What Remains Post-Show Talk

Artists Leslie Cuyjet, Jess Pretty, Tara Aisha Willis, and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste join choreographer Will Rawls and Manilow Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith for a post-performance discussion of What Remains. What Remains is a collaborative live performance that addresses the erasure and exposure that drive the historical murder and disturbance of black citizens. This event was filmed in the MCA Warehouse on Dec 7, 2018.

Naomi Beckwith:Thank you so much for staying this evening. I am Naomi Beckwith. I’m the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. And I am so excited to be on stage with Will Rawls, the incredible Will Rawls. And I have to say two things upfront. One, sitting here chatting with him, waiting for everyone to come out, welcome everyone [applause]. Sitting, murmuring on stage waiting for everyone to come out was like a continuation of the performance. But I also want to start first by saying congratulations to Will, to the company for a completely sold out run here at the MCA [applause]. Clearly, you have done something compelling and utterly important right now, and it’s absolutely a testament to your work that we have you here.

Thank you, Tara, for bringing him to us. And we’re going to have a short conversation up here, and we really want to leave it as an opportunity for you all to ask questions. This is probably the fullest Q&A or after-performance talk I’ve ever seen, so I think there’s a lot of curious people in this audience. So just to dive right in, I’m going to ask a really silly question, and that is what was this? We bought tickets to a dance performance tonight, Will, and I’m seeing something that is––the shade, the shade. It’s true. I’m seeing something that far exceeds my expectations for dance. What was this that you were devising for us this evening?

Will Rawls:Well also, I just want to say thank you to the performers for all their work on this project. Thank you, MCA, for having us here. What was it? I don’t know. It’s different every night, so in that sense, it’s always changing, and the performers are always working with it and reworking it each time we approach it. But because I was paired with Claudia Rankine, whose medium is words and mine is dance, there are ways in which those two things go together and there are ways in which those two things make each other fall apart. So I wanted to really create a work that made space for both of those processes to happen throughout a performance.

And I have a history as a writer and I’m––sung a lot and acted, although that’s a long dead part of my career. But I think dance is all the systems of the body working at once, so the voice and limbs and head and the brain and cognition and problem-solving. And all of that is the ingredients for dance. And so I wanted to construct something where you get to witness these four beautiful black performers really contending with these questions and these manifestations and problem-solving in real time.

Naomi Beckwith:And in many ways it expands this idea of dance. Because as you say, it’s not just a sort of vocabulary that we expect to see on the stage. They’re doing all this kind of, what would you call it, social movement is the word we use now. Things we do in the club, in the house with family, as much as it is this kind of virtuosic movement that we expect from dance.

Will Rawls:I think it’s important to have all of those vocabularies present. They’re all things that are dear to me, and I feel like all of them have multiple physical voices inside.

Naomi Beckwith:It’s like being multilingual. Why Claudia Rankine? Why her words?

Will Rawls:Well originally the piece started as a kind of blind date. So we were set up to work on a project where she wanted to work with a choreographer. So she pulled me in, and then I don’t know, I mean why not? I think she is one of the most important exciting voices now, and I feel like a lot of the ways in which her work is investigating questions around aggression and microaggression and just like the existential life of a black body in the United States are compelling to me but manifest very differently in my work.

And so we met on that level, and yeah. That’s why.

Naomi Beckwith:That’s really nice. There’s something very interior about the way she writes. How she can talk about what’s happening to you in the world, but also what’s happening in your head at the same time you’re moving through the world. But you also seem to be choosing very particular text and situating the texts in a way that starts setting up these dichotomies that are very clear on the stage between life and death, the human and the inhuman, between sort of play and even trauma.

And I mean this isn’t really a question, but I should say there are certain things you pulled out of Rankine’s work for this.

Will Rawls:Certainly. I think that her words arise out of decades of meditating and thinking and living and experiencing things and trying to find the precise way to manifest those in language, and I was interested much more in the kind of murky underside of that, which is just as present when I’m reading her work as the clarity––the clear bell ringing of a revelation I have on every page. I don’t know, I think life is more gray area than black and white, so I think for me, a lot of my work is kind of reaching for that, kind of gesturing towards and moving towards these things.

