Monday, November 26, 2012

The Body as a Target

Catherine Cabeen
photo by: alan kimara dixon
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shooting Paintings became increasingly performative in their second year. Capitalizing on a background in both theater and modeling (she had graced the covers of Life and Vogue as a teenager in the late 1940s), the artist was well positioned to add even more bite to already-provocative works.

Saint Phalle began to engage in a highly orchestrated performance of her public self, aided in no small part by her new “shooting costume”--a form-fitting white body suit that became the defining garment for all shooting sessions. In her white suit and black boots, Saint Phalle was the exaggeration of femininity--virginal yet simultaneously sexualized. The femme fatale aspect of her public persona, meanwhile, was often heightened in staged photographs in which the artist, with bright red lips, aimed her gun directly at the viewer. Speaking of the Shooting Paintings in a 1966 Vogue interview, she acknowledged this manner of dressing as a deliberate strategy and went so far as to call her body a constructed visual creation like her sculpture.
Catherine Cabeen
photo by: alan kimara dixon

The spectacle of her body became a dominant component of the work.

Comments in the popular press and arts journals revealed the extent to which the artist’s beauty was a central preoccupation: “Miss Saint Phalle cut a sharp figure in her ‘shooting’ bit” (Art News); “Through the room stalked the attractive white-suited figure of Niki de Saint Phalle, booted, paint-flecked (perfectly)” (Arts Magazine); and “Pow, Bam-Bang, Zip, went the beer and pressurized paint cans as comely virgin-garbed Niki de Saint Phalle pulled the trigger...[in her] calculated discreetly feminine shots” (Beverly Hills Times, also featuring an image with the revealing caption “Niki de Saint Phalle creating (sic)”).

While Saint Phalle indeed capitalized on her body in a way that some later feminist artists reacted against, Saint Phalle celebrated it, using the clash between her beauty and the violence of the Shooting Paintings to confront accepted notions of femininity. As Saint Phalle moved on from the Shooting Paintings, women’s bodies continued to be an interest for her, but her focus shifted away that of her own body and towards rotund, mid-frolic sculptural figures she called the Nanas. Her work calls attention to the troubling aspects of beauty and sexuality, tied as they are with power and the pressure to conform to certain societal ideals. 

Fire! gives us an opportunity to contemplate the links between this historical body and body-of-work and the world of dance, where criticism continues to have a particular interest in the body and beauty of the performer. 

- Nancy Stoaks, Fire! Dramaturg  

Saturday, August 18, 2012

One of the major points of inspiration for Catherine Cabeen and Company’s upcoming production, Fire!, has been Niki de Saint Phalle’s first major body of work, the provocative Shooting Paintings.  In these works, produced between 1961 and 1963, painting was accomplished with a .22-caliber rifle. When Saint Phalle and others took aim at these works, the gun’s bullets would penetrate a plaster surface, finding bags of paint and other items that had been embedded beneath. Once pierced, these contents erupted and fell unpredictably down the work’s surface. As Saint Phalle described it, it was creation through destruction.
Niki de Saint Phalle
Film Still — From Daddy 1972
All rights reserved 2007.
Positioned in opposition to postwar expressionism and the notion of an artist-genius, the Shooting Paintings were aligned with a number of early 1960s strategies aimed at a critique of authorship. These included the use of found and mass-produced objects, as well as compositional methods embracing chance and collaboration. In these respects, the Shooting Paintings were closely tied to the production of Saint Phalle’s fellow New Realists, a label that brought together a diverse group of artists, among them Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely.

Saint Phalle, however, was the only female member of the New Realists, and in this body of work there was also a forceful proto-feminist element. The artist’s aggressive act was not only a way to comment on the violence of the times, but a personal assertion of power. With gun poised, she became the ultimate phallic woman. The use of the gun was of course ironic (a caricature of abstract expressionism, much like Tinguely’s metamatic machines), but it was also done with sincerity and urgency. The Shooting Paintings eventually took the form of distinct targets, religion and men in particular. Saint Phalle expressed a desire to “trespass into the world of men”--to experience their power and freedom.* With gun in hand, she not only trespassed into their world, but also played a part in their destruction.

Saint Phalle was captivated by the power that the gun gave her--by the transformation it created (she called it exciting, sexy, and tragic all at once), and also by the attention it focused on her. Between June and September of 1961, more than fifty international newspapers and magazines had reported on the scandal of her Shooting Paintings. In the press, she became an Amazon, a vampire, and an ardent women’s rights activist.  

Today we view these works fifty years after they were made. Many things have changed, although inequalities and double standards persist. How, where, and when do women assume power in today’s world, and what happens when they do? Fire! urges us to ask.

