Find us on Facebook
- Sort OptionsGo to Today
Newsletter Sign Up!
Stephanie Zaletel is a dreamer. She dreams vividly, a lot, and resorts to her body as a vessel with which to better understand the labyrinth of her mind. Zaletel is an instinctual choreographer deeply connected to her own psychology, yet fueled by the creative energy of her collaborators. She treasures the preciousness of the work made with her dance company, “szalt,” but she is also not afraid to abandon all control. What follows is an email exchange between Stephanie Zaletel* and J. Alex Mathews,** a Los Angeles based arts administrator and artist.
AM: I’d like to begin with practice. Having experienced your work many times, including F L W R S and O E (F L W R S remixed), I admire your ability to sustain a practice and generate work regularly. What does rigor look and feel like for you?
SZ: I enjoy long processes. Swimming in my stream of consciousness and exercising material fully. I have always had an active imagination. I dream a lot, and dance is how I analyze my fantasies, paranoia, and demons without overthinking. I crave physical practice and my dancers crave physical practice. Rigor is my default – but rest is equally important. Re-storing, re-generating. Infinite cycles. The work is never finished and always finished.
AM: Collaboration and trust seem to play an integral part in your dance making. You work very closely with a group of women, for example. How do ideas flow from the individual to the collective? And how does audience impact that energy/dynamic?
SZ: It is difficult to explain. I am in love with my team. Each dancer, designer, composer we bring in is incredibly sensitive, driven, and a good match energetically. Serious relationships, rooted in trust and integrity, are critical for me to experience freedom in a process. That said, I learn so much from new voices as well. Bringing in new people and taking our work outside of LA pushes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to trust more willingly.
The work I make is always bigger than individual egos. This kind of agreement takes time, practice, and research. The company members I work with are incredibly brave, hilarious, and honest. This allows me to shed layers, and discover true potential. Camaraderie within the company offers me confidence to bring my work to any audience. If we are all on the same page, audiences trust us. They feel safe watching something a little weird, and enjoying it.
AM: Where did this work begin and what nudged you to stay in conversation with it?
SZ: Wow. It all goes back to about 6 years ago when I was getting my BFA at CalArts. I made a site-specific piece for 7 women on a grassy hill covered in flowers called flowers unfurling. The work reflected a transition into womanhood – one I had difficulty with. I was reading Ulysses by James Joyce at that time and the Penelope excerpt resonated with me more than anything I had ever read in my life. This 700-page novel told through the perspectives of men ends suddenly in 37 pages with a woman’s perspective; she spoke with romance, passion, complexity, sex, love, death, truth, memory, hope…all of it written without punctuation. In the first iteration of my work with flowers – which was made alongside szalt company members Lindsey Lollie and Jordan Saenz while we attended CalArts – I aimed to make work inspired by Penelope’s presence, fueled by my own stream of consciousness, and the collective consciousness of my collaborators.
After graduating I made a new iteration of the piece, flowersallawomansbody. I was interested in flesh in an effort to grapple with sex, social constructs, and personal experiences of physical objectification. Three years after that, F L W R S analyzed and emphasized the stereotypes surrounding feminine growth, love, sex, death, and celebration. To me, in this current revival of F L W R S it’s the deepest we have explored those themes. I am beginning to think that my work with flowers will never feel finished as long as I am alive and a woman.
AM: When do you start to craft creative musings/explorations? What is the interplay between structured choreography and improvisation?
SZ: The process is continuous here too. There is one distilled theme I try to build upon, usually an image, an object, or a dream and then the movement vocabulary of a piece will draw from the physical activities I have in my life at that time: swimming in the ocean, long distance running, playing tennis, hiking, driving, climbing rocks. While my work is categorized as “contemporary dance” we all like to take a cross training approach to our physicality; especially since my work often is not set in a theater, we treat ourselves like athletes – prepared for any and all terrain. I also find it easier to break “dancer” habits if we are running together, swimming, doing yoga, improvising, ballet, etc. A technical foundation is important, but we are also challenging our bodies often and thus unlocking more availability for richer material. During a creative process, my company improvises daily and I set choreography on them regularly. Eventually there is a deadline and the work is considered “finished” for the time being.
