Salon NOTEBOOK: Sara Shelton Mann and Erica Mott
by Zachary Whittenburg
Just after sundown on April 19, storm clouds assaulted Chicago with hail and rain, grounding 450 flights out of O'Hare and flooding the city's streets. Although scientists don't exactly know how, or why, massive amounts of electrical potential built up between the earth and these clouds, discharged in the form of multimillion-volt strikes.
Safe inside Woman Made Gallery on Milwaukee Avenue, CDF Lab Artist Erica Mott spoke of her beginnings in puppetry, mask work and sculptural costume. "I'm fascinated with what the body can transform itself into with the aid of a covering," she explained, extending her left arm with a pen in her hand. "When do you stop seeing a pen and an arm, and start seeing a third thing? And if there's space between me and an object, how does that affect things?"
In October 2009, Mott worked with Guillermo Gómez-Peña's La Pocha Nostra through an intensive at Columbia College Chicago. (She's now part of the Bay Area-based group's international family.)
Mott reminded Gómez-Peña of another artist he knew, also intrigued by the electrical potential between objects and performers. "You need to know Sara," he told Mott. She reached out to Sara Shelton Mann via email and, within minutes, the San Francisco choreographer, healer and writer had zapped back an invitation to a workshop the following February.
"The rest," Mott told me, "is history."
The two enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. Mott, who's based in Chicago, receives crucial feedback while in process toward The Victory Project, her CDF-supported investigation of "the female body and its complicated relationship with victory." (Other lightning rods for Mott in process are Justin Cabrillos and Bryan Saner; Justus Harris, David Krausse, Constance Lee and Kristin Mariani are helping to create the project's costumes and objects.)
Meanwhile, says Mann of Mott, "She asks great questions, and gets information out of me that most people don't."
One also gets the sense that there's a satisfaction for both in finding a spirit kindred in terms of their dance works' ingredients-theater, stagecraft and physical objects-yet divergent when it comes to their tastes in presentation.
In a video excerpt from Mann's Inspirare, ghosts made of thrown flour loomed large over two women as they danced a wrestling match of a duet. Over the fray, a morning-radio DJ's voice commanded-in that abrasive, nuclear sunrise, morning-radio way-"Waaake up, San Francisco!"
"That [piece] I made as written from the future, with the past as now," Mann explained.
Footage of a solo sketch for The Victory Project showed Mott's collaborating sound designer, Ryan Ingebritsen, manipulating knobs and sliders on a table full of equipment. She assembled bodily confidence and power, helped and hindered by skeletal wings, each made of three aluminum crutches lashed together. The study ended a long way off from Mott taking flight, but her laborious progression from the floor to her feet was a Kitty Hawk of its own, doled out patiently enough that we imagined ourselves to be her, thus sharing a small piece of this modest pre-triumph.
Revised and Revisited, a collaboration with filmmaker Nadia Oussenko, showed Mott exhaling repeatedly into a teacup filled with chalk dust, generating white clouds similar to Inspirare's flour bombs as she gestured wordlessly in front of text scrawled on a blackboard. Without giving due credit, perhaps, to the role of silence and stillness in her work, Mott said seeing the film's final cut for the first time was "humbling, because here was a 50-minute installation that [Oussenko] distilled into 17, and she didn't miss a thing."
Mann breezed through her history from the future of now. Its motif: What next?
She stressed the difference between multi- and interdisciplinary work, and talked of pure movement study as a better means than an end. Dancers "train the body to hold energy, to hold presence, to be seductive, clear, and very, very awake-you learn to dance-but then what do you do with that?" she asked. While keeping her gaze forward, Mann stretched her right arm behind her as far as she could, grasping desperately with her fingers at something just out of reach. "I'm a writer now, getting into somatics and healing modalities, getting further and further off of the body," she said. "And I'm not sure where that's going to lead me."
"The mix of materials, objects and bodies onstage" is what grabbed Mott's attention once she schooled herself in the fruits of Mann's erstwhile performance group, Contraband. "It was remarkable," she remembered noticing, "how [Contraband pieces'] environments never upstaged the performers, how [the two] coexisted fully and peacefully." Mott spoke of Mann's use of technique in much the same way. "That thing when the virtuosic body takes over" doesn't happen, Mott noted. Mann's works don't "lose the person, the individual that's in there."
Probably because her process mines each performer so deeply. Mann related the experience of making a recent work, part of Tribes, for competitive junior ballroom dancers from northern Europe. Rehearsals for a festival presentation at Potsdam's Schinkelhalle were tightly compressed into a couple of weeks. Group improvisation exercises, methods honed with Contraband, quickly facilitated "aggressive, personal, raw" dynamics between them, she said. "Like a family['s], so then I could architect...people as an environment, give them something that they're forced to deal with." In the case of one cast member, this tack gave her free reign to explore bossy tendencies, and so she did.
"The men were furious," she recalled, "because this woman was abusing them! I had to ask her to pull back."
Mann's fascination with personalities manifested itself even in her earliest years, when she first noticed the difference between her experiences in natural settings and in social situations. "I related more to nature and animals than I did to people," she remembered. "I trusted what I felt [in nature], and most of what I saw." She later met Andrew Harwood, "fell in love with contact improvisation," and went through a "very painful period, crying most of the time, of trying and trying to learn just what this language was."
An awareness of presence that reaches through the fourth wall is what Mann and Mott strive to cultivate and fertilize. For both, the "distraction" of an object is just the thing to get a viewer to engage, like the temporary armatures supporting a dome's span while the concrete hardens. Cheerfully dismissing the concept of "starting from scratch," Mann talked of play of weight and rhythm as a productive alternative to the "rigmarole of pretending," and of the "shockingly bare and freeing" experience of the movement-generation exercise she calls "Solo, Neutral, Follow."
"It's about breaking all of that agreement about ‘how' we're relating, to just read energy, rhythm and weight, and go wherever they take me. There's no agreement that we have to be ‘together'-I can take [these things] and walk right out the door if I want to. It's about getting rid of the baggage so that everyone can be more present."
A thunderclap alerted the room to the storm raging outside. "Hellooo, I heeear you," Mann replied, addressing the white flash coming through wet windows.
"Oh, and rubber soles, rubber tires, don't protect you, by the way. Lightning goes where it wants to go."
The Chicago Dancemakers Forum's 2010-11 Salon series concludes June 15 at The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, in conjunction with an improvised dance festival coproduced with Links Hall. The complete lineup of guests, still to be announced, includes field notables Bebe Miller and Nancy Stark Smith.