I saw Katie Faulkner’s work for the first time at the Berkeley Dance Project two years ago, and the piece stayed with me. As the dancers, dressed in grey and white office garb and sporting pony tails, came together and broke apart, the set, composed of tall grey blocks, moved toward them as if to annihilate them by eminent domain. The repetition in their movements evoked the daily commute, their pony tails one perky bit of flair to show that they weren’t quite the man in grey flannel living a life of quiet desperation. There was humor and terror in the piece, and a sense of propulsive rhythm.
Recently I had a chance to speak with Faulkner and see the dress rehearsal of her current work for the Berkeley Dance Project. “Bone worrier” also uses a striking set, and the dancing makes good use of flocking, rhythm, repetition, and variation. The way her dancers clumped and peeled away from one another reminded me a bit of Butoh master troop Sankai Juku. Of course, Faulkner’s dancers have considerably less experience, and the movement vocabulary is different, but they have in common an organic quality, particularly as the dancers flock. While moving as one, they also move as individuals. Difference and sameness work in complement, and through repetition, variation arises.
Faulkner has been making work with her company little seismic dance for eleven years, and she teaches at USF as well as Berkeley. She says that in whatever context, she seeks to embrace the unknown.
“I’m not someone who enters a process with the intention of imposing a conceptual frame work…I have a sense of awe that that expansive beginning can result in …something specific.”
For this piece, Faulkner began by considering metamorphoses, which was a focus of Berkeley Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department’s 2017—2018 season. As she considered change over time, she found herself thinking about the loss of agency that accompanies the experience of being embodied. From there, her exploration veered toward the particularities of female embodiment. From the time she was eight until she was 18, Faulkner danced with an intergenerational, collaborative, female-centered company in North Carolina. She grew up assuming that women’s voices and experiences are valid and valuable, an experience that she later realized is all too rare.
Although she hadn’t set out to invite an all-female cast, the dancers who struck her as best for the piece were women. As they explored the question of metamorphoses, the idea of reproduction, and of transmission and variation, drew their attention. Female bodies are understood as mutable locations, and whether or not they engage in giving birth, female-bodied people, in one way or another, have to confront what is projected upon them.
“The aesthetics of surreality often permeate stories of metamorphoses,” says Faulkner. “That led me to work with a projectionist, to play with superimposition.”
The piece opens with a dancer moving while having an image of herself projected upon her body. She moves and the projection moves differently, complicating the presentation of a solo, as a woman carrying another life within her might be said to do. Or any woman, walking through the world, trying to determine the path of her life. Who is she, does she belong to herself?
The projected imagery includes electron microscope scans of fallopian cells, which could also evoke a cosmic or star-scape, “as above so below,” as Faulkner noted. The dancers move on and with set pieces, large pink formations that jut out of the stage and hang from the ceiling. While the piece might not read as politically driven, Faulkner said that the conversations around agency elicited anxiety from the performers, reflecting the tenor of our current moment. In the program, Faulkner quotes Adrienne Rich: “the thinking woman sleeps with monsters.” As Faulkner described it, a sense of unrest permeates the piece, and I agree. That’s part of why it’s worth seeing.
Before the dress rehearsal I also caught up with James Graham, whose piece “agony drag” opens this iteration of the Berkeley Dance Project. His work was new to me, and I found it smart and irreverent. He has taught at Berkeley since 2012, and is deeply enmeshed in the Bay Area dance scene as a teacher and dancer, collaborating with local lights such as Hope Mohr and Joe Goode. Clearly passionate about both of these roles, he also feels strongly that dance and theater can and should co-exist, as suggested by the name of his company, James Graham Dance Theater.
“Why do I have to choose? I’m interested in all of it…using text elements and singing or sounding, switching from improvisation to set choreography, to scoring and ritualized event.”
During our conversation, I learned a bit about his process. Like Faulkner, Graham eschews the overly-programmatic, and invites his Berkeley student dancers to come as they are, determining the shape of the piece as they work on it.
“The piece in a broad way is about looking at and investigating gender and how that shows up in our bodies. We delved into how we feel versus how we seem, we looked at how people walk in the street and asked who holds power?”
In talking with a friend of his who teaches grade school, Graham was inspired to riff on Beyoncé’s song “Who Run the World.”
“When he asked his girl students who they admire, they said Beyoncé, Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama…I thought what about grandma, what about that sixth grade teacher? Can I be soft and quiet and still powerful?”
In the piece one of male dancers lies on the floor, speaking the lyrics of “Who Run the World” drily and flatly, reframing the words to a song that is sold as an empowerment message. Graham notes that he’s got nothing against Beyoncé, but wants to give kudos to those who are doing good in the word “unapologetically and quietly.”
The text in the piece is limited, other than the Beyoncé moment, there is some language at the end that breaks the fourth wall and invites the audience to free themselves from trying to understand the piece. He calls that the “Hee Haw” moment — a time when the players have a chuckle at the play, and hopefully with the audience. I’m calling it the meta-corndog minute.
Movement is the dominant tongue of this piece, and at the risk of playing the critic, I’d say the moments of stillness represent most directly the question of how identity is played out in our bodies. The five dancers form a tableau vivant, striking poses that might just signify diva or dude.
The set design is simple, a white square of marley on the floor delineates the space, playing with the sense of distance and proximity, scale and scope. But don’t think about it too much. Just come out to Berkeley and see the show.
Berkeley Dance Project runs through February 24 and features work by choreographers Katie Faulkner and James Graham, with pieces by TDPS students Madeline Aragon and Hillary Tang. The student works were chosen to be restaged after premiering at TDPS’s fall showcase.
Bone worrier: choreographer Katie Faulkner (with contributions from the dancers); projection and audio Michael St. Claire; costumes Wendy Sparks Rehl; lighting Jack Carpenter; dancers: Louisa Belian, Saabirah Faatimah, Rosalind Hsu, Stella Ji, Melissa Sherman-Bennett, Hillary Tang, Victoria Marie Ye; music Akira Rabelais, Michael Wall, Kangding Ray, Nicolas Bernier + Jacques Poulin-Denis, Loscil.
agony drag: choreographer James Graham; costumes Wendy Sparks Rehl; dancers: Michael Curtis, Kyra Katagi, Andrew Hendrickson, Mi Le, Katie O’Connor; lighting Jack Carpenter; music Soft Machine, Lizzy Mercier Descloux.