What follows is a simple transcript pulled from Facebook Messenger. It is – with the context, prompts and responses removed – a record of a large amount of the dramaturgical guidance I provided to Sung Im Her in creation of the ‘Nutcrusher’ project. What is otherwise missing and undocumented, is the short time I spent in studio with the company working on the piece, and of course all the creative work by Sung Im and others!
The transcript is an ever so slightly edited record of the advice I gave, the questions I asked, and the responses I had to the various videos of works in progress sent to me by Sung Im.
Rather than try to condense or summarise my experience, which I might yet do, this acts as a partial but direct window into the process of making ‘Nutcrusher’, without describing it, or the work. In this way I hope to provide a secondary document, related to those interested in ‘Nutcrusher’ as a performance, and for those interested in the process of Dramaturgy itself.
Messages to Sung Im Her – During 2018-2109:
No one can stop moving.
The Nuts in your Pockets where do them come from, where do they go?
The sex doll mask, why?
The great dayglow leggings, why?
Thoughts: No one should stop moving ever. Yes get rid of the mask. The leggings work. The Nuts could be everywhere and stashed in various places. The woman as sexual doll thing is clear. How do you feel about that, what can be found within or outside of that, what is your position, agenda, do you have any?
We just need to tease out ‘what’ is being performed for ‘who’, how you can take control of the power dynamic, play into it, and then switch it.
Thoughts this morning: There’s a book called ‘Argonauts’ about identity and sexuality, and a book called ‘I love Dick’ about the female gaze, there’s a couple more as well recently about being a woman, that are interesting more entanglements with feminism. I would also reiterate: the only real moment the piece weakens is when you stop moving, which is odd, as stillness usually works. However, the restless energy, and what I think is an interesting combinations of ‘drives’ to move, and ways of being seen, should not be suspended. It’s a bit of a mean request, but what happens if no-one is allowed to stop, even when collapsed, there has to be a compulsion/requirement to ‘deliver’. If and when the piece does stop it has to be like you’ve just seized control of the room, and everyone in it.
I have some thoughts:
Negative space: When you lifted and straddled one of your performers it creates a negative space between your legs. Have you looked at the piece in terms of the negative space, how you look at it, use it. Also how it is active, how that space feels… what it contains, it is not empty.
Complicity: People still stop moving… However, there’s more support from the ‘bodies’ on the floor. I liked when you were trying to move the two of them, but they couldn’t because of the floor, and they seemed to be in on the attempt to move them. Costumes that allow them to be dragged? No dragging?
Travelling: Tiny note. I imagine all of you moving about the space independently. But only through the signature move established at the beginning. Never turning to face the audience, just shuffling around for ages… first in a line, then structured, then just wandering about.
(Supporting statement written for Nutcrusher)
‘There is a visceral restlessness to the work-in-progress showing of Nutcrusher that I have had the pleasure to watch. In the images produced, the movement of the performers, their relationship with each other and with the gaze of the audience. Everything is uneasy, and on edge. It is, on first glance, to do with the multiple presence of bodies stacking up contained aggression, and invitation, display and obscurement. A title that references ballet, and sexual violence. A series of acts of unity, and mutual disregard. Of looking, being looked at and not looking at all. But, rather than reduce these varied states to a series of oppositional binaries, which I have just outlined – the work goes further, and avoids this logic altogether. Nutcrusher contains it’s asymmetrical subject and affects, and holds them as one state. The drives of the work are not in opposition, but are multiple threads knotted together, like the fibres and sinews of a muscle. In looking at Nutcrusher, I wonder if perhaps this is what we should mean by the ‘muscular’ when describing dance, performance, and works of culture. Not merely a display of some potency or strength, which Sung Im Her’swork has in any case. Rather, that all its elements are not homogenised, but distinct. That the personal and political tensions of the work are held tight and made to work together and find themselves embodied, full blooded, alive in a space. When you find yourself in the space with the work, you are complicit and compromised, and very much part of the restlessness is engenders.’