And so life and death, humor and sadness feel crucial to be present all the same time. You know, in the work. Yeah. I just want to introduce the performers really quickly. Maybe you can just introduce yourselves.

Jess Pretty:I’m Jess Pretty.

Tara Willis:Tara Willis.

Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste:Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste.

Leslie Cuyjet:And Leslie Cuyjet.

Naomi Beckwith:And now that we’ve introduced the performers, I’d love to turn a question to you all, which is one of the things that impresses me about watching this work is it seems that you seem to be performing for each other as much as you are for the audience. There are almost secrets between you happening that we aren’t privy to as the audience as well, and I’d just love for you to walk us a little bit through some of that process of working with each other, and even kind of turning into each other every once in a while.

Jess Pretty:Well a lot of the work is built in us creating a specific world that is set up by Will’s direction, obviously, but in terms of us, it thrives when we’re really internal, like internal, and when we can really be confident and let go of the––just let go and like keep the inside jokes, keep the secrets because that’s when we’re loose. You’re most comfortable in your home. So in a lot of ways, we’re creating a like home base, sort of comfort space so that we can fully exist within the work in a specific way. And luck––I mean there’s always a lot of laughs and jokes amidst the heavy work that we’re talking about, discussing, doing, existing as black bodies.

So to find ways to like insert joke here, insert joke here, and not shut that up, but have that be a part of the space is––feels really important, especially because our insideness and connection to each other is recognizable for people who look at us. Like I know that connection, I know that thing. But I mean yeah, the work could happen whether the audience is here or not, and it does happen, which feels really important. I don’t have much to say after that.

Leslie Cuyjet:I just wanted to add that I think some of that feeling of secrecy is important to leave space for the viewer and leave space for the viewer to insert themselves and their experiences and their understanding of what’s happening with us so we leave space for that, and it’s new every time. Sometimes it’s really tight, and sometimes it’s really loose.

Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste:Yeah, I guess I feel like, it feels for me less as though we’ve cultivated this set of secrets and in-jokes as opposed to like an edifice. This really, really complex system of practices, beliefs, structures, and behaviors that isn’t necessarily about us being privy to one another exclusively, but it brings up questions of legibility and who gets to look in and who gets to look in and see and have some inkling. Maybe not know everything because I don’t think we even know everything, and that’s a sort of beautiful thing. There’s a lot of space––discovery, space for discovery, space to take risk without value, and that just allows for a sort of generosity and graciousness where some things may feel like an inside joke, but it may just be some absurd thing that we have the space to just go there and just like be weird and not have to worry about consequence.

So it––trust is a word I keep coming back to. Trust from the folks who––from Claudia who allowed us to just make a total beautiful mess of her language. Trust from Will in setting this up and saying this thing is of ya’ll and trust for one another and trust from and for everyone in this space. So I don’t know. I––yeah.

Tara Willis:I think part of the dynamic happening on stage is what you all are describing, this group dynamic, and part of the weirdness that we’re allowed to have and the sort of set of inside jokes and all of that, part of that is also the differences between us. There’s things we have in common that we can kind of reference that some people in the audience know the reference to, and we all know the reference, and that is something about our overlapping upbringing or sort of cultural context, but then there’s also things we each are bringing that are really different because we’ve each had really different upbringings and cultural context that we’ve lived inside of.

I feel like we have an inside joke that Tara doesn’t get it. Tara doesn’t know the reference, is one of our inside jokes. Is that an inside joke, I don’t know. And so there’s that, and then the other thing I wanted to say is the––what you said about the space we’re creating as a group is also a literal space I think. One thing that really helps me when we’re preparing to have an audience come in to see this performance is for us to make sure we’re in a place as a group––we do a lot of personal warming up by ourselves with headphones on and stuff because we have to get our musical references in our heads and get in the mood or whatever.