AM: F L W R S is described as “demonstrating non-chronological feminine development.” What form does narrative/storytelling take in your work (if any)? How do you invite others into your world?
SZ: I am not a fan of art that tells you how you are supposed to feel. I am not a fan of people who tell you how you are supposed to feel. I am not a fan of advertising that tells you how you are supposed to feel.
A few years ago Julia Planine- Troiani, a dear friend and company dancer would often remind me, “Growth is not always chronological.” I have realized that we continuously connect the dots of who we used to be with, who we are now, who we are going to be, who we want to be, and what we thought would be.
In F L W R S we are trying to connect it all simultaneously for our viewers to digest it at their pace. While there is form to the work and a running order of events, there is not one correct way to experience the work. There are symbols and clues, but what you get from the work is really up to each individual viewer.
AM: What has surprised you? Frustrated you?
SZ: It has been difficult for me to find a balance between exposing my heart and protecting it. Building a dance company versus making enough money to buy groceries and pay rent. Balance is hard to find and fleeting. Through it all I feel so lucky to have such a strong bond with my friends, family, and loved ones. Because of szalt there are more and more beloved people entering my life. That is what it is really all about.
AM: With dance as your primary mode of expression, how does physicality – the physical body – shape and influence your ideas? What do movement, momentum, stillness and everything in between do?
SZ: The body is truly present. The body remembers, even things the mind forgets or suppresses. In my practice, I intend to genuinely listen to my body, challenge boundaries, test physical matter to make room for psychological discoveries and growth.
Szalt’s performances are meditative and oftentimes exhausting or tricky in our effort to make the physical experience human and relatable, instead of entertaining and inaccessible.
AM: What’s next?
SZ: Marshmallow Sea! Marshmallow Sea is a sequel to our most recent creation, WATER STORIES. I am picking up where we left off — examining water symbols, conservation, sustainability, and dream logic. It is scheduled to premier in Seattle in 2017 with Anna Conner at Velocity Dance Center. We will be raising funds in October to create and tour the work. More details soon!
*szalt is a collection of site-sensitive Los Angeles movers, collaborating with musicians and visual artists artistically led by dancer and choreographer, Stephanie Zaletel. Within the last four years, Zaletel has produced a myriad of new works across the city for szalt. Their work has been presented by REDCAT, Highways, The Hammer Museum, HomeLA, WCCW, The McCallum Theater, and The Bootleg Theater’s HomeGrown Festival. Zaletel has been an active member of the Pieter Performance Space Council for over 2 years.
Szalt was chosen to perform as Finalists in the McCallum Choreography Festival 2015 in Palm Desert and is the MorYork Gallery 2016 Artist in Residence. szalt was also invited to be part of the Current LA Water Public Art Biennial with their latest work, Water Stories.
For more information: stephaniezaletel.com
**J. Alex Mathews is a Los Angeles based blend of poet, dancer, yogi and arts advocate. She grew up internationally and bi-coastally in the U.S. and has lived in LA since 2007. She graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in World Arts and Cultures/Dance and she is a certified instructor in Vinyasa Yoga and Kundalina Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan.
Since 2012 she has worked as the Program Manager for the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, which gives unrestricted prizes to five mid career, risk-taking artists annually. Since 2014 she has served as the Associate Director and Director of Programming for Dance Resource Center, a local service organization that is the hub and voice for Greater Los Angeles dance. In the past, she worked as an administrator and dancer in residence at Bates Dance Festival and as a Managing Director with Pentacle (DanceWorks, Inc.) She believes in challenging and revitalizing public engagement with the performing arts as well as enhancing sustainable opportunities for artists. She is grateful for contributing as a nominator and evaluator for renowned grants and attending conferences for Arts 4 LA, Dance/USA, Grant-Makers in the Arts and Western Arts Alliance. She continues to investigate her role in the arts through creating, teaching, advocacy and curation/production. She was recently invited to join an art collective called “Remnants,” the SoCal Leadership Network through the LA Chamber of Commerce and soon, will begin Arts for LA’s ACTIVATE fellowship for Cultural Policy.