First thought: you need a surface/texture to work against (flooring/wall/projection/something)
My rules for casting: 1) Start with who you think you can all work with. 2) Cast the people who, if the work is bad, people would still pay to watch them do bad work.
Bonjour: some questions. 1: What am I watching? Three dancers? Three female bodies? Three figures? One or more? At the same time? 2: Why is nothing said? Mute? Forbidden? Defiance? Because it’s dance? 3: where is this? A theatre? An abstract space? Or a place (a street, home, workplace)? Why is there a chair? 4: why is this happening? 5: what is their relation to each other? To us? What if: They Spoke? They ate/Drank? Had things that belonged to them?
Have you seen the the film Ex Machina? After all the control… aesthetic/structural there is this rupture in the film. The dance scene ‘breaks’ the film. It allows us to ‘not know what is going to happen’ again.
Use balloon as metaphor for nuts, nuts as metaphor for masculinity and sexuality, then apply that idea to the show literally.
Task 1: make a rupture for the piece
Could be new or unexpected or something tearing at its most stretched to create a space that is something.
Task 2: Stretch inflate a section. Or make an inflation/stretching. How does this feel?
Task 3: Deflate a section as above but not the same
The sequence should be inflate-rupture-deflate. But these should not be causal sequences, rather distinct events about these ideas/embodiments.
Considering the lazy body, and the heat: make or adapt a section of performance at only 10%. Either speed, scale or precision must be sacrificed.
Or: incorporate the body experience of heat into the performance. Oppressive Heat as pressure/energy. What actions come from the heat? A certain kind of breathing? Of drinking/eating? Of resting?
I had a dream about your show last night! Tell you later. (The Dream was never transcribed)
We looked at the space and the chronology (narrative) of the piece as some kind of strip-club dance space. What if we try framing it as a rehearsal? A space still being put together.
All perfect till: 17:30: Just before Sung Im walks to get dressed. The walk is not in of itself an Image: Suggestion: bring all three of you to the very front near audience at 17:30. Then Sung Im has to walk all the way… How should you walk/travel, if this has been going on for longer than we realise? How should the others respond?
Likewise: Getting dressed and returning (between 19:00-20:00 to be precise) is not a decided image. Needs similar consideration: How to other respond if at all? Have you changed like this before? Can you change before you move away from chair, or bring clothes to the group and then change. Walking and changing seems to conflate something that shouldn’t be mixed.
Underlying this: The heap of Black bodies slumped on chair, is not right. Slumped in a chair neither elevates nor condemn them, the image is undecided. A heap on the floor? A neat row of chairs? Hung like skins from a butcher’s hook or impaled like the prey of the shrike? (A bird that kills its prey by sticking them on thorns to eat later)…
The K-Pop section is much improved. At 25:22 Yen Ching’s walk works because of the hair and distance, see earlier note. At 26:06 Sung Im’s walk works, but you need to let Yen Chin pull back her hair and wait before moving, for you to see it, then really see it when you get there. The reveal of a face for the first time is a major catalyst, and we need to stay with that.
The lifting of the bodies high I like, again that’s what made me think of a Shrike. Their elevation matters. But, I’d during the minute of 27 I’d like you to try two things: Take the body across to the far diagonal corner, before going to Martha, what does that distance do?
Also you have your back to us, what if you face us, but raise it up between the audience and yourself? Martha has drifted to the left at that point, bring her to the centre to collect her body. Yen Chin to back away from Sung Im watching her get dressed at 29:00. The watch Martha 29:30, then do her own thing. I can’t tell from video if Sung Im, your ‘getting dressed’ is precise enough, I don’t want it to look like a costume change, it’s a reskinning…
There’s a lot I love about everything that follows: Only comments: Yen Ching goes in a circle at 32:00 it’s too ordered, or not enough. More circling, or all over the place. At the very end I tend towards symmetry: Sung Im centre stage and two parallel approaches by Yen Chin and Martha, not crossing over.
