Cloaked in a series of expanding and contracting fabrics — jarringly colorful and somehow nostalgic — are three performers: H. Gene Thompson, Ru Emmons, and Anna Azizzy. As they extend their limbs, crane their necks, shift their positions, the fabric follows, bringing to light a series of iterative sculptures.
Nearby, a slinky — that lovable precompressed helical spring developed in the 1940s — dangles and shakes. It is amplified by a contact microphone, which is fed into a computer, which is running a MAX patch designed by Arvid Tomayko. The sounds, like the wearable sculptures, are otherworldly.
These are a few of the ingredients in Apart From Me, an ambitious evening-length performance by longtime collaborators H. Gene Thompson and Arvid Tomayko. This work premieres February 8, 2018 at 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Find tickets here.
In conversation after a rehearsal in the New Hazlett Theater’s upstairs practice room, we discuss what this performance is.
“Visual art is the wrong term. Performance art evokes the wrong feelings, oftentimes,” says Thompson. “Why this is an art piece — we are working with a conceptual framework and if [our decisions fall] under that framework, then it’s good.”
“There’s a visual language. There’s a sound language. There’s the language of how they interact,” says Tomayko.
In short, the collaborators are building systems, fluid and flexible — systems of how performers interact with the fabric, how bodies interact with each other, how performers direct the sound, and how sound feeds back into the performers.
“It’s an abstract narrative, but it’s based around human communication and what that looks like today,” says Thompson. “We’re looking at the ways that we are not communicating effectively, the ways that technology fails us.”
At its best, the CSA series promotes this kind of work — work that cannot be simply classified as dance or live music or theater. It’s the blurring of genre and medium boundaries that allows for the potential to surprise, to thrill an audience. Surely, there’s risk to confuse or bore or madden an audience, too, but that is part of the attempt.
For the past few years, Thompson and Tomayko have taken their unique mix of interactive sound and wearable, performative sculptures around the country. “Tent Worm” and “Tentacle Horn” are a few of the names of their past collaborations, pieces that found both of them inside the wearable sculptures. On the home front, this past summer, they had a residency at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum.
As a duo, Thompson and Tomayko are accustomed to the art gallery setting, and the limitations that come with performing in a fixed space. While galleries often host music and performance work — due to open floor plans, the open minds of gallery owners, or often cheap rental fees for promoters and artists— these types of spaces are not designed for performance. For Apart From Me, the duo has the opportunity to mine the possibilities of a fully working, flexible theater space. “Instead of having a gallery space where we have a couple hours to set up,” says Tomayko, “we have this theater where instead of asking what can we do, we ask what do we want to do.”
The increased floor space provides room for more movers. “This is a heavily collaborative process,” says Thompson. “[We’ve] been working with performance artist Anna Azizzy and dancer Ru Emmons. The two of them have both brought so many enlightening perspectives to the process.” Thompson stressed that the the goal with this collaboration is to make everyone’s voice heard regarding the decision-making process.
With three dedicated movers, Tomayko has the opportunity to really focus on the sound score. “In previous pieces that we’ve done together, we’ve both been on stage, and the sound has to work on it’s own. If it doesn’t work, we have to stop [and ask the audience] to hold on.”
For Apart From Me, Tomayko has devised some new, homemade technology. “One of the motion sensors that I’ve been building is about the size of a matchbox. They’re battery-powered. They connect with wifi to send all the motion data, acceleration, and orientation of gravity to the computer. That data can be used to make sound.”
The performers will be wearing these sensors during the performance, creating a direction cause and effect relationship between the movement onstage and the sound pumping through the speakers.
Not all of the sound that is created is interactive, but for Tomayko, it is important to give “the performers some sort of agency over the sound sort of similar to the agency that they have over the sculptures and their bodies.”
Apart From Me premieres on Thursday, February 8 at 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.
This article is cross-published with Recital, who has a partnership with the New Hazlett Theater to further critical discourse of the performing arts.