But to make sure we have a moment of togetherness because we’re traveling this piece to different literal spaces, and this space, the warehouse, is such a specific space, and we haven’t done it in a space quite like this before. And so each––the two other venues we’ve done fully produced versions of it in have been very different from each other as well. So it’s really like we’re inviting you all into this place––this world we’re making together, and it’s very easy to be sort of influenced by the space, which is a good thing, and also it’s sort of fodder for what we can then do inside of it. But within that, we really have to create our cohesive group dynamic that can translate anywhere.

Naomi Beckwith:What you all are talking about, too, is what it means to build a culture. Even if it’s just in that moment of the performance. And one of the things I think I enjoyed the most about watching this, and again, this may be more of a statement toward anyone than a question, and that is so much of the language and even the movement in the work seems to either evolve out of something that feels nonsensical or devolve into something that’s nonsensical. And I think it’s brilliant the way that you can sort of move in and out of those spaces.

And the same way the audience may be able to follow you through some things that even though they may be legible to you, they may not be legible to someone watching or to Tara or whomever, and that’s a big statement about culture and how culture can translate really.

Will Rawls:Yeah, I think one of the beautiful things about culture is when there’s something that’s like utterly surprising or strange or kind of pops you out of deeply unfamiliar––you know, that time you take to really try and understand it or relate to it or build some kind of relationship to it. I think they’re doing that for each other inside of it, and I’m interested in that kind of process for the audience as well. And sometimes things don’t translate. That’s also very interesting to me as an experience to share publicly.

Jess Pretty:I think what’s cool though is not stopping at the things that do translate. Oh, this works, let’s just stick with it. Because that’s not really interesting. Oh, I mean that’s why dance is this ephemeral thing. It’s really great and it’s fleeting, but the true like fun for me but also what keeps it interesting is it’s always this curiosity of what else can we get out of it. How else can I push this thing, or can I start this in a different direction or from a different thing, or can I say it––use this reference. What else can we––not stop at just what works, but also when things fall flat, it’s like huh, learn that lesson. But to go there is what’s really important.

Naomi Beckwith:Right, and to get good and dead by the time you’re done. I’m going to open it up to the audience soon, but I just had one more question before we do that. That is the costumes. We must talk about the costumes. They’re amazing. Absolutely amazing. What was the inspiration behind those forms?

Will Rawls:That evolved out of an interesting conversation with Claudia. We were thinking a lot about mortality and death and life under threat and the beautiful productivity that exists under that. And we’re also seeing all these people being mowed down in our media. So we’re looking at body bags actually as a kind of awful horrific kind of ever-presence, and so in part there was like what is it about this material, this black material that can billow around them and kind of encase them and obscure their bodies and abstract their bodies, the ways in which bodies become abstract in the media to dangerous effect.

But also to be responsive to their kinetics. So there’s that sense of life and movement and breath and voice that’s also shaping this thing that contains them. Yeah. And so Eleanor O’Connell, our costume designer, just killed it. I mean I don’t––I always see new angles in the way that they move every time I watch the show because they’re all so busy digging in themselves inside of those so that there’s a really––the costume gets discovered each time.

Naomi Beckwith:I’m sure there are questions, and there is a microphone floating around. There we are, Laura, over there on the side. When we call on you, we just ask that you wait for the microphone to come to you, and we have one up there Laura, because we’re taping this evening and we want to make sure we get everything recorded. All right?

Audience:How and why did you end up performing in this space versus the MCA stage?

Tara Willis:Hi, I’ll answer that because I did it. I’m secretly also Associate Curator of Performance for the MCA. So––it’s in the program, you all. I thought a lot about bringing this show and––at the point when I started to think about bringing it when I started working at the MCA. It was––we had only done one version of it, and that was back in Spring 2016, and it was done at the Fisher Center at Bard College, which is a state-of-the-art Frank Gehry fancy swirly building with––oh. Okay. No, I’m good. All right. With you know, like four different beautiful state-of-the-art theaters of different sizes and types and all that.

Will chose to do it in the set storage closet, so we were in a cinderblock two-story room with a garage door on it, and it was very––it was a very different shape than this, very high rather than wide, and then in September we just performed it in New York at dance based project, which is inside of St. Mark’s Church, so that’s another two- or three-story vaulted ceiling space with columns and all that. So two really different spaces.