1: Know your own mind. 2: No it doesn’t ‘need’ a narrative, but some form of narrative reading is inescapable. The question is what structure is the best engagement with the narrative? And what kind of narrative? 3: Yes ‘Ass dance’ could be going before audience come in… yes ‘Ass dance’ could be longer… but then people often suggest simplifying. Remember I suggested someone ‘aAss-dance’ throughout. But is this the piece? 4: I don’t think movement changes that much, but then I have a restless eye. 5: Personally I think black figure is essential. Without even discussing the video, these were all structural questions. Fundamentally you have a three part structure: Ass – K-pop – Black figure. The questions indicate that people think they want a more interweaved/fragmented approach, do you want that?
Hello, have just watched again. Also, Imogen (10) on a day off school feeling unwell watched it with me. Her first response was ‘nearly 10 out of 10’ & ‘It was very mythical and very eye catching’.
Today’s response drawings. Explain later.
You are not three dancers, you are three knives. Perhaps the moves you perform present themselves as something pleasurable for the eye… But under the skin, they are weapons, offensive manoeuvres. You hair a Cat O’Nine-Tail, Elbows blades, Knees hammers. Imogen watches and says ‘Itsvery mythical, a ritual. Calling, awakening something… like a power.’…
I think you are not dancers, perhaps under the skin you are the three witches from Macbeth – giving a man his future and his destruction one gesture. Or perhaps three Furies – goddesses of vengeance – ghosts of the murdered. There are three Furies – endless rage, jealous rage, and vengeful destruction. Yet, I am aware this is not so much how ‘I’ see it. Is this how ‘men’ would see it? I’m laying on those tropes of dangerous women a bit thick…
I’ve been thinking about how my advice to a certain extent is gendered, and purposefully so. How I’m providing a ‘patriarchal’ voice here. How do I actually see it, I think I’m seeing a progress of different bodily transformations. Hence the drawings I sent you, each a different way of the body functioning: The weaponised body; the body as exhausted art object; the body as ecstatic machine; as scaffold for wreckage. In that order. I think in the most recent video the three act structure is being overridden by this four body process. Each body giving a different use for Hair, Skin, Flesh, Bone, Organs, Fluids. I particularly enjoyed the breakdown of the movements when hands come loose, like the wheels coming off a bicycle, like a video glitch, like tremors, spasms, possessions, punishing gym routines…
On a minor note keep hold of the apron in your left hand, never let it go, it’s a safety blanket, a Child’s over loved toy, but something else, it foreshadows the black skins. I look at them now, soft and spongy as they are, as burnt. Martha and Yen Ching play with them, in the way a cat plays with the rat it’s just killed. Imogen says ‘they have awakened lost souls from their families, and are becoming them’ I wonder if the skins should be made to do what you’ve done throughout the piece, to relive it. Would they like that? Imogen says ‘They have been swallowed into a world’
OK so, the interesting thing is I wrote these questions observations without really reading your prior comments: They make a really good fit. I’ve gone for more questions than answers though. Now this piece doesn’t stop moving, how does that feel? A clean white space. Lots of light. This dance doesn’t stop. There is nothing small in the piece? A hand sequence? How do you feel about this? What it would be like to put a phone on the ground looking up at the headbanging? What if the piece were performed for an audience looking at the piece from below or from above? How would that change things? How does each performer think/feel during the piece (If at all)? What is your actually experiential journey through it? How are you investing in it? What if this were all only joyful? What if I’m reading it all wrong, or that it could be read/delivered as all ecstatic, escaped, free, happy? What if it just ‘looks’ like trapped figures to someone who can’t imagine liberty? What if the regimented movement is – community? The thrashing head banging – wild abandon? The slower body contortions – sensualism?
