Thank You Janet Cardiff is a piece I performed in Sarah Lawrence College's Fall 2014 Open Dance Concert, November 21 and 22 at 7:30 PM. It's based on Janet Cardiff's 2001 sound installation, The Forty Part Motet, which features forty speakers arranged in an oval. Each one emits one voice of the choir performing the 11-minute long (with three minutes of intermission), 16th-century, holy piece, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. For my version, the track is cut down to 5-6 minutes. Read more of why I chose to create this.
Thanks to Mom and Dad, Charlotte, Lillian, Josh, my supporting cast (Julia, Meg, Melissa, Rosie, Sarah J., Sarah S.), the SLC dance department, and everyone else who helped make this a reality!
I first stumbled upon the inspiration for this piece accidentally. I was visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art in my hometown with my parents in summer 2013. We came up a stairway and started to hear music. It turned out to be the sound/art installation Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff. I very quickly became enchanted. It created a space like nothing else, and each visitor was participant in the experience. Even this first time I was inspired to move in the space created by the sound installation, but I held back, making only tiny, undetectable gestures. Read more about my first visit to the Forty Part Motet on my blog.
When I heard that the Motet was coming to the Cloisters in New York, I knew I had to experience it again. Best-work-friend and I took a weekday off to visit in November, 2013. This time, the space, a 12th-century chapel full of religious artifacts, somehow felt even more accurately matched to the sacred music. There were many more people in the space than at the Cleveland version, and therefore they were what I primarily observed that day. I started to view the other visitors as unknowing performers themselves—sitting, standing, gently swaying, walking, or closing their eyes—and was touched by the honesty of their physical reactions. We stayed through at least three, if not four or more iterations of the piece. Again I felt moved to dance in the space, although it would have been physically impossible given the crowd. I went so far as to email the museum to see if I could dance there in some off-hour, but of course the response came back negative.
I got one more crack at the Motet. Mid-summer 2014 I heard about a sprawling, site-specific art exhibit in the Rockaways, a place I already was quite fascinated with. And it just so happened that the Forty Part Motet was to be part of it—this time installed in a semi-abandoned former military chapel. Another friend went with me this day, and the experience could not have been more different than my previous Motet visits. The chapel was a beautiful setting to be sure, but instead of being lavish it was barren, with only a faint hint that it was ever used for religious purposes. And the space was nearly empty; on our first trip inside there were only two other visitors there.
We viewed much of the rest of the Rockaway! exhibit and even took a dip in the ocean. But I couldn't leave without visiting the Motet just one last time (this was only a couple days before its closing). Thanks to the kindness of a museum volunteer and the chance emptiness of the space, I finally lived out my dream of dancing to the Motet.
Though my experience dancing in the Rockaways was incredibly beautiful and satisfying, I somehow felt that it wasn't the end of the story. Could there be a way to translate this into something to share with others? After ruminating over several possibilities (why couldn't I just borrow the whole installation from MoMA and plop that on stage!?) I settled on a solution with help from the friend who visited the Cloisters version with me. She, having a music background, read that the original performance of Spem in Alium likely occurred in the round. And that's when it hit me: I didn't need forty fancy speakers—people, dancers, could represent the speakers and encircle me in the space! It made almost too much sense. In Cardiff's installation the speakers clearly represent individual people; each emits a single voice, the speakers are mounted at about the same height as a head/face, and even the speakers' stands are slightly anthropomorphic like strange stick figures.
As I continued planning the piece, I took as many cues for the details and logistics from my original "performance" in the Rockaways as I could. I dressed the dancers-playing-speakers in street clothes, as if they were visiting the Motet in a gallery. But they had bare feet, a nod to the contemporary dance convention. I assigned the dancers to make small movements to the music as they felt inspired. My idea was that they were playing me at the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Cloisters; they may have wanted to break out and dance but their movements had to subtle instead. The instruction to them was to do what you do when you want to dance (for example, you have your headphones on and you're on a train platform) but you don't want people to look at you like, "why is that weirdo dancing!" The dancers were arranged in a semicircle around me, open to the audience. After watching dress rehearsal my music friend commented that the audience served to complete the circle. I hadn't thought about that when I chose the arrangement, but it turned out perfectly in that way!
The dance I did was completely improvised, so each time was different. I did stay within a sort of movement vocabulary that was based on the completely spontaneous (I had no idea in advance that I'd get the opportunity) dance that came out in the Rockaways. My prompts for myself were things like lots of sweeping and slicing arms, both curved and straight; strong leg movements; expressive upper body; changing facings; and using my focus. While I "practiced" my improvisation many times before the performances, I made certain to maintain my connection with the music and keep being inspired by it each time around.
I have some experience with editing sound, but cutting this 11-minute track down to just over 5 minutes was a challenge. I wanted to keep my favorite parts of the music while also making the cuts seamless. I was unhappy with my first attempt so I created a second edit that involved 5 cuts in the 5 minutes. Even now when I listen to it, I can barely hear the transitions.
I chose to wear the same outfit and hair style that I had in the Rockaways. The lighting designers were shown a still photo from the video as inpsiration for the lighting design.
Overall, I'm incredibly happy with the process and product of this piece. I got some good feedback from audience members, tech crew, and my dancers after the show, which always feels nice. Everything about it just seemed to sort of fall into place (though at times the preparation was stressful). Looking back, there isn't anything I would change.
There's something sort of poetic and satisfying about Thomas Talis inspiring a contemporary artist (Janet Cardiff) and Janet Cardiff inspiring a contemporary dancer (me). Cardiff's work brings Talis's music into a modern space, both in terms of physical setting and exposure to a new audience. Through her work I learned to appreciate Talis's work too. A contemporary dance vocabulary came naturally to me when improvising in the Rockaways. You could say that that's because it's my background, but I also think it's the perfect choice to pair with Cardiff's contemporary reworking. Just as her piece references an old, classical piece of music, so does contemporary dance draw on classical forms like ballet.
I've always (and I mean since I was about 6 years old, whether or not I could express it yet) been interested the translation of one art form into another, or the parallels between forms—especially as a catalyst for bringing an idea or work to an audience who wouldn't normally be exposed to it. So now thinking harder about the inspiration behind this piece, it was a way for me to tell a contemporary dance audience sitting in a dark theater about Talis's work, Cardiff's work, and what experiencing the installation meant to me.