Review Fix chats with Nicole Colbert and Eben Wood, who discuss their involvement in the production which will run its final performance today as part of the Take Root Festival in New York City.
About the Work:
Nicole Colbert Dance/Theatre’s where have you been, where are you going? explores the journey away from and toward home as a physical, emotional and psychological place. The piece also contends with feminist, political and social identities in relationship to “home,” in literal and metaphorical terms. Weaving together dance, theatre, music and text, the work utilizes personal narratives that are conciliatory as well as revelatory, sometimes attached to landscapes, to further explore multiple meanings and layers in our associations with home.
About Nicole Colbert:
NICOLE COLBERT (Choreographer/Director) has shown her work in NYC at venues such as BAX, Dixon Place, HERE, Mark Morris, Movement Research, The Tank, Triskelion Arts, and the 92nd St Y and in festivals such as The International Dance Festival on the Volga (Russia), The Newburgh Illuminated Festival (Newburgh, NY), and in New Orleans at the Infringe Fest, Jazz Dance Conference and the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival where she premiered Last Stop: Desire, a dance/theatre adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In June, 2017, she shared a concert at Krudttønden Theater in Copenhagen, DK with Ballet Mink and in March, 2018 at BAX in Brooklyn, NY. She is an Adjunct Professor in English at CUNY and a writer for www.offoffonline.com. She has been selected to be part of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation Observership program class of 2018-19. www.nicolecolbertdance.com.
About Eben Wood:
Eben Wood studied creative writing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry). After teaching for several years at the Athenian School, in Danville, CA, he returned to Michigan for his PhD. in English Languages and Literatures. His doctoral dissertation, “Black Abstraction: The Umbra Workshop and an African-American Avantgarde,” was completed under the supervision of Dr. Alan Wald and Dr. Marjorie Levinson. Dr. Wood attended the 2001 School in Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, where he studied globalization with Perry Anderson, and was a 2001-2002 Fellow at the Institute for the Humanities, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Since 2004 he has been a member of the English Department faculty and of the Program in Women’s Studies at Kingsborough Community College, The City University of New York.
Nicole Colbert Dance/Theatre in “Where Have You Been, Where Are You Going” will perform September 21 & 22, 2018 at Green Space, 37-24 24th St, LIC, NY as part of the Take Root Festival. For more information, visit: www.nicolecolbertdance.com
Review Fix: How did you originally get involved in this?
Nicole: I am drawn to make art that captures life experiences by exploring the psychological and emotional responses to a theme. The theme of the piece I’m currently working on is home. Eben and I began our conversation about home a few years ago and so it seemed natural for us to continue to explore the theme together creatively. The piece “where have you been, where are you going” is a culmination of two years of conversation, experimentation, and opportunities to show the work at various stages.
Eben: I got involved through conversations with Nicole, which were about narratives, or approaches to storytelling, in different genres or forms of artistic expression. I don’t know much about dance, although I have come to understand a great deal more through Nicole and through the collaborative work we’ve done over the last several years. I was working on those ideas myself as I was moving from fictional narratives to creative nonfiction, particularly a long project on my father and on the Korean War, of which my father was a veteran. That work involved a lot of difficult thinking about my own home, and homes in general, including trying to feel at home in a different kind of story than I was used to. So I was already trying to understand my own storytelling process better, and as Nicole said, it was natural to explore this theme together.
Review Fix: What was the inspiration for this project?
Nicole: Home is a complicated and complex idea and we have so many responses to the idea of home; sometimes good, sometimes bad. Home, for Eben and I, was a difficult place, so how to make sense of a place as you think it should be, or wish it to be, and how it actually was. I wanted to grapple with these dualistic ideas in this piece. This duality is also captured in stories about deportation, moving from place to place in childhood, domestic responsibilities and traveling to foreign lands and who and what you miss when far from home.