And as I was thinking about the MCA stage and talking to Will, it became really clear that doing it in a traditional theatrical space could be done, but if we really wanted to both grow the piece at this sort of early stage we’re at and also grow the way that the MCA is doing performance at the same time, this was the space. So the MCA has had this property and stores much of its art here and has done so for a minute, but we’ve never really done a public-facing program.

And so for me as a curator, it was also about really thinking about how the presence of this piece can arrive in Chicago and also be a force that stretches the MCA. So having the train going past and the skyline and thinking about the landscape of Chicago and the Midwest and the sort of sprawl and also the racial segregation that’s underneath this city’s geography and very embedded in it, this seemed like a space that made a lot of sense. Then we ended up changing the piece such that that sort of opening that you all experienced where we’re wandering around the space happened in a very different way in our last show.

But that was new, and it actually has only––the piece I think has grown because of this space in ways I couldn’t have even anticipated, and that’s sort of the beauty of taking a risk with both performance and curating performance. So I’ll leave it at that.

Naomi Beckwith:We have questions.

Audience:Thank you all for sharing this piece with us. It was a really cool experience for me to see, particularly when the lights changed and the outfits changed color and looked like it changed texture. I thought that was really cool. Given that considering so much of the performance is contingent upon the relationship that the four of you have with each other, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what was the criteria you were looking for, whoever the casting director is, in determining who this ensemble would be and what personality types if anything or kind of ways of thinking about what was important, to understand this work and do it well, perform it well.

Will Rawls:A piece is only as unique and deep as the people that are in it. So for me, it’s always about finding people who I think are interesting. First and foremost, people that I can talk to, people that will challenge me, and because I try and construct situations that give them a lot of agency and a lot of responsibility and accountability to each other in real time in front of the public. So I want to make sure that everyone has the capacity to take that leap of faith. Tara, I’ve known since you were at Barnard? A long time, eight years or so.

Tara Willis:Probably since––yeah, eight years I’d say. Right after I graduated.

Will Rawls:And then Jeremy’s work I saw, Jeremy is a brilliant sound designer and composer who I saw one thing from and was like, “Please, work with me. Come here.” And Leslie I’ve also known for a really long time, and Jess I hired over the phone. We had a conversation, I was like, “You’ve got the job.” I don’t know, so it was a very mixed process, but one that was led by intuition and less about sort of a mold I wanted people to fit into. That’s the last thing that shows up is the mold for me. And I wanted to really explore––I wanted there to be a majority women––women-identified performers onstage because Claudia is a woman writer.

It felt important to me to kind of explore my imagination of her voice through these figures or sort of hand over her language to them. And try to create a situation that felt ethical in terms of presenting black women’s bodies on stage and give them the kind of opportunity to discover themselves or hide, play, whatever that felt productive to them. It’s been a long ethical journey, just like the piece.

Naomi Beckwith:I just wanted to pause and add something because I do want to underscore something you said, which was you didn’t have a mold that you wanted to put someone into, but that you worked through intuition, you worked through relationships. So much of dance historically has been about that mold, and so I just want to point out and really acknowledge how important it is that sort of shift in thinking that you’re engendering for the dance world, and how important it is especially for what we consider these non-traditional bodies in the dance world, so thank you for making space for black women and people who identify as people of color and women to do this sort of work [applause].

We want to come around to this side.

Audience:So there was a lot of toning throughout the piece, and I really wanted to just kind of hear is that intentional, maybe as a cast, can you talk about the process of toning out loud? If you’re familiar with toning as an art.

Jess Pretty:Can you explain what you mean by toning?

Audience:So it’s like the use of your voice, and toning itself is really based in sound therapy and sound healing. So you use certain sounds to kind of move energy through your body, help [indecipherable] disease and so forth.

Naomi Beckwith:You knew it before you knew it.

Will Rawls:I’ll just say really quickly before they dive in, one of the practices that we––that I proposed and we sculpted together was how does your voice move through your body, how can the shape of your body affect the sound of your voice and vice versa, how can you initiate your movement from what your voice is doing inside of your body and vice versa. I have come from many different kinds of singing traditions and Meredith Monk and all kinds of people. Those masters of the voice were definitely in my thinking and I’m sure it transmitted somehow, but what they think they’re doing is probably different.

Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste:Oh gosh. So I don’t know, I guess it’s a peculiar thing because I don’t necessarily come to sound or to that specific vocal practice through the lens of healing or an attempt at healing. I have a very different relationship with sound. So I’m thinking about how sound specifically subbase frequencies and voice have functioned historically for people of color. And towards people of color. So yeah, just getting into specific practices that do have histories and are also still contemporaneously potent felt more important.

And I think that the sound itself is sound. The healing is in the doing. No, that’s not––I don’t believe that. The healing––we’re cultivating, and the healing is in the cultivating. It’s like putting your hands in the earth to work with plants. It’s not looking at the plant that heals. It’s fucking with the earth and being with the earth and being in the thing. So I mean the very base thing is the first thing you hear when we come into the room, which is the sound of the room being amplified and turned to feedback, and then just endlessly, endlessly, endlessly, and we can get into the, I guess, semiotics of what it is to have the shit that never ends, but really the sound, it starts from a container that we then get to be in and like live in and thrive in and ride in and do all of this amazing stuff. And in that amazing stuff, what happens to us, I think that’s the healing. I’ll leave it there.

Audience:Thank you all, that was beautiful. And thank you for the sound. That was really beautiful. I want to go back to something you said earlier, Will, about it just being important to have black women be the majority of the cast. And it feels like to me, it feels––it felt like it was more than just that it be black women. It felt like this piece is really manifesting black femininity and black feminism too at times throughout, and I was just wanting to hear you talk a little more about that for you as a maker and a director. Just like thinking about choreography is this cool thing where you get to have an idea and then see it on other peoples’ bodies.

So what does this black feminist manifestation do for you or what information does it give you about yourself or your work or your life?

Will Rawls:I have two sisters, I’ll start there. Older and younger, so I’m kind of sandwiched in between them, and for different reasons I feel like they kind of trained me. Also having studied in the forms of dance that really present a mold and which can feel quite violent at times and experiencing that both in the multitude of women around me who are dancing and then in my own body, it took a long time to kind of break up with that idea and really find other ways into dancing. And that came to me through feminism first, studying feminism and questions around the body and questions around bodies that don’t fit into language properly or are constantly being controlled by language.

And then through that, getting into black feminist writers and thinkers. I mean I’m not going to quote anyone, but I would say that like right now, Kara Keeling, who is someone who wrote the book The Witch’s Flight, which in particular has been a very important text for me recently. Because it talks about the fact that we all live inside of common sense, and we have these very large kind of global common senses, which like it’s like the government or my city or my block. And they’re sort of nesting like Russian dolls in a way. And there are certain kinds of common senses that we share that I try to manifest in this piece that Kara Keeling really relates to a certain kind of feminine embodiment of having some issues with just like hey, so my life story––but really trying to find other routes and avenues towards expression that challenge conventional ways of consuming another person. And in that book in particular, which is an amazing book and everyone should read it, she really talks about the black butch femme as the kind of central figure that structures all of our understanding of what common sense is.

Because this figure is someone who is constantly falling outside of the norms and––or the norms that are presented as norms. So that. And then I think how feminism exists for everyone is as different as how being black does, as being a dancer––there are so many ways in which that genre splinters across all these performers. I’d say we’re all thinking in terms of feminism. So yeah, and then I don’t know. I think of my––because I have two sisters, I’m as much a sister as a brother, so I think growing up with two black women, I feel myself trying to insert myself into that sisterhood every now and then and realizing that I should just hire them to do that.

And stand back and kind of participate, but not try and take over. So yeah, I think I don’t know, trying to be a feminist choreographer as a man, as a male-bodied artist is a fun complicated dance that changes every day. That’s why I choose it because it’s the most like life in my art making.