Danielle Birrittella is wild-spirited in her creative endeavors. A classically trained opera singer, she now experiments in a multi-dimensional world that is sonic and visually immersive. Her ethereal chamber pop-like music compositions of her project Dia, which put out the Tiny Ocean EP on Manimal Records, have captured the attention of many, including NPR’s Tiny Desk. With her current work in development, Sonnets To Orpheus, she takes an even deeper plunge into the unknown – a realm in which she earnestly and amusedly claims she is not the “doer.” Orpheus is a sensory exploration that differs from the more intimate vision she carries with Dia, but one that shares a desire for divulgence and invocation.
Birrittella was raised on a Hindu ashram outside of Boston. Whether it was the vibrational impact of singing ragas, or being given the Sanskrit name Mahashakti, which translates as “the ultimate feminine power inherent in all creation,” Birrittella sought BIG expression. As a young girl, musicals initially influenced her pursuit to find the grandness she sought for her singing voice. Throughout her teens and into her twenties, Birrittella set forth on a rigorous path to becoming a professional opera singer. She studied music and theatre at NYU, received an MFA from CalArts, learned a trio of Romance languages, acquired Italian citizenship and attended Young Artist Programs. Conflict festered in her classical training, however; one in which tradition and perfectionism clashed with her quest to rediscover unencumbered levels of vulnerability in performance. Her uncertainty resulted in a break away from the opera path.
Birrittella’s brother, Sasha, gifted her a ukulele the following Christmas. She had never composed music or accompanied herself on instruments, but the self-sufficiency discovered from playing songs opened up a whole new world of songwriting. As she wrote in fragments, she wondered, “What is this?”
“Discovering my own ability to create something complete – not needing the validation of being cast in an opera or a show – changed my life. Yes, we all love to be respected and recognized, but it’s ultimately about making the work that satisfies the moment,” Birritella said.
For Sonnets To Orpheus, creative synchronicities became a full circle endeavor as Birrittella’s discoveries made way for serendipitous, collaborative opportunities.
When her friend Chris Rountree of wild Up offered to compose a short song cycle for ukulele, cello and voice, Birrittella felt that there needed to be some sort of foundational text to work off. She then recalled a fragment from a poem, “and made herself a bed inside my ear.” After researching the line, she discovered it was part of a much larger set of sonnets by Rainer Maria Rilke; the English version she loved was by translator Stephen Mitchell. Birrittella was able to connect with Mitchell and was given the rights to his translation.
“The project began evolving… and I was asking, what if this, what if that…what if I asked a wish-list of composers to each score a sonnet, what if we had visuals, what if there was a whole world for these songs? I kept asking and people kept saying yes. It was incredible.”
“We decided to use a string quartet as our instrumentation because I had read in Stephen Mitchell’s introduction that, ‘Sonnets To Orpheus, in their subtler way, are string quartets to [Rilke’s Duino] Elegies’ full orchestra’. The decision was made for us. We have harmonium on a few songs as well; an homage to the sacred nature of the pieces.”
“This project was my first time writing any sort of chamber music. My piece, Sonnet II, And it was almost a girl, is from that poem I had recalled. In contrast to my Dia songs, the specificity of Rilke’s imagery fostered a complete trust and freedom to work with the text as a base. It allowed me to forgive myself with where the piece would go because it was already there. I must have been acquiescing to what he and Mitchell had on the page. It was a truly joyous process.”
The more a world is conjured, the more fully it can be experienced – and ultimately, shared with others. “We are evoking the world of Orpheus, and Rilke for that matter. This is about nature, sensuality, death, light, surrender and transcendence,” said Birrittella. Among Birrittella’s collaborators are: Alexis Macnab, Keith Skretch, Hana Sooyeon Kim, and Yao Zhang.
