ‘The Britt & Whit Club’. We wanted it to be something that was very collaborative and influential that wasn’t just about us. And so, by nature, we’re both very sarcastic individuals, and our friendship is the basis of everything that we’ve done professionally, and so oftentimes we find ourselves looking at each other in a joke and…“Huh, okay! Ooh, okay! Alright,” you know, just responding to things, and then it just became this kind of catchphrase that ended up working for us and, yeah, we stuck with it.
Whitney: And usually it’s a pretty positive sense, you know, like when we see things we really love it’s like-
Britt: “Oh, okay!”
Whitney: “Oh, okay!”
April: Gotcha. Well, okay, so you let us know how you met and how you started. Can you maybe speak a little bit to the—and you collaborate with artists of different mediums—of the mission of your work?
Whitney: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, both of us are Americans living abroad, and we really want to bring this aspect into our work in terms of, you know, we’re creating in Germany and because we live here now, but Berlin itself is also a very international city and we still feel quite tied to the cities that we’ve lived or worked in in the States. So this idea of collaboration comes from our own passion for travel and for international exchange, but I would say the basis of our group is really founded on this idea of equal collaboration.
Britt: Correct. Absolutely, and bringing in anyone else’s past experiences or influences to the space and allowing them to exchange it with us in a, yeah, collaborative sense.
April: Awesome. Yeah, that’s great. I mean it’s a interesting time to start a collaborative venture. I’m sure that that’s something that’s influenced the work a lot. Can we talk a little bit about Do mirrors burn? So you have this description of the piece that’s still available on our website, and you ask these questions: “What does it mean to create and, even more, to coexist with someone who knows you so well? They could be your mirror image. What happens when another person enters the dynamic, and how does that reflection carry when left alone?” This is, like, something that definitely speaks to to people during this time, and I know that a lot of people had a very probably emotional reaction to this piece during the Fringe Festival, which was our first, obviously, ever done in a pandemic and when we all had to isolate in our houses. So can you just talk a little bit about the background of the piece?
Britt: Absolutely. So, as we said, our company began in 2019, and that’s also when we began working on this piece together intentionally and just making it this 15-minute duet that was to be performed live—actually, with a totally different drummer. And as the piece was evolving we were coming up with this theme of duality of mirror image of self and other, and throughout the pandemic that was challenged…for everyone, this idea of isolation, of self-reflection, as well as reaching out to others in this time of utter loneliness and checking in with yourself and checking in with them at the same time. And so, yeah, this piece originally was supposed to be, like I said, live performance with the drummer. And we were invited to Soundance Festival here in Berlin in June of 2020 which, obviously, was still the pandemic time, so they actually funded us to turn it into this film that you guys now saw in the Fringe Festival. If you look close enough you actually see, in the film, that we had to follow some very strict pandemic guidelines of not touching, and in the original duet we have a lot of very very intimate partner work that was stripped away because we ended up filming it as two separate solos.
April: Yeah, watching the piece you might not know that for a little bit. It took me a while watching it to realize that you weren’t sharing space in it because it looks so very reliant on each other, and the way that you’re sort of…I want to say ‘communicating’ with each other is so…it’s so surprising when it overlaps and you realize, like, “Oh, they’re not touching. Like, they’re not in the same space at the same time,” which is, you know, very appropriate.
Britt: I think it really speaks for the time that the piece transitioned into, with the pandemic and how even though…I mean, Whit and I lived ten minutes down the street from each other but didn’t see each other for eight weeks, until we took walks and waved from a balcony. And it’s this isolating feeling, yes, but still at no point in time did I not feel that she wasn’t with me-
Britt: –as my friend, and so this piece really spoke to that in the film version.