Jess Pretty:Do you mind if I add to that? I remember when you first hired us too, you were like it was––you were like, “I want to talk about blackness and tell this story of black death, which is always narrated through the black male and not the black female, and I want to tell it through black women.” This is before Jeremy was as much physically a part of the piece as he is, which is like thank God. But it was very important for Will to have these female-identified people to be telling this story because so much of blackness is told through the male body. He was like, “Let’s fuck with that heavy.”

Again, what you’re talking about, that is your reality––black femininity, and so how to do that.

Will Rawls:We’re being very thorough tonight. It’s good.

Audience:Thanks so much to all of you. I wanted to hear a little bit more about the source text in particular, if it was sourced from already existing work or whether she wrote it specifically for this piece and in dialogue with you.

And also not knowing the answer to that, throughout the piece sort of at different times I wondered if it was a more unified text that was being kind of dissipated or fragmented by the performance or if it was fragments of different pieces that were being unified by the performance. Whichever one of those is true, if one of them is, what that––how that logic played into your work. Thanks.

Will Rawls:Yeah, the script––we have a script, and there are excerpts from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which is a book by Claudia, and then we have some excerpts from Citizen still, but––right? Vestige––no, that’s actually––but we have excerpts from those two books. Claudia wrote a few new stanzas also for the project. What was interesting was the version that we did in 2017 had way more like monologues and texts, and she actually removed 85% of the text after that kind of soft premiere. So it also left this kind of really amazing void for us to really go there and do the work of what used to be here and try and generate something out of that.

And then together Claudia and I wrote some stanzas which are words that have been broken up in to their syllables. So a lot of those sort of starting where––and those stanzas exist along the backbone of the structure of the piece, so they kind of resurge as these refrains that are already kind of broken apart. So when they appear, they’re not a whole, or they are a whole, they’re a kind of whole in the work. And then on top of that, we––all of those texts are being approached by them each night using these kind of practices we developed around repetition and once you skip a beat when you’re saying something, can you add that, those sorts of things. Yeah.

Naomi Beckwith:I think we have time for one more question, and we have one here in the front.

Audience:So there were so many parts of this piece that although they were maybe abstract or devised, it felt as though these are feelings, moods, colors, instances of breakdown and rebuild that as a black woman, I know people and I myself wake up and endure throughout the entire day. This felt like the inside of a black brain. And I wanted to know in terms of intentionality and so many of the theories that go into this work where did choreography begin and end, and where did the division really begin in terms of improving and free flowing with it?

Will Rawls:You have an answer, Jess Pretty? Take us to church.

Jess Pretty:You know the answer. No. It’s fascinating how like thin––you know when you’re in biology in high school and had to put the jawn in the clear thing with the microscope––it’s that thin, the layer between choreography and improvisation. So it’s like Jawn, J-A-W-N.

Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste:It’s a Philly thing. Somebody knows.

Jess Pretty:There’s different––people get references.

Will Rawls:I don’t get it.

Jess Pretty:It’s very like fine, it’s a fine line between what is choreography and what is improvisation. Also what I was saying earlier about pushing how to get into something where something can take you, that different asking that question every time to find a different answer to it then becomes a kind of like improvisation and choreography, but it’s––there are things that are set that happen. But the way they happen are different every time from a run earlier before the show to right now, and so it’s very––there’s a lot of Will uses the word “play” for how we move throughout this space and throughout the work.

But the line between choreography and improve, it’s just like they’re tussling around in the sheets. You don’t know where one ends, one begins.

Will Rawls:Yeah. I mean but I think also just to add to that, I think improvisation is a form of choreography. It’s just happening in a different kind of temporality. There are things we set months ago that are here and things that just were born tonight. I like to use the word flow because that’s life. I think choreography can be so much about rules and protocol and you need a certain kind of scaffolding to hold a group of people together. Like even anarchy is really organized. And repeats itself, but yes, then the dancing is also the thing that can rupture the structure and take it somewhere else and then rebuild it when it’s ready. We like that sense of possibility.

Naomi Beckwith:I think that’s exactly where we’re going to end with a sense of possibility. I thank you all again and congratulate you all on a beautiful, beautiful performance. Thank you of course to our interpreters.

Will Rawls:Veramarie and Julikka joined us tonight.

[End of Audio]