Choreographer Alison Chase is bringing her latest effort to Mass MoCA for a week-long residency. The short stay will culminate in a performance adaptation of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez work by utilizing live video, projected film and photography, music and, of course, dance.
Chase, a resident of Maine, heads Alison Chase Performance, which specializes in combining the multimedia approach she prefers, within unusual locations.
The piece at Mass MoCA will pull from the works of Marquez, specifically his short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” Originally Chase and her conceptual collaborators had been working free form, but at a certain point they decided they needed some narrative to drive the experimentation in order to keep everything coherent. Marquez’s work reflected the territory they found themselves in.
“We landed on Gabriel Marquez because of his magic realism,” Chase said in an interview this week. “What we were doing with these projections and the live human beings were in that strange, almost surreal world that Marquez inhabits. We looked at his short stories and chose one that seemed to be in our direction, and then we used that as our road map when we got together. That’s when everything exploded and we felt that we were off and running.”
The work-in-progress is not a literal retelling of the story, Chase said, but rather a reinterpretation through the media used in the performance.
“When he writes, he’s always talking about the sound of the wind. There was an evocative soundscape in his writing, and it produced strong visual retellings and all that,” she said.
Work on the piece — or, more precisely, exploration — began 18 months ago, following a grant from the Maine Council For The Arts that allowed Chase to hire some dancers to work with, thus putting into motion the collaborative effort.
“We started with a day of improvisation with the dancers,” Chase said. “Both Derek Dudek, the cinematographer, and Sean Keman, the photographer, came and we talked about that session and what we’d like to do next.
“The next session, the three of us got together, and we used each other as subjects and said, ‘You could film this and project that,’ and we just started building out several ideas. Then we realized that we had an inkling of the direction we wanted to go.”
Another session included fewer dancers in an effort to keep the production small for economic reasons. The meetings were infrequent — usually a couple months between them — but an effort was made to work whenever schedules permitted. The effort culminated in a final session in a theater — previously the rehearsals had been in Keman’s photography studio.
“It’s always helpful to have Sean because he looks at things so differently than I do,” Chase said. “He walked around the room and looked at things from different angles, and I just followed him around.”
The show is expected to morph further once the team starts working in the space at Mass MoCA — location is often integral to the conception and outcome of Chase’s work. Although she said they are still months away from a finished product, the week at the museum should prove valuable in moving the work further forward than previous efforts.
“Right now, it’s whirling around in our craniums,” she said. “I know Sean’s been thinking of different elements, and I’ve been thinking of imagery and movement lines and phrases. It’s really exciting when you add the dancers in.”
Chase began multimedia productions in the late 1990s, when she collaborated with a photographer. It was a hard transition, and the process was not as easy as it is nowadays.
“Back in those days, programming took a lot of time compared to what we do now. It was a difficult thing to do,” Chase said. “When you’re a tights-and-lights organization, bringing in projections and scrims and all that stuff, it eats up a lot of prep time, tech time. It’s difficult to find places where you can rehearse, darkening the space. It’s always haunted me, and I love going to watch other people experimenting with the same.”
She said it was worth the effort for what the collaboration brought out in the work. The photography changed the scale of what the audience sees — it amplified and magnified what would have traditionally been perhaps subtle, or even contained by the distance between performer and audience.
“When you’re inside a piece, you just see a hand wrapping itself around a wrist and pulling the weight away, but it’s always been cool to bring the camera inside the dance,” Chase said. “It’s that perspective that I love — to free it from that given focal distance that you always have as an audience member. You’re always glued to that same distance, so it was a different variable that created a different dynamic.”
One of her most interesting forays into working with different media involved going in a direction away from the latest technology and back to the Stone Age in some respects. Her “Quarryography” and “Q2: Habitat” were performed in the Settlement Granite Quarry on Deer Isle in Maine — practically her back yard.
“It’s a huge space and a dramatic space, and location is everything,” she said. “It’s the exact opposite of the Marquez piece.”
For this presentation, Chase is working with a sculptor and a puppeteer, as well as the dancers — some of whom are not professional, but rather community members — and a live steel drum for music. The production also features one very unusual collaborator who plays a role in the performance.
“I’ve been working with this excavator operator — it’s been four years together,” Chase said. “I always use him as a character. I’m such a sucker; I can never not suspend some character or some dancer from the backhoe bucket on the excavator. It just gives it rarely-seen beauty to see this huge metal claw come down and lift these metal bodies. It’s quite extraordinary.”
The show has taken several years to come together, largely due to the challenges of producing a performance in such a rough space. The first year was one of experimentation, and then a second term built on and edited what the collaborators learned during the first.
“It’s a lot of hours at a wall of granite,” Chase said. “We’re not plopping down a beautiful wooden stage and there’s no flat areas, so these dancers are running and jumping on granite and rock. It takes a special breed of dancer to want to commit to that type of performance.”
That is really the same tactic Chase is applying to “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” — one that takes various collaborative offerings in multiple media, which she finds to be more the norm now than ever before.
“It’s about finding how to synthesize them, how to give them an organic life together,” she said.
Chase is also including another collaborator that isn’t often mentioned in the official listings and press releases — the audience.
“We’re hoping that we’re not going to have a lot of people who expect a performance that goes from beginning to end, because we’re not there,” Chase said. “We’re really going to invite the audience into our process. We’ll do a section and say, ‘Here’s where we started with the layers, and we put them together and they look like this — but we could also put them together like this or like this,’ so they see our process building out our imagery, and then we have them make the aesthetic decision of which has the greatest power and power. It’s fun, but it’s a very different animal.”