When I run: I hit my stride, I enjoy the demands, but also the exhaustion and the wind down, but I also enjoy afterwards, while still exhausted the feeling of heightened body awareness. This video felt like a gallop. Like horses building up speed. It would be good to somehow maintain the urgency in the slower section near the end, slower but just as tense or poised. I was reminded of the last main sequence from Apocalypse Now for some reason. Now there is nothing in the corner. No Thing in the corner. Perhaps they should be strewn about earlier, more of them, make them discardable, less important by their numbers, already spilled. I miss the balloons littering the space like mushrooms though. The turns to face the audience feel unresolved. You rotate to show your faces, but only once, is this the start of something? Now you don’t stop. Don’t stop.
Think like body builders or drag artists or vogue dancers in a dressing room.
What you need is a slowed version of K-Pop body language in there as well. Some of that swagger, but sloooow, tense.
Option 1: You(all) start in the suit(s), you unskin. You (all) put on the apron(s), then the 1st sequence starts. Option 2: It starts with a dressing and undressing sequence, into skins out of them, into the trousers and aprons out of them, until the 1st sequence starts. Option 3: Add the end of the old version of the performance to the beginning of the show but run in reverse: You are sat in the corner in the suit, Yen Ching and Martha are naked beneath the plastic, they rise and retreat away to the back of the space. You come centre stage and unskin, put on apron, they join you dressed. Ass dance starts. Space: Maybe make the formation of space about what you do rather than where. I am getting dressed ‘here’. We are resting ‘here’ – while you are also dancing ‘here’. Why delineate a dressing-room/off-stage? What if Black bodies and skins were everywhere? What does this do to the relations between you if you do the wrong (spatial thing) next to each other?
You have now made enough progress to have created new problems.
1: The dressing room space. I can’t look at all that stuff. After weeks of imagining an empty(ish) space, the ordinariness of clothes hangers bothers me… or at least, that there is all that stuff around it. I would say that there should be nothing but the items used: the bodies, the skins, your costumes. Yet… if all that stuff there were black, made of the same stuff. Like a bunch of negative space objects… something uniform and excessive to the area…
2: The opening – 6 mins into the video the music stops just before the ass dance. I think your intention is for constant music, or am I mistaken? If it stops, it can only stop the very second the ass dance starts. Now that opening 6 mins is not quite right. But it’s very interesting/promising. My reservation is that it’s too static. Weirdly not because of the stillness of bodies, but because not enough is being processed.
So here’s a set of metaphors, the opening 6 minutes should for the audience be:
A dumb-show (a review of the whole show to come)
Also: A punch in the face.
Also: Like losing a game of speed chess to a tiger.
So my impression is that it’s already reviewing images from the show, but that it’s being done tentatively, that you are warming up yourselves and the audience.
Don’t use the Start to warm up… be ready, and demolish the audience in the first six minutes, tactically, ruthlessly.
Size them up.
Mock the moves you are expected to do.
Take your pleasure.
Then fuck the costumes you are in and get them off.
Music stops/ass dance.
The rest of the show is yours.
If a lot of the rest of the show is messy and physical, excessive (Weird). That opening could be… precise, cold, symmetrical, surgical, swift. (eerie) ghostly.
3: So the rest of the show mostly proceeds as before and I love it, Jen has seen bits and likes it also. I think I miss the section a while back where the bodies went wrong. But, what I want to now call the atrocity exhibition is starting to work well.
So, those still bodies after the headbang – fingertips out, claws out. Make the bodies grip the audience, imagine each position is taking hold of an audience member a exerting a… pressure on them.
There’s an instagram account I like which only shows the reverse of ‘art canvas’. It feels like you are doing famous bodies in art and culture… seen from the wrong direction. I like this, make the bodies more like this… like we should recognise them, but that they have also been given steroids.
The moment you thump your body on the ground and it resonated.Can that be a section?
4: I’m all good then until the end. I’m not sure you have an end. I don’t think the three of you can leave.