Whitney: Yeah, because the circumstances were changed in such a short amount of time, we were really forced to get creative and adapt to the situation. So we had never imagined this as a video project as dance for film, and because they changed the the platform to be digital, of course, we wanted to adapt as well, but it provided some challenges for us in our physical partnering and also with the musician; you know, we had to seek a Berlin-based drummer. Previously, we were working with Britt’s brother Ryan Davis, who’s based in Virginia, so we kind of used his score as a map that we had previously come up with and then, yeah, David really produced this entire solo in a very short amount of time in an incredible way.
Britt: Bless him. He never even saw us dance the piece physically. He only saw it on video.
Britt: As he made the score.
April: Oh, okay. I was going to ask, like, how it was done technically. You don’t have to give up too many secrets, but what the filming process was like?
Britt: An obstacle course.
Whitney: Yeah, some rehearsing outside, which was quite challenging.
Britt: After being in your kitchen for months, or what felt like months.
Whitney: Yeah, lots of exchanging files, digitally, and just a lot of back and forth and a lot of communication to say, “Oh, let’s tweak this this way, or maybe we can make it work this way.” But it did still somehow feel very collaborative in the sense that we were all committed to making it work and making something out of it, you know, especially in a time where art-making was being really challenged, and we weren’t sure how we were going to move forward with that.
Whitney: So I think having that as the base was sort of inspiring enough even though it was so difficult.
April: Right right. I want to ask about the future of the piece; obviously it exists for us to keep watching, but do you imagine that there’s a post-covid future that you’re exploring with this one?
Britt: Absolutely. I’m really happy you’re asking about this because we’ve recently been actually talking about how we’re going to progress with this piece. As you saw, it was two dancers and one musician, and we plan on actually expanding it to be two more sections featuring, every time, two additional dancers and one additional musician. So we have our collaborators here in Berlin that we are hoping to continue to work with, or at least get started working with, post-lockdown; we have one cellist, a pianist, as well as two Berlin-based dancers and two international dancers that we are hoping to collaborate with in the coming years and expand on this piece and see what expands with it, with the theme of duality and self and other in a larger setting and a larger group.
April: Yeah, and it’ll be very interesting to see, like, this is a developmental part of the history of the piece, so I imagine, even post-pandemic, this whole experience will probably influence…wherever it ends up, it’ll be such a huge part of it and it’s history.
Whitney: For sure.
April: So I want to ask a little bit about your other work outside of this piece; how the pandemic and the isolation has affected your creative process in both technical and just, like, your creative thought process sort of way.
Whitney: Yeah, I think it’s been a challenge for us all, in some ways really difficult and in some ways, like I sort of mentioned before, forcing us to get creative, right, and find other alternatives. So, you know, you said in the beginning, like, wow, it’s amazing that we’re speaking from so far apart; and this is something I’ve really enjoyed during this time is being able to connect internationally much more accessibly with people, you know, seeing work that’s happening, seeing what experiences other people, other artists, are having, you know, in the States and in other places in the world. I feel like I’ve had more input available in that sense, and so the international scale is revealing itself in a different way and that’s in some ways pretty inspiring as well.
Britt: Yeah, definitely to echo that, it has been so exciting to be able to expand on our work and connect with other international dancers in this time. For us as a company, like, we started in 2019, so we spent all of 2020 trying to produce this duet and put it on stage, and we finally put it on stage the weekend before we went into the second lockdown here in Germany; and so our other work sadly doesn’t exist so much outside of this piece. Before producing this piece we made a dance film that we connected with 18 other dancers, throughout the U.S. and throughout Europe, and created a small film of 10-second dances that linked one into the other that we called Co-. So this was actually our very first piece that we produced and we produced in the very first two or three weeks of the pandemic, just via email, connecting with high school friends or, you know, friends that we met at ImPulsTanz or friends that we have here in Berlin, wherever it is across the world, and that was such a riveting moment in that first lockdown, where we’re questioning what is a pandemic and how do we move forward, and this was such a beautiful moment to to connect with people and to make art in an accessible way.