Alongside a collective of talented artists, Birrittella believes each individual contribution to the work – whether visual, sonic, or choreographic – stands strongly on its own, which ultimately strengthens the culmination of the piece in its entirety.“We aren’t inventing something completely new. We are taking existing threads and weaving them together into a new fabric. I hope it is a beautiful fabric.” Orpheus is an offering, creating space for others to feel some Thing cathartic, whatever that may mean to an audience member then and there.
And it was almost a girl and came to be
out of this single joy of song and lyre
and through her green veils shone forth radiantly
and made herself a bed inside my ear.
And slept there. And her sleep was everything:
the awesome trees, the distances I had felt
so deeply that I could touch them, meadows in spring:
all wonders that had ever seized my heart.
She slept the world. Singing god, how was that first
sleep so perfect that she had no desire
ever to wake? See: she arose and slept.
Where is her death now? Ah, will you discover
this theme before your song consumes itself?–
Where is she vanishing?… A girl almost…
J. Alex Mathews is a Los Angeles based blend of poet, dancer, yogi and arts advocate. She grew up internationally and bi-coastally in the U.S. and has lived in LA since 2007. She graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in World Arts and Cultures/Dance and she is a certified instructor in Vinyasa Yoga and Kundalina Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. Since 2012 she has worked as the Program Manager for the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, which gives unrestricted prizes to five mid career, risk-taking artists annually. Since 2014 she has served as the Associate Director and Director of Programming for Dance Resource Center, a local service organization that is the hub and voice for Greater Los Angeles dance. In the past, she worked as an administrator and dancer in residence at Bates Dance Festival and as a Managing Director with Pentacle (DanceWorks, Inc.) She believes in challenging and revitalizing public engagement with the performing arts as well as enhancing sustainable opportunities for artists. She is grateful for contributing as a nominator and evaluator for renowned grants and attending conferences for Arts 4 LA, Dance/USA, Grant-Makers in the Arts and Western Arts Alliance. She continues to investigate her role in the arts through creating, teaching, advocacy and curation/production. She was recently invited to join an art collective called “Remnants,” the SoCal Leadership Network through the LA Chamber of Commerce and soon, will begin Arts for LA’s ACTIVATE fellowship for Cultural Policy.
The LAX showing of Moonchops is one iteration of several artist Brian Getnick will develop throughout the following year. We are thrilled to be working with Brian Getnick at Automata this year, and can’t wait to see how this singular piece of (fully committed) performance evolves and transforms over time. What an incredible opportunity.
Brian sent us a video trailer, and some useful context about this latest performance.
This trailer is a montage of rehearsals in three characters. In MOONCHOPS a “character” is a container for different embodiments. One could say that each is separately “acted” but “acting” seems to me to be only one facet of a range of performative modalities that are encompassed by “embodiment”, and specific to this piece, “embodied fantasy” which treats the theater as an animistic sort of object seen in the round.
The Magic Faggot, or the teen from 93 -delicate and loose, his performances are interior, private, conducted in the prop room that the set for MOONCHOPS is based on.
The Prince of Purrs– a dancing antagonist. Bestial and pompous.
The Old Magician is a living anachronism. His is a performativity that is tragically out of vogue: mimesis, clown, vaudeville are his ways.
From a prop room below a high school theater a young magician practices the arts of transformation: magic, dance, story telling. He imagines this private theater as animistic: every ornament and instrument an actor. As his work progresses, the characters he invents forget him, they shift the lights, the sounds, all the instruments of theatrical illusion into their own paradigm of the so-called-theater.
Marike Splint is an observationalist. She spends time in places that are not necessarily supposed to be occupied for long periods of time, like Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Having inherited questions about belonging and community from her own family history of migration – and being influenced by writers such as Peter Handke and Georges Perec – Splint notates the rhythm of an environment; studying flow patterns that inhabit it to then incorporate a theater-based experience that breaks logic and asks questions.
In her latest work, Among Us, Splint aims to re-wire codes of perception, creating a new room for the audience to look at things more closely and show one’s true colors more vulnerably. What follows is an email exchange between Marike Splint* and J. Alex Mathews,** a Los Angeles based arts administrator and artist.