*More of Saint Phalle’s commentary on this subject can be seen in “Letters,” in Niki de Saint Phalle, ed. Pontus Hultén (Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1992). 

-Nancy Stoaks, Fire! Dramaturg

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Tarot Garden

Catherine Cabeen and Company is fully immersed in our summer creative residency at On the Boards.  As I shift from questions, to clarity, and back again to more questions in the choreographic process, I am grateful to be working with an incredible team of dancers and collaborators. 

The process we are undertaking to create Fire! is very different than how we created Into the Void.  The process for Into the Void, a piece about immateriality, was as spacious as the subject matter of the work.  We had a week on, a few weeks off, then on again.  I traveled to work with out of town dancers.  We had a luxurious year and a half to make the work, during which time I held the thread of the piece in open hands. 

Fire! on the other hand is being wrung out of the ether with both fists.  I have been researching and creating phrase material on my own for Fire! for the last year.  However this time, the company is assembling for 6 solid weeks to construct the entire work in an intensive residency.  All of us are working tirelessly during this rigorous month and a half to create, edit, cut, destroy, and then rebuild; phrases, costumes, sets, music etc. 
I am enjoying the realization that the process we are using to create this work reflects the subject matter of Fire! in the same way ITV’s did.  
Niki de Saint Phalle’s work is dense, luscious, overwhelming, violent and aggressive. So it makes sense to be wrestling the muses for this work in a volcano of creative energy.

Inspired by Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, Fire! is organized around the Major Arcana of the Tarot.  Saint Phalle’s garden, which was constructed between 1978 and 1998 at Garavicchio in Tuscany, is the largest sculpture park ever created by a woman artist.  It is full of wild, fantastic creatures, many of which the viewer can enter and climb. 
I had the pleasure of visiting the garden earlier this year.  The colorful mosaics that embellish the parks monuments are often delightful, but just as often they include skulls, spiders, and images of violence reminiscent of Saint Phalle’s earlier works.

As the dancers I am working with push through 6-hour rehearsals, five days a week, I remind them that our bodies get stronger by breaking down and rebuilding; a core theme in the work that we are creating.  Saint Phalle’s glass and mirror mosaics are composed of the same reality as our amino-acid chain muscles, wherein fragmentation and wholeness coincide.

Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden inspired me to approach Seattle Art Museum (SAM) about the possibility of performing a related work in their Olympic Sculpture Park (OSP).  SAM’s support is allowing CCC to create Where They May, a site-specific work that crosses the movement vocabulary we have been working on for Fire! with the landscape and architecture of OSP.  

In contrast to Saint Phalle’s garden, OSP is designed to be enjoyed walking almost entirely in straight lines.  The consistent lack of straight lines in Saint Phalle’s work however, is a significant inspiration for the movement vocabulary I am creating for Fire!. As a result, Where They May is an experiment to see how the voluptuous work looks when framed by narrow passages and straight paths.

I hope you will join us for this free
one-time-only event, 
CCC's Where They May 
Thursday Aug 16, 7:15-8:15pm 
... as we dance down into the Sound.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ready, Aim...

Ready, Aim… is a solo work that I created for On the Boards NW New Works Festival 2012.  I expected this piece to be an excerpt of the larger piece, Fire!, which I am creating for 2013, however what emerged feels more like underpinnings for the evening-length work, rather than an excerpt.

I was inspired by Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shooting Paintings.  In this body of work Saint Phalle covered surfaces with objects including plastic bags of colored paint and plastered over the objects to create a voluptuous white surface.  Then in increasingly public performances, she would shoot the paintings with a rifle causing the bags of paint to bleed onto the painting’s surface.

I am fascinated by the fact that visual artists create work outside of themselves; while dancer/choreographers are often inseparable from our work.  Because of this I felt it was important to imagine what it was like to be one of the shooting paintings as well as the femme fatal shooter.  So I proposed to On the Boards that I make a piece in which I invite the audience to throw things at me…  Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it.

I feel that our bodies are very much like the shooting paintings in that we all bury memories in our flesh.  Our muscles and joints hold scars quietly until a touch, or smell, or flavor wakes up the memory and we find our selves reacting to a situation irrationally, in a way that is more about our personal history, rather than the actual present.

My intention was to create movement phrases based on injuries that my body holds, which would be initiated by the impact of the objects the audience threw at me.  While I was digging into my injuries for movement seeds however, two things happened.  One was that a long-standing chronic knee injury eclipsed all of the other investigations and actually became so aggravated that I was no longer able to dance.  The other was that while on tour I caught an episode of Comedy Central’s “Laugh at My Pain.”   Watching the stand up comedians I was struck by their amazing physicality and the fact that by making comedy out of tragedy they were offering themselves, and their audience a way to heal from their pain.

