The Lucky Penny, Atlanta’s new presenting organization, will offer “11.11.11 Spectacular! Spectacular!” this Friday and Saturday at the Arts Exchange. With its thrust on experimental and interdisciplinary art, the organization will tap some of the city’s brash young innovators, respected performance art collaborators and two guest artists from out of town.
It’s likely that New York-based artist Jill Sigman will bring a gust of fresh air, as will choreographer Tahni Holt, from Portland, Oregon. They’ll be part of an eclectic lineup of events involving dance, visual art, film, literature, spontaneous art criticism, community dialogue, workshops, a food truck and a Friday night dance party. Tickets are $11 and will be available at the door. For the schedule, click here.
The Lucky Penny was founded last summer when Blake Beckham and Malina Rodriguez, now its co-artistic directors, saw an unfilled niche in the local arts scene: a need to support creation and presentation of all kinds of contemporary, experimental art and to mix audiences for different art forms, fostering the cross-pollination that keeps an arts community vital.
One of the challenges of sustaining experimental performance art in Atlanta, Beckham says, is a tendency toward isolation. Unlike New York or Portland or other cities, there’s little funding and limited opportunities for performance and exchange. So she and Rodriguez work to connect local artists with their peers in other places — through hands-on exchange, to help integrate Atlanta artists into a larger network.
They’ve brought in Holt, who will stage “Untitled Is a Choice” with the luminous Atlanta-based dancer Helen Hale. Beckham described the solo as ironic and humorous, using a stripped-down, postmodern vocabulary. It brings the performer to a state of “real, raw abandon.” The work will include a candid conversation between performer and audience that poses questions about what makes a “good” dance and what role an audience plays in that determination.
Sigman, whom Beckham and Rodriguez hope to bring back for a full performance project in the future, has just returned from a two-month residency in Oslo, Norway, where she created the latest in her Hut Project. (Watch a video here.) This series of site-specific installations has blended movement, sculpture and design with focus on themes of shelter, sustainability, real estate and apocalypse. For each project, Sigman has built a hut from found materials unique to each location, choreographed movement within the environment she’s created, served tea and engaged in community dialogue with people who come to watch.
On Friday, she’ll host a dialogue about the Oslo project, with video, while serving tea inside a truck. On Saturday, she’ll offer a four-hour workshop, creating a structure for participants based on her own performance framework, with cycles of activities involving movement, mapping a space, coming to be at home in a space physically, and activities associated with home, such as washing, planting, cooking and talking. They’ll investigate how these kinds of activities can change the energy of a space and the way in which people inhabit the space and relate to one another.
In an interview earlier this week, Sigman spoke frankly about her work.
Cynthia Perry: We see a lot of mainstream modern dance companies in Atlanta, like Pilobolus, Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey, etc. What does your work bring to a community that these companies don’t?
Jill Sigman: I’ve been in Norway for two months working on a hut there in the Norwegian Opera House. There’s a broad and diverse audience coming through there because that building is an architectural tourist destination. To some extent, I was performing for them — I was building on site for about two weeks, and I was talking with them and engaging with them as part of the process leading up to the performances. So there was a lot of process that was not really so different from performance. It led me to think about what is valuable about this kind of thing. There’s movement involved, but it doesn’t stop with presentation of movement. It’s about choreographing experience. These different ways of working open up different kinds of intersection for people. It’s not just about being weird or pushing people’s boundaries; it’s more about saying, “How is it that I can invite you in?”
For some people, seeing movement is the easiest way to do that, and for other people, being invited to sit in a hut and have a cup of tea is actually more of an open door.
It’s about expanding the repertoire of ways to invite people to have an experience. And what’s the value of that? If they’re engaging with people, if they’re creating relationships and connection, they can begin to think about these things or feel about these things. They can start to ask questions, like “What do I throw away?” or “What do I think about where this world is going?” or “What do I want from my community?” And there’s this kind of openness to start to go off the map.
Having a repertoire of different ways of reaching out to people and nudging people is really important right now. First of all, not everyone is going to come into a theater. There are people who don’t have the financial means; there are people who don’t have the interest. Secondly, people are on overload. They’re media-saturated right now. So how do we cut through that? I think we need more than just a traditional stage.
It’s a way of saying art can be about more than just beautiful, muscular bodies on stage. I’m not saying we don’t need that, but how can the art be more than that and open up more possibilities for experience and connection?
Perry: Can you give an example of how your work is more than that?
Sigman: Well, there are many [laughs]. I spent about six weeks riding around the boroughs of Manhattan in a cart full of Cheetos. This was a performance installation that I did, almost two years ago, called “Our Lady of Detritus.” It’s the beginning of [a series of works] with trash and found materials, about issues of waste management. This came from working in Bushwick, actually. My studio is there, and [the area is] so toxic. There’s so much trash, and it’s great because I find so many materials, but on the other hand it’s like, wait a minute, you know, what is this? And it just started seeping into my work, thematically.
The cheese puffs, for me, were like this edible bling. They symbolized everything about this society that’s about fast and cheap and quick and bright, and like, “I want it, and I want it now, and I want to be able to throw it away.”
I started working with [cheese puffs] in Mexico, where they are even more orange and bigger than they are here. They became the cornerstone for the performance installation and … we used a cargo tricycle as an anchor and it pulled the cart. Sometimes I was in it, and sometimes I was dancing, and sometimes I was speaking to people. One of the things that people were invited to do was … they were offered the chance to have a trash miracle. They could call a phone number, and they would have a sort of intake so their trash miracle could be processed.
They were asked all sorts of questions, like how many takeout cups they use per day. They were asked to measure their answers out by scooping cheese puffs on top of me. So I became this human measure of what people were using. That’s a way that, more than seeing dancing bodies on the stage, people are interacting with live humans and with materials. It’s asking them to think about something that they don’t usually think about, and maybe they don’t want to think about. But it’s so wacky and it’s so off the map that they’re willing to go there.
I’m not averse to dancing. I’m classically trained and that’s part of my toolbox, but I don’t feel like we can afford to limit our work to just that right now.
Perry: Assessing nontraditional, interdisciplinary work can be a challenge. As an artist, how do you assess your work?
Sigman: If I’m making a work that’s more in a dance community for a more traditional dance venue, and the language is more purely movement, then my criteria are very different than when I’m getting carted around in the Bronx and having cheese puffs scooped on me. The goals change, and the criteria for success change. But in an overarching way, there is the sense of wanting to give people some sort of experience. And the best way to do that is gonna vary, right? So if you’re dealing with a rarified, educated dance audience, you can create a certain kind of choreographic movement and … it can move them; it can get them to think.
I made a piece for Groundworks Dance Theatre [in Cleveland]. It’s a repertory company, highly classically trained. They have that skill, and they have an audience that’s used to seeing that. So I know that’s a language that has the potential to give people an experience.
But in other places, it might not. So I have to look for different tools. It might mean offering people a cup of tea. But the goal is to nudge people to think and to feel and to be alive at a time when there’s so much happening in this world that is urgent and a little disturbing. And how can we ask people to think about that and to be agents? What will your role be; what will your participation be; what will your stance be? And it’s not to tell them what to think, it’s just to ask them to think.