Alex Mathews: What is the moment that tells you, “let’s begin,” as in what’s the catalyst to pursue an idea? A physical place, a feeling, book, memory? What inspired Among Us?
Marike Splint: It is different for every project. I have made some works inspired by my family’s migration history, but I have also started from one single sentence in Tennessee’s Williams’ memoires. But since I work outside regular theater venues, these catalysts are always related to a physical place that speaks to me, that I am interested in unraveling; a place that asks who we are when we are inhabiting it.
For Among Us, what got me started was the book Community by philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. In this work he outlines the tension between our desire for belonging and freedom. He argues that you cannot have both. I find this notion fascinating because I believe the biggest question of our time has to do with communality. I wanted to explore this in public space, so that participating performers and pedestrians passing by illuminate a response together, shedding light on a shared everyday reality.
AM: You like treating reality as a potential set for theater making, to work with the limitations of a site-specific environment. A word commonly used to describe or refer to that experience is immersive. Hailing from the Netherlands, now based in Los Angeles, what do you see as “reality” here? How do the real and unreal influence your curiosity?
MS: It’s funny because the term “immersive” is one I use in English when I talk about my work, but not in my native Dutch language. The Dutch definition for this type of work translates more as “experiential theatre.”
What I like about Los Angeles is that it is complex and incomplete. It works the opposite way from most European cities, that are charming, pretty and easy to swallow at first glance, but after a while you start to wonder what lies beneath that façade. Los Angeles doesn’t have a façade like that. It is confusing and to some even off-putting in the beginning. But when you peel the surface away, you discover the texture of a rich, diverse and fascinating city. It’s not an easy city, but that’s what I love about it.
AM: What else have you noticed about LA that interests you?
MS: Its lack of public spaces. There are very few open squares where people can encounter each other, even though it has a climate where that could happen all year. I think it’s a city that can make people feel lonely easily. But when people do encounter each other, it is beautiful. I have a bike, and when I get out of my car and bike through town, I can smell flowers and food, and people on sidewalks or other bikes greet me and each other. It feels like a parallel city that exists next to the Los Angeles of cars, highways and malls. Once you start walking or biking, the city reveals itself in a completely different way.
AM: In a city inundated by the film industry, what value does live theater have in Los Angeles? In what ways are/aren’t the film and theater linked?
MS: What the art of theatre offers is the ritual of the live and communal event. Coming back to the theme of communality, I think the medium of theatre is designed more around having a shared experience with a group of people than film is. Theatre is a space where things are real and not real at the same time. Where you can look at something and be part of something at the same time. This makes it an enticing space for negotiation and radical imagination of what it means to belong.
AM: In what ways do you see film and theatre linked and/or disconnected?
MS: My husband is a documentary filmmaker, so we have this conversation all the time. They are different media, and each asks for a different medium-specific language. I think the best theatre works with elements and vocabularies that can only work in the medium of theatre, and the best films work with elements and vocabularies that can only work in the medium of film. However, I do think they very much feed into each other, and I always like to ask myself what I can ‘steal’ from the other medium. How can I translate a hard cut or a split screen into its theatrical equivalent? And how can I apply the conceptual approach of contemporary theatre to contemporary filmmaking? Looking at art forms different from my own always helps me push my own boundaries artistically.
AM: What I appreciate about many LA artists – you included – is that they do not wait to get permission to bring ideas to life. What that often means is self-producing and/or finding unconventional places to perform. In what ways does working outside of regular venues challenge your creative process and/or set it free?
MS: I like working outside of regular venues because you can reinvent the conventions of theatre, and place your work in the middle of society. It gives a lot of freedom, but it triggers new problems. With Among Us, I spent hours at the train station to determine when it is populated enough for the show to happen. Once I had to relocate a performance because a hawk was breeding on the meadow we were supposed to perform, and it would have been hazardous for the audience. Three years ago, I did a show in which the audience was driving in cars like a real road movie, and I had to convince people to sell me their old cars for 150 euros because that is what we would get when we would bring them to the automobile graveyard after the show. In other words, you become very flexible and inventive when you create work that has a large element of chance in it. And I think this way of operating has made me a better artist – having to be flexible in producing means you also become more flexible creatively.