April: Right. It seems like you’ve made, you know, lemonade out of out of lemons with the pandemic and this work, but can I ask what you’re looking forward to, post-pandemic, in terms of the performance community and your own work?
Whitney: So much. I mean, just dancing in person. Because dance is such a, you know, it’s such a visceral, embodied art form—adapting it digitally is wonderful, and I think it is also interesting and valuable—but the experience of doing and watching live dance is unparalleled.
Britt: Exactly. I’m looking forward to not only being on stage but sitting in a theater again and being in a classroom and getting sweaty and feeling those beautiful feelings again of, you know, why we got started in dance and why we persevered. It’s really difficult in this time, as an artist, to remind yourself constantly of what that used to feel like. And I’m just looking forward to the simple things; I’m looking forward to getting back into a class that’s not in my living room.
Britt: You know, things like this, and just being back with the community.
April: Have you seen anything that’s been really inspiring or really outside of the box stuff that was produced in the past year that’s been exciting for you?
Britt: If I can be quite frank, I’ve had a hard time looking at dance lately, because I know what it feels like and what it looks like and how its fullest potential is, and I have a really difficult time watching dance lately.
Britt: So, sadly, I haven’t seen so much. I’ve seen a lot on Instagram, and I’m really inspired by what people are coming up with creatively through that platform, but as far as watching live stream dance goes, I’ve had a difficult time pulling myself through to do that.
Whitney: From my perspective, I’ve seen a few new works but, actually, what I’ve noticed most is a lot of, especially companies, releasing old works, even from the 90s, you know, really archive stuff that is either really well known or maybe was really revered in the time. And this has been really interesting for me to engage with, because some of these things are pieces that I’ve learned about historically or that I’ve, you know, read about but never actually seen because they weren’t available, or I’ve seen them in parts of them in some context and then seeing the full piece as a whole is, like, a totally different experience. So that’s been really interesting for me is kind of this reflection from past into present and then wondering how that might even influence our future.
Britt: That’s so nice. I never thought about that.
April: Yeah. I guess there’s a lot that we’re looking forward to and a lot of, like, going back to the way things used to be. Are there some things that you hope we’ve sort of learned in this time that we take into our practice in the future? I mean, you’ve spoken a little bit about it, but is there something that’s, like, the one thing you took away from the pandemic creation experience that you would bring into your practice?
Whitney: I mean, there’s so much. I think more on, like, a social level.
Britt: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not necessarily about our practice but more about the community and the dance world.
Whitney: Just noticing kind of the structures that exist and that aren’t working, especially as a working performer or as a freelance dancer, and acknowledging that a lot of systems kind of need to be undone or revisited or reimagined. And not to say that we have really clear ideas about that; that is something we strive for also in our partnership and our company is to approach work in a very supportive way for all the people involved.
Whitney: And so, yeah, maybe less of a creative but more of, like, a socially conscious note.
April: Awesome. Well, so you are both currently based in Berlin but you attended the University of the Arts, so you have a history here in Philly. Can you tell us a little bit about your history with the Fringe Festival and participating in the Fringe Festival?
Whitney: Yeah, of course. So when we were in undergrad we saw many performances and shows through Fringe.
Britt: Oh yeah, that’s how I got hooked on [inaudible, courtesy of laughter and fun fun times].
Whitney: Definitely a staple in our viewing experience as an audience member. But when we graduated, I was still living in Philadelphia and working, as well as a freelance dancer there among other things. But, you know, having seen some friends and teachers produce through the Fringe Festival, it seemed like a really wonderful platform to launch something myself. And so my collaborator Ella Cuda and I, we produced shows in the 2016 & 2017 Fringe Festivals and had some live performances there, and it was just a really wonderful experience in terms of, again, connecting with the community locally there, sort of expanding our creative ideas, and learning how to produce a show. I mean, that’s really a skill set that you don’t really know how to do until you do it, and it was quite an experience. And so also bringing those experiences, you know, to our collaboration in OhOk.
