Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Jen Gilleran - October 16th, 2011


“When you’re watching a performer of any art, don’t you find yourself constantly wondering about the ‘real’ person behind the art? I do, all the time. My dance reveals that 'real’ me; and its truth, I hope, speaks to the audience.”  Min Tanaka

In 1997, I had the great fortune of living for four weeks in Hakushu, Japan on a farm owned by the choreographer Min Tanaka. Eight dancers were selected for a piece based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe to which Susan Sontag contributed a libretto.  Each morning I rose at 5am, harvested onions, carrots and soybeans, cleared trees and watched the dancers rehearse.

Min’s work is inspired by the Butoh artist, Hijikata. Some qualities of grotesque and excruciatingly slow movement are similar to both Hijkata and the Butoh tradition, yet Min is more concerned with finding the “origin of dance”.  His process explores territory designed to provoke visceral reactions by placing the artist in beautiful and terrifying circumstances. Certainly he is among a community of artists that approach their work with this intention, but it was one of my first experiences as a witness to it and it changed my view of my own work.  

Min instructed his dancers to kneel blindfolded in the center of a goat pen with the goal of embracing the animal with no resistance.  This could take hours, and the dancers experienced a vulnerability that asked them to confront a variety of emotions from fear to exaltation.  Sometimes a dancer would present Min with movement ideas after spending days on their own, only to be met with the thundering words “Too much dance!” Some had breakdowns and went back to the States, particularly as the exercises explored taboos of madness and killing. Like Andre Gregory recounted in his play ‘My Dinner with Andre’ after his workshops in Poland with Jerzy Grotowski, many participants described a sense of being completely lost. They could not reconcile what had been discovered with their previous identity.

For those that stayed on, the performance weeks later mirrored the process. Haggard, thin, lost and found, the performers obliterated the proscenium, and consequently the role of the audience. The viewers were revealed as complex humans grappling with the gamut of emotions the artists themselves had experienced. It was a frenzied gospel moment. Some cried, some froze, some gasped, and some shot out of their seats forgetting all social graces to announce wildly, “THIS IS SHIT!” before they stormed out. Afterwards, Min would forsake positive reviews from gushing fans to replay the moment. “They FELT something!” he would say, with joy. He was fascinated by the quality of rage demonstrated and celebrated the depth of reaction.

I am rarely moved by art that fights to keep identity intact and the audience comfortable. In music, this has nothing to do with the choice of loud or soft, as sometimes silence is deafening and a true challenge to hold.  I think it starts with an intention and I strive to play from a place that is, for better or for worse, Me.

I am not sure how these experiences will translate this evening, but I see myself in a supportive community at Racer. I am honored to be a part of it. Gregg Keplinger, Sean Lane, C.J. Stout and Erica Carlson will be joining me for the intro pieces. I may ask certain other musicians to join if it feels right. Inspired by my time in NYC witnessing John Zorn’s game pieces, I will be using hand signals to conduct. Thank you!