Eben: Indeed, home is a complex idea, or a complex set of relationships, both experiential (we all have our experience of home, positive and negative, as an aspect of our own history and our lives moving through and perhaps away from that history) and theoretical, as an aspect of society or the larger world, and of our relationship with it. Nicole and I both had difficult experiences of home that challenged the nostalgic or sentimental ideas of home that we hear or see all around us, especially in the media. So we began with similar critical approaches to the idea of home, even as we were trying to reflect varieties of experience with it, our own and that of others. Because my own thinking about home when we began, involved travel (to North Korea, South Korea, China, and eventually across Siberia, a trip in which I literally went around the world from my own childhood home in Maine, where my mother still lives), ideas about movement, about borders, about the nature of home for people who have been deprived of or removed from it came, again, quite naturally. So that experience folded into my reflections on my own childhood and inspired me to explore the nature of home as I’d explored the physical landscape in which my father had been fundamentally shaped by war, traumatized by it, which in turn had created the kind of home in which I grew up. In other words, many circles closing on themselves through time and space.
Review Fix: How do you marry writing and dance?
Nicole: Every culture has a strong storytelling tradition and in many of my pieces I seek to tell stories in narratives as well as in dance. Eben is a wonderful writer and I was drawn to his ideas about home both in conversation and in his writing which has become central to this current piece. It has provided a foundation even as other things have changed such as music, dancers and the places it’s performed.
Eben: For me, it was less about writing and dance; what connected those things were ideas about performance. Writing itself is, of course, a performance, requiring a triangulation of the writer’s perspective, the expressive medium of language, and the audience’s reaction (or imagined reaction). I know that there is debate within dance about the nature of narrative, and even a resistance to it, as there has been in all other arts at least since modernism, which emphasized the purity of each medium (so that dance should not, for instance, include narrative, which is the purview of writing). But of course, those presumptions or prejudices were never that absolute in practice, and postmodernism took them on fully through hybrid mediums, the purposeful mixing of genres or styles. Nicole’s own approach was already fully focused on dance and theater, although she was (I think) trying still to understand or explore how narrative works in both or through the relationship between, which was what sparked our conversations and eventual collaboration in the first place. For me, it was just about bringing what I knew how to do, producing text, and using the context or space that Nicole created, both with her and with the dancers in her company, all of whom bring ideas and practice and experience to the table. I’ve learned more than I can say from both her and from them through this process, not so much to marry writing and dance as to understand something else: the process of collaboration.
Review Fix: How have your prior experiences played a part in this?
Nicole: I have been experimenting with this form (dance/theatre) since I began choreographing. I feel like I have arrived at a place where I no longer feel like I’m juggling two separate forms but both have become an integral part of my thinking and process as an artist.
Eben: The travel that undertook coupled with the undertaking of exploring a very new kind of writing for me, not academic but not journalism, but something that came organically out of the experiences that I had growing up in a specific place, Maine, and with a very traumatized veteran of what many Americans have referred to, unfortunately, as “The Forgotten War.” In fact, that’s quite false, and the war had many effects that we’re still experiencing today, including the recent efforts at communication between the U.S. and the North Korean regime concerning de-nuclearization. But issues of trauma and history have long been a preoccupation for me, so working with Nicole has really just allowed me to merge different threads that I knew were related, and that I’d done my own work as a writer to connect, in a new medium, which has in turn really changed my relationship with that writing project. My text and the performance Nicole has given me the space to explore aren’t directly a part of that project, but they have come out of the time I spent traveling from North Korea to northeast China, where I interviewed a Chinese veteran of the Korean War, and across Siberia to Moscow by train. The theme I explored was cold: I did that trip in the winter, and you can believe me when I say you haven’t experienced physical cold until you’ve been in Vladivostok in January. But I was also interested in emotional coldness, a mark of distance, which my father very much displayed and that shaped the interior of my childhood home, even as it connected to the physical cold of the place where that home was located, in rural Maine. In the piece, I describe Siberia and Maine as like dizygotic twins, fraternal twins, both of different eggs. It’s not a physical resemblance (although much of Siberia and Maine do resemble each other) but conceptual, through the idea and experience of cold.
Review Fix: What are you most proud of in this production?
Nicole: I’m proud that the work has arrived at this place with the piece which embraces, embodies and celebrates multiple voices while at the same time offering a fully realized piece of theatre that is visceral, meditative, and hopefully entertaining.