I wouldn’t necessarily miss the skins. What happens if you do everything but lose the skins and the puppets. Like they are airbrushed out of a photo. Stalin used to do that… have a photo of his cabinet, and each year it was the same old photo but with people painted out…
What I thought about last night was the best idea about endings I ever read via Helene Cixcous. She says all work goes through three schools Death Dreams and Roots. In that order.
Death is trauma or disruption or break.
Dreams are desires.
Roots are the past, ancestry, order, memory, home…
She also cites Kafka, who in his last letters constantly writes about flowers and their beauty. She says ‘everything ends with flowers’. I very often think of that as the primary instruction for an ending. And I think from what I saw, you might have found that. Take this and respond: Roots, Flowers, Blooms.
I think I fully approve song choice. I’ve not had chance to sit down and play it over the video. But I remember feeling of the song.
It has the benefit of: being old enough to no longer be nostalgia. And ambiguous enough to allow audience to project in. It is a root, and a bloom.
Excellent, each section obliterated the previous. My reservations are with the end, and are quite precise. At 35:40-37:00 Yen Ching keep her hands out like at 34:17 36:54 Martha bounce all way diagonal to costumes at back wall, continue, it will allow longer ‘model strut’ 37:49 Cut material 38:10-40:33 That gives you two mins of extra time, the crawl doesn’t really add. Then go on before: but with extra two mins– allowing you to Huddle on your feet stood up, with physical tension, with audible counting underneath. Return some ‘potential’ energy to piece before exiting? My overall comment is that ‘each section obliterates the one before’ that last section of huddling, needs to sustain long enough and with enough energy to be the only thing in the space.
Well, I think that perhaps denies the audience a sense of closure on the event. Given that the piece starts in such an open manner, it could end with more resolve.
Jen watched the video last night, she really likes the piece. So my feedback is very informed by her comments. She spotted with me that the seated bodies at the end is wrong. She suggested the counting came back.
I would suggest now a hard blackout at the end in three/four steps, like someone flicking off the lights in a large room.
Ok so, three trashed bodies – but stood up (more resilient). Not on floor. You begin counting like ‘ass dance’ but displaced. So we expect that image to do something – Then lights out 1, 2, 3… 4. Blackout. silence.
Imagine the body you make together is a protective thing, but also… I would avoid a weaponised or destructive metaphor… something with agency, power, potential. The count is not with a move… but the count up to one… the lead in… a long count before the drums start…
If my timing is right, good morning Seoul. Propositions for endings: In early drafts of the show up have offered up new/dead women wrapped in plastic. Or the end of men, thrashed and emptied out, their skin worn by you. Those endings went away, they are not part of this piece anymore, and my advice had been to refer to Kafka and Cixous, to find your ‘Roots’ at the end of the piece and to bloom, to ‘end with flowers’. I don’t know if the current ending is a response to any of that advice, but I still read it that way. You find each other, you are each other’s root, and your bodies together make a seed pod, perhaps a Nut. This in itself marks an ending, a site of potential, a meeting that has not occurred so far. If you are uncertain about the end, two questions: What does the piece want to do? What do you think an audience ‘needs’?
Consider this: This is the first real touching in the piece, what is touch in this moment? Who is touching who? If you want to end – then leave, exit, escape. That Nut you form, is potential, but also protection. Your collective skin is a shell. Should it crack? Something I remembered recently was also Cixous, ‘make work without guarantee of your own return’. If you have changed or transformed, lost or gained something permanently then the piece has already ended. What transformation has taken place? Marking that, is the end.
Today’s quote, told to me in conversation is from Alastair MacLennan, ‘The centre of the art world is where you breathe’. My most recent structural observation was that each section ‘obliterated the last’… so follow that logic, just obliterate the final image. Leave nothing but breath. Happy making.
How’s the ending? I have another idea.
So it’s simple: In the huddle – one of you takes a bow, then another, then another, etc an arm points up, another to the wings, a leg curtsies. All the parts of various ‘bows’ cycle through but back to audience, a final gesture.