Tatyana Tenenbaum in Conversation with Lydia Bell
February 23, 2018
I recently sat down with Tatyana Tenenbaum to discuss her Danspace Project commission, Untitled Work for Voice, which premieres at Danspace Project February 22-24, 2018. Tenenbaum comes to choreography by way of music composition, and uses musical theater as a cipher of sorts to consider somatic and vocal exploration, nostalgia, and historical trauma. In the following conversation excerpt, we discuss beauty and catharsis, white Jewish identity, and how violence embeds in cultural forms.
-Lydia Bell, Danspace Project Program Director
Lydia: You’re referring to this work as a “backstage musical.” There’s a delicate balance between how you interrogate the genre of musical theater but also an acknowledgement of the catharsis that it produces. Can you talk about your relationship to the genre of musical theater?
Tatyana: The backstage musical is a meta musical, so it’s perfect for deconstructing musical theater. Seeing people in multiple stages of performativity within a show has always been fascinating to me. One reference was Follies [the 1971 Broadway show with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim], though it’s not a direct inspiration. The show takes place in a crumbling theater, where former show people nostalgically look back on their youth, while the past and present mingle.
I am interested in how nostalgia is, in general, quite manufactured. I watched a lot of Shirley Temple movies at the beginning of this process, and they manufacture a nostalgic feeling by using a lot of appropriated dance. I watched several of Temple’s films co-starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Bojangles is of course famous for his incredible tap dancing, but also for being the first interracial dance couple on screen with Shirley Temple. In The Little Colonel, Shirley actually learns Bojangles’ famous stair dance from him during the film, which to me functioned as a deliberate, symbolic gesture of “receiving the dance.” It was shocking. That was a whole research stream that this work is not specifically interrogating, since I’m not a tap dancer. Instead, I focused on the feelings: the joy and the nostalgia that’s created out of this appropriated gesture, and how white people just took that at face value—the historical amnesia.
The first musical theater inspired work I made was Private Country at the Chocolate Factory and I was not fully self-aware about what I was doing. I was able to hold the preciousness of musical theater at an arms-length because of the somatics we were layering onto it; there was a kind of distancing. We didn’t do a lot of the affect from musicals that people cringe at and instead we embraced the warmth of the sound. There was a lot of shame to unpack around that (that has taken me until this process to start unpacking). The word beauty came up a lot in talking to people about the show afterwards, and I felt disgusted that I had provided a space for people to feel so good. With this work, we’re trying to find a different kind of beauty entirely that is really unknown. It’s the future singing/moving practice that I hope to be the most transformative. And the familiar spaces then become the more mundane.
Lydia: What do you mean by the familiar spaces?
Tatyana: The trope references. I’m hoping that while people may find a degree of satisfaction with elements of musical theater, because it’s unavoidable, they’ll be holding them side by side this other, less codified space, and they’ll have to reconcile the two. I think that’s the way forward. We can’t banish the evidence. We have to hold it. We have to hold our discomfort with enjoying something that’s flawed at the same time that we’re engaging with something new. In my opinion, artists who identify as white really need to take some time to identify what their references are, and make sure they’re being thoughtful if they’re going to be engaging with futuristic abstraction.
Lydia: I’ve been thinking about this too as a white person. How do I situate who I am within a history of systematic oppression and violence towards people of color in our country? And what is my responsibility? My work is to listen, yes, it starts with listening, but how do you then build on listening? How do you respond to what you hear? That doesn’t necessarily mean suppressing joy or beauty—though it is certainly important to interrogate where aesthetic preferences and cultural meaning come from.
Tatyana: Beauty is great. Beauty is essential. And so is yearning, which is a word that I’ve been trying to historicize. At my stepmother’s rabbinical graduation, someone spoke about yearning and how it’s an essential human, spiritual practice. That really stuck with me. I feel like the way that yearning has played out in America for those who identify as white, is that we have a spiritual void, because there is so much violence that’s been covered up. We know that we don’t know something. The way that we fulfill yearning as white people is not responsible and it’s played out through appropriation and yearning towards the other. We have to undo this at every level.
Inside this work [Untitled Work for Voice], not everyone in my group is white and we all have very different relationships to Whiteness. Whiteness impacts everyone. And we discussed how we are all examining the pressures around that, the violence around that, in our embodied practice.
Lydia: I have been reading Emilie Conrad’s book [Life on Land: The Story of Continuum, the World-Renowned Self-Discovery and Movement Method], which I know was one research node for you. She writes about “internalized circumstances seeded into us,”; which in her case was the trauma of the Holocaust passed down through her parents and her community. The breath—as a tool for both accessing trauma and also releasing it—is core to her belief system. I’m curious what you took from that book and why it was of interest to you?
Tatyana: Emily Moore, one of my collaborators who has been with me since 2014, was reading it and told me, “Tatyana, everything you’re saying in rehearsal, this woman is saying in the book. You have the same story.” When I finally picked it up, I found that to be true. A lot of it is outdated in terms of her thinking about culture but her analysis is incredible in describing intergenerational trauma. It’s like she was describing my Jewish body in full detail, and I had never experienced that before. It helped me finally bring together the larger questions of why I came to dance and the voice. I’m shocked about how much constriction I once held in my chest, even as I was doing powerful vocalization. The areas that are the most restricted can also hold the most power. Conrad’s research made me realize it’s not a coincidence that my practice has developed intuitively in the direction of voice as a healing modality. I have to find—and this is part of undoing racism—what was traded in to access Whiteness. Reading about this Jewish woman’s somatic journey has been really important for me in claiming that identity, not just intellectually but in a somatic space.
Lydia: When we were corresponding about this interview, you brought up how important the collaborative process has been to you. What questions do you have for your collaborators about their experiences in the process?
Tatyana: I think there’s a question that they have for me about getting it right. I said to them at one point that there will always be a next stage to this virtuosity. You can always look back and see your progress, but once you’ve gotten somewhere there’s always more. We’re not performing perfection because I want to push them to the edge of it each time. That’s the edge of listening and what musicality means, but also their own personal relationship between the practice of rhythm and polyphony in the body. The intersection of all five of our histories makes it so much richer. My question for them, and why I’m working with them is: where do you want to go with this? Where I started was: how do I build this future kind of practice? To do that I also had to move backwards. Is there a way that the past can be there moving forward and we can build on that? That just goes to bigger questions about how we’re going to move forward, culturally, to find our full humanity. How can that be contained in a dance, in a singing, moving practice?
Tatyana Tenenbaum’s Untitled Work for Voice runs February 22-24 at 8pm