Eben: I’m most proud of the fact that we actually took a very important conversation into actual work, fashioned out of our respective approaches, experience, and perspective, that an audience will experience. The piece is fully Nicole’s, but my own segment of it was very important for me creatively as well as emotionally. But she also challenged me to take part as a member of the company in other sections, and that has been a real challenge to open myself up to–to expose myself to–a much more direct connection with the audience or reader than I’m used to as a published writer.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
Nicole: I always start with a theme and I come into rehearsal with an idea for a scene or a dance section, but never with the idea that it has to go a certain way. Things come up in rehearsal that you could never plan for and you can’t know unless you see in action and embodied. Also, it’s absolutely phenomenal what people bring to the table when given a starting point.
Eben: It’s very difficult for me to generalize. The great American novelist Don DeLillo once said, through a fictional character who is also a writer, that each project is its own “bug-eyed race,” an alien thing that the writer or artist has to re-learn his or her skills to fit that project’s particular needs. Nicole and I collaborated first on a piece on the same theme which I recorded while I was in China. This created layers– my voice far away but also involved in my own experience of being far from home and interviewing a Korean vet which brought me closer to my father who is no longer living, and in the performance, I was a voice. Now, I’m physically in the piece so my story is directly told by me. The key is to have a disciplined approach that in turn can be open to accident or inspiration or the dialogue that a collaboration involves. It all seemed very natural and comfortable with Nicole because the conversation was not just about this specific piece but the river of ideas or experiences in which it lies.
Review Fix: What makes this different or special?
Nicole: I think what makes us special is that as a dance/theatre company, we are not a typical dance company. We are also diverse in terms of age, cultural heritage, ethnicity and our training. Some of the performers come from a theatre background while others come from dance. And now Eben, who is a writer, has joined us, giving the piece a wider range of perspectives and performing styles. A special spirit emerges from the work when you can create a platform for individual expression while at the same time fostering a collective and collaborative spirit.
Eben: I think the intensity and uniqueness of perspectives that Nicole and I share is very visible to the audience and gives the writing a new context to be heard, and in this case, seen.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Nicole: Having a pickup company, and the absence of a regular space to rehearse in, is very challenging. It means I have to be organized, purposeful, and resilient in my vision, but also create a good environment to work in, no matter where I am. I’ve also learned how to build space into an often very crunched rehearsal time for more collaborative opportunities.
Eben: That an old dog can, in fact, learn new tricks.
Review Fix: Who will enjoy this project the most?
Nicole: I think everyone will find something to enjoy in this project. It speaks in so many different ways, on so many different levels.
Eben: have to agree with Nicole here; this is such a varied and complex piece, but has something for everyone. Like the universe, it contains multitudes, and there is humor, social critique, human intimacy and a suggestion of the larger forces shaping our moment, and our homes, at this point in history.
Review Fix: What are your ultimate goals for this production and for the future?
Nicole: My ultimate goal for this project is to have the work produced by a theatre in an evening-length form. I also envision a way to create space for audience involvement and create an oral history of sorts. Performing the piece as an evening-length work would allow us to create a space for the audience to reflect on the theme themselves and provide possible opportunities to integrate responses as part of the performance. My main inquiry in this work is how the confluence of the past shapes us in the present. I think often our own history can get lost as we scramble towards the future. Much of Eben’s work wrestles with the idea of how history (both global and personal) impacts and shapes who we are which informs our everyday experiences. Eben also teaches creative writing so we now have someone in the cast who could be spearhead and help implement this idea.
Eben: To continue exploring these ideas of home and of history through my own book project on memory and the Korean War, but also to continue, as Nicole has challenged me so positively to do, to explore new ways of expressing myself, my thoughts, my feelings, and my perspective.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Nicole: I will be on the program at 30-30-30 at Dixon Place on December 30, 2018, with a new piece. And, Eben and I will be working collaboratively on a dance/film which we hope to start in Spring, 2019.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Nicole: More collaboration! I think Eben and I will continue to find opportunities to collaborate and look forward to what possibilities the work will open us to.
Eben: I want only to add how grateful I am to Nicole for guiding me through this process and for all the discoveries I’ve made about myself and my work along the way. As she’s said, I think there is more in the future for our collaboration, because we share a lot creatively and intellectually. But I also look forward to taking the energy of our collaboration, and the new approaches or perspectives I’ve gained, back to my own work as a writer. It’s been a challenging few years with a difficult project, my work on Korea, but this experience, and the space Nicole has given me to explore myself has really given me renewed energy and focus.