Britt: For sure. For me, I was never a part of Philly Fringe because I left Philadelphia right after graduation to move to Germany, and so this was such a nice link to home, a nice emotional bridge that kind of helped my homesick heart heal a little bit. And so it was just so nice to be reminded of Philly again. And, you know, who knows that we might be able to one day actually perform this piece live for you guys in the future of the Fringe Festival in Philadelphia, because we do have a piece of our heart still left there.
April: Right. Not that there’s ever like a “We were lucky this year,” kind of thing, but I feel like a lot of artists would not have been able to participate in this past year’s Fringe had it not been for the circumstances that forced them to create something that, you know, they would never create. So I’m at least glad that we’ve had access to this work, though the circumstances around the reasoning that we have access to it is obviously not not ideal, but it’s sort of the story that’s come up a couple times this year with artists that are, you know, participating across the world.
Britt: Exactly. I mean, it was a treat for us to be able to be a part of the Fringe Festival and, sadly, if it wasn’t for the pandemic there’s probably no way we would have been able to make it through. But yeah, in a way it was a little bit of a light in the dark tunnel.
April: Well that’s good to know. That’s a good quote for last year’s Fringe Festival: a light in the dark tunnel. So I know this is sort of a dreaded question, and I asked what you were looking forward to, but can I ask what you’re working on right now? And you are free to pass on it because, you know, artists hate getting that question.What are you working on? What’s next? Britt: Actually, Whit and I sat together on New Year’s and had this conversation of, you know, what do we want to do this year, as a company, like, what’s our goal for 2021 and what do we want to leave behind in 2020? And as I mentioned earlier, we started working on this duet in 2019 and practically spent all of 2020 trying to put it on stage. We had our show cancelled twice due to the pandemic, and it finally went on in October, and so by the time November came around we were wiped. We were so tired of trying to produce this show from scratch in these really really tight restrictions that we put on. And so we decided that this year, whatever the conditions were to be, however long we were to be on lockdown, we wanted to get in a studio and have fun and remind ourselves of, you know, the enjoying feeling of being together in the studio and just let whatever comes come and practice the small, detailed, improvisational tasks and not worry about actually ‘making’ right now and go back to producing when the world opens up again.
Whitney: I think there’s also quite a focus on our personal practices and, you know, what we bring as individuals when we come together, and so both of us are kind of like really deep in some personal practices, exploring that. And, yeah, I’m curious to see how they sort of begin to influence one another-
Whitney: -and grow.
April: Great. Thank you for letting us know. So I have a sort of a silly final question here: so since this is Happy Hour on the Fringe, historically we’ve said, “What are you drinking?” But we are obviously in very different time zones and not sharing a drink together, but-
Britt: We thought about having one!
Britt & Whit: It’s like 7:30 here!
April: Oh right! I’m like on an afternoon in the middle of my work day, so you guys are in a different place, but if you had to come up with a drink, a cocktail, a mocktail that encapsulates the spirit of your work, what would you say it is?
Britt: I mean…
Whitney: It’s a difficult question, you know. I would say either an old fashioned or a dirty martini.
Britt: Yeah, we’ve kind of gotten into dirty martinis this year just out of, like, we need something strong…
Whitney: We always like a little pizzazz.
Whitney: Yeah, but our drink of choice from when we were exploring the bars for the first time, as 21-year-olds in Philadelphia, is definitely an old fashioned, so we like to go back to our roots but also we’re enjoying dirty martinis these days.
April: Great! Well awesome. Thanks so much. Well thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and download the FringeArts app. Thanks again to our guests, Britt Davis and Whitney Casal. You can find out more about OhOk Performance Group and watch some of their work by visiting whitneycasal.com/ohok. You can find the company on Instagram @oh.ok.performance, and Whitney’s Instagram is @whitneycasal and Britt’s is @brittdavisdance.