My work is not usually very funny.  But there is nothing I love more than a challenge.

photo by Tim Summers
 My knee injury is rooted in early ballet training in which I was told that I shouldn’t have such a big butt and to tuck it under.  In my desire to be a dancer, I believed my teacher and set a posture pattern in place that caused strain on the front of my hips that led to compromised health in my knees.  I was 22 years old before a physical therapist (named Rocky) told me that I was in fact supposed to have a curve in my lower back.  Physical habits die hard, and the undoing of this conditioning is still (12 years later) something I have to be conscious of.  This early training, that to be a dancer I should have no butt, also lead to a long struggle with eating disorders. 

As I investigated the other injuries I have had, I began to realize that most of them are the result of nutritional and emotional imbalance, all of which can be traced back to self sabotage that I enacted in order to fit into my perception of what I was supposed to look like as a woman, and certainly as a female dancer.

One reason I create work inspired by historic artists is to analyze the relationship between art and culture, both what has changed and what has remained the same.  Saint Phalle was cruelly objectified and not taken seriously as a woman artist in the 1960s.  While the waves of feminism continue to beat on the shore of misogyny, we still live in a culture that does not provide equal pay for equal work, expectations are extremely different for boys and girls, and women’s work is often reduced to how they look doing it.

In dance, misogyny is so inherent in classical aesthetics that it is almost invisible. *  The history of ballet costumes is about the increasing reveal of women’s legs and point shoes make women unable to stand on their own resulting in the continuous, literal manipulation of women by men in classical dance.   That’s what we expect when we go to the ballet.  Even Martha Graham, with her incredible cast of female heroines also established a theatrical aesthetic in which thick make-up and pounds of fake hair have become an essential component of the female character’s strength.  As a dancer in the Bill T Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company I was valued for what made me masculine; broad shoulders, height, and I had a shaved head when I joined the company.  I am a tomboy, but it was confusing from age 19-28 to be told in so many ways by my mentor that I would be more valuable if I were a man.

I’ve been creating my own work for many years, wrestling with my love of classical lines, technical virtuosity, and feminism.  I believe that as an artist I have a responsibility to make work that actively participates in creating the kind of cultural dialogue I want to live in.  My love of beauty and my desire to be an activist often feel as though they are in conflict.  Ready, Aim… was born out of that tension.

Dance is an incredible language to speak about the amorphous, dynamic, multi-faceted experience of being human.  But there are some subjects better addressed directly.  The pain in my knee enforced a monologue rather than a movement study, but as soon as I opened my mouth I realized how much I had to say.  I thought that being a target would be painful, but instead it fed my fire.  I thank all of the audiences for their active involvement.

Someone asked me if I “wrote” Ready, Aim… I didn’t.  I uncovered it.  What makes it funny is that it’s so true.

* This was the subject of my MFA, so I’ve written numerous papers on the subject. This paragraph is a gross over simplification- it’s a blog so I’m trying to get to the point.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ready, Aim... Fire!

Catherine Cabeen and Company’s next evening-length work will premier at On the Boards, 
January 17-20, 2013. 

Fire! is an interdisciplinary performance project choreographed and directed by Catherine Cabeen, inspired by the work of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002). Utilizing the same combined research methodology and creative practice that informed Cabeen’s 2011, Yves Klein inspired Into the Void, Fire! takes on the work of a female artist whose aesthetic is exact opposite of Klein’s. Through colorful sculptures and assemblages, Saint Phalle's bold work examines child’s play and violence with equal curiosity.  In response, Fire! will wrestle with the idea of creation through destruction

Taking a cue from Saint Phalle’s Nanas, monumental sculptures of voluptuous female figures in motion, Cabeen’s choreography indulges in the joy of physical density. Pushing against the established dance aesthetic that weight and whimsy are mutually exclusive, dancers will move as one body, celebrating the strength that rises from their combined mass. Costumes and set pieces by collaborating visual artists will interact with the dancers, creating a mosaic environment that weaves together both the animate and inanimate creatures on stage. Inspired by Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, the interactive stage space will be inhabited by the archetypes of the Tarot’s Major Arcana. The fluid states of consciousness articulated in the Tarot will create the evolutionary journey of the work.

Saint Phalle faced intense criticism for stepping out of the traditional roles of wife and mother to become an artist. Simultaneously, feminist scholars critique her for using her body in her work. Fire! will explore both how much, and how little, has changed in 60 years, in relation to representations and realities of femininity, sexuality, and power. Fire! will encourage all people, but especially young women, to embrace their weight as strength, speak their truth, and dance in the face of fear.