AM: What is it like for you when you work in a theater?
MS: Last fall, I directed a performance in a theatre for the first time in 8 years with MFA student actors and designers at UCLA. I was baffled by the amount of control I had of the space after being outdoors for so long. There were no sheep crossing the stage, no shows were cancelled because of the rain, I could control lights, I knew what the ending was – it felt great. Although I did treat the space as if I were doing an immersive show. We changed the audience configuration and worked with the theatre’s architecture, showing scenes in all corners of room. We made it feel like a huge warehouse space. For me it’s important to bring the curiosity and excitement that comes with working site-responsively into the theatre venue as well.
AM: You’ve noted the significance space has in shaping our identity, and yet, with globalization and mobilization, space becomes fluid and we’re less dependent on it. What impact does that have on your artistic choices?
MS: Yes, there are reoccurring questions that drive the content of my work, as well as the choice to use public space as an arena. How do people, place and identity correlate in a time of unprecedented migration flows? What does it mean to be rooted or uprooted? How do we relate to place when we are spending an increasing amount of time in ‘non-places’ such as hotels, airports, highways, and the Internet? How do we conceive of community when who we are is less and less dependent on where we are? These are all big questions, but ones that I believe resonate in a time in which social forms are constantly changing and radically transforming the experience of being human.
And I don’t know what the answers are; I am more of a question-asker than I am an answer-giver. I use my work to trigger these thoughts, to ask the audience members how they relate to the spaces they inhabit. Moreover, I try not to judge. I am as excited about exploring generic spaces like hotel rooms, train stations and airports as I am about working in specific places, such as historic industrial complexes and old neighborhoods. I think it’s interesting that most people are attracted to both. They enjoy being free and having the ability to feel home wherever their laptop is. But at the same time there is a desire to have roots, and that asks for commitment to a place. That’s exactly the tension Zygmunt Bauman talks about.
*Marike Splint is a Dutch director specializing in site-responsive and immersive theater. She has created shows in sites ranging from a bus driving through a transitional neighborhood to wide open meadows, taxicabs, train stations and hotel rooms. Her work has been presented in The Netherlands, Casablanca (Morocco), Tbilisi (Georgia), and at the Ruhrtriennial in Germany. AMONG US will be her Los Angeles premiere. Splint received her BA in philosophy from the University of Amsterdam and her MFA in directing from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a Columbia University Merit Fellowship, and currently is a faculty member in the Theater Department of UCLA.
**J. Alex Mathews is a Los Angeles based blend of poet, dancer, yogi and arts advocate. She grew up internationally and bi-coastally in the U.S. and has lived in LA since 2007. She graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in World Arts and Cultures/Dance and she is a certified instructor in Vinyasa Yoga and Kundalina Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. Since 2012 she has worked as the Program Manager for the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, which gives unrestricted prizes to five mid career, risk-taking artists annually. Since 2014 she has served as the Associate Director and Director of Programming for Dance Resource Center, a local service organization that is the hub and voice for Greater Los Angeles dance. In the past, she worked as an administrator and dancer in residence at Bates Dance Festival and as a Managing Director with Pentacle (DanceWorks, Inc.) She believes in challenging and revitalizing public engagement with the performing arts as well as enhancing sustainable opportunities for artists. She is grateful for contributing as a nominator and evaluator for renowned grants and attending conferences for Arts 4 LA, Dance/USA, Grant-Makers in the Arts and Western Arts Alliance. She continues to investigate her role in the arts through creating, teaching, advocacy and curation/production. She was recently invited to join an art collective called “Remnants,” the SoCal Leadership Network through the LA Chamber of Commerce and soon, will begin Arts for LA’s ACTIVATE fellowship for Cultural Policy.