Immersed in the Uprising

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1971’S ATTICA PRISON riot, which claimed the lives of almost 40 people, represents a landmark uprising that brought under scrutiny the rights of prisoners and the precepts of incarceration in general.  Composer Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together and Attica, written soon afterward under the influence of the events, have been described as minimalist classics with strong political resonances. Later this month, choreographer Rebecca Lazier and indie-classical ensemble Newspeak join forces to present an immersive, theatricalized version of these Rzewski works at Brooklyn's Invisible Dog performance and art space.  The performance features dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener (formerly with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company), Asli Bulbul (formerly with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company), Jennifer Lafferty, Pierre Guilbault, and Christopher Ralph. David T. Little of Newspeak will conduct, with Mellissa Hughes as the vocal soloist. For details about this presentation of Coming Together/Attica, we spoke with Rebecca Lazier.

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Rebecca Lazier (photo by Bentley Drezner)

CLASSICAL TV:  How did you first encounter word of the Attica riots—in a history class?  From your parents or friends?  I’m wondering how the event was presented to you and how it might have affected you?  What kinds of insights about American culture—either the culture at the time or ongoing American attitudes about incarceration and prisoners’ rights—do you find in the story of Attica?

REBECCA LAZIER:  I first learned of the Attica riots through the music, Frederic Rzewski’s 1971 companion scores Coming Together and Attica.  (I blame my Canadian upbringing for the educational oversight.) A friend sat me down, gave me headphones, and told me to listen.  Within a few hours I had not only downloaded the score and listened to many starkly different recordings, but also read the history that led to the stand off and subsequent riots.  Though the music was inspired by the riots Rzewski does not deliver a doctrine through his work, the piece communicates on an emotional level allowing the listener to create their own meanings.  The music, with its balance of content, emotion, and form, made a distinct visceral and kinesthetic impact on me from the start.

The score both exposes a horrific moment in American history and poignantly reveals current issues. There is a national prison crisis; an unprecedented proportion of our population is incarcerated. The perverse lack of rehabilitation services and use of isolation to treat symptomatic behavior is tantamount to a humanitarian disaster and demonstrates questionable educational, cultural, and political policy. 

Choreographically I am not interested in dance that attempts to deliver a narrative or argue for policy changes, dance is a different mode of communication.  Rzewski’s work brought new perspectives to my experience of isolation and confinement, introduced possibilities for structural invention, provoked me to research the history and current conditions of imprisonment, and enable me to imagine social change.  I choose to choreograph with these scores because they expose troubling political actions that still resonate today and challenge me in new ways.  Like Rzewski’s piece I hope the performance can communicate on many levels.  It is personal inquiry into the effects of enforced solitude and a reflection on the tenacity of human perseverance. 

CTV:  What were some of the chief challenges in dramatizing these insights and achieving your artistic goals in this work?  

RL:  I create in collaboration with the performers and invite their experiences and questions to be voiced as part of the process.  I bring the questions I’ve discovered in my research to the studio and design improvisational structures for my dancers. For CT/A we started by investigating the movement outgrowths of the demands of trying to maintain one's identity under various types of oppression.  What do you do to keep from continuously screaming or weeping?  Repeat activities incessantly? Talk to yourself? Breathe deeply? These were some of the prompts for movement research. 

The challenge was to ensure the dance, its vocabulary, syntax and structure, had inherent value, able to stand alone from and be deeply linked to the score.  We were shifting between formal experiments and exploring psychological states.  Our choices were to combine and juxtapose these discoveries on the individual level and in the overall piece.

• WATCH NOW:  Highlights from Rebecca Lazier's Coming Together/Now  Choreography by Rebecca Lazier, in collaboration with the dancers Music: Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica (1971) Dancers: Asli Bulbul, Pierre Guilbault, Jennifer Lafferty, Rashaun Mitchell, Christopher Ralph, and Silas Riener

CTV:  What are some of the qualities you find so appealing about the Rzewski scores?

RL: Often Coming Together is performed on its own, and rightly so, it is a major work.  But Attica, subtitled Coming Together Part 2, offers another perspective on the same event.  Rzewski calls them "light and dark images of the same subject.”  Together they balance emotional content with structural innovation and provide multiple possibilities for choreographic invention.

One of the most compelling aspects of the work is the way in which it allows each performance to be similar and different.  There is a definitive score of continuous 16th notes and performance procedures for the musicians to follow.  They improvise according to changing instructions: pick one note per measure to play in one section, only play the B-flats for another, etc.  I am interested in how the piece balances the authorship of the composer with the agency of the performers.  I am continuously investigating this compositional method in my work and Rzewski’s prompts provided a new way to look at this question.

Another aspect of the score that interests me is Rzewski’s treatment of the text. Early in my research I heard him describe his decision for the additive and subtractive structure.  When he first read the letter he incorporates in Coming Together, written by inmate Sam Melville, he found himself going back to the beginning again and again to decipher the message.  What could these words mean?  Melville knew the letter would be censored and wrote it in code.  To understand its significance you have to read and reread until an interpretation emerges.  This struck me.  He took an experience and translated it into a musical structure, the system gives the piece its emotional power.  As you hear the single sentences repeat (in Attica it is done word by word rather than sentence by sentence), your interpretation of them changes.  The actor/singer who performs is instructed to change their intonation with each new beginning.  This creates space for a multiple interpretations.  How could this be a dance structure?

CTV:  What do you hope audiences will take away from the performance?

RL: I think the sensory saturation that occurs when kinesthetic, visual, and aural experiences happen simultaneously allow audiences to be within the work more intensely.  My hope is that the performance can deepen the act of listening and highlight layers of the score one would otherwise not hear.  I am interested in the dialogue that will grow from this presentation and its educational potential.  I know the piece is beloved by many composers and musicians and sometimes I feel I have taken on a sacred work and my staging may not align with everyone’s interpretation.  Dance always deals with the audience's familiarity with the score used: if you make a dance with a pop song, you are making a dance with the audiences' memories associated with that song.  I hope the power of this performance will allow the critical mind to recede and have an effect of total absorption regardless of prior experience with the piece.  I look forward to hearing thoughts, impressions, and questions experienced from differing views.

CTV:  How have you made the production immersive at the Invisible Dog?

RL:  I knew early on I wanted the audience to be confined within the same theatrical space as the performers; this piece wouldn’t work on a proscenium stage. The vast space at The Invisible Dog, a former factory, allows us to perform Coming Together and Attica at opposite ends of the floor. We looked at how prisoners travel in space in prison: they have no options, they must follow designated lines.  We want the audience to experience the same effect during the performance as they move from section to section. 

For more about Coming Together/Attica at the Invisible Dog, go here.