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Contemporary Choreography: In Conversation with Alex Rodabaugh

Contemporary Choreography: In Conversation with Alex Rodabaugh

The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is housed in the John Wells Directing Program MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Drama under the direction of Caden Manson. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography,  Mixed Reality Performance,  Performance Cabaret,  Immersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. “What is  Mixed Reality Performance?” is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts. 

Contemporary Choreography
In Conversation with Alex Rodabaugh
Interviewed by Philip Gates

AmeriSHOWZ, the brainchild of choreographer Alex Rodabaugh, advertises itself as “one of the world’s largest direct performance selling businesses.” Sure enough, AmeriSHOWZ: Circle of Champions 2017 (presented at Gibney Dance as part of American Realness in January 2017) begins as a “training session” introducing the company’s business model. AmeriSHOWZ, we learn from several earnest representatives, allows you to buy tickets to a variety of performances at wholesale prices and then resell them to others at retail price, leaving you to pocket the difference. The cheerful irony of this opening section lays the foundation for a deeper investigation into the relationship between the arts and an economic system that fails almost everyone in it. (For a more detailed discussion of the performance, see my Contemporary Performance writeup here.)

Rodabaugh and I sat down at Gibney immediately after the final performance to talk about the AmeriSHOWZ project, translating economics into choreographic constraints, and his desire to create a space for open discussion of financial struggle.

Philip Gates: Tell me about the genesis of AmeriSHOWZ.

Alex Rodabaugh: I had this fake Facebook profile for the show that I did before this, g1br33l, and somebody contacted that profile out of the blue and was like, hey, I’m looking for people who are really savvy with Facebook, we’re looking for entrepreneurs, all this stuff. And I thought, well this is nuts, clearly this is not a real profile, they can’t possibly think I’m a real person. But I kept on going along with it and eventually she asked if I wanted to meet up. So I met up with her at a Penn Station Starbucks and she gave me her presentation and I recorded it, which is legal—ethical I’m not sure. I wanted to get an idea of her performance when she was giving me this Amway pitch.

PG: I feel like I should know this, but what’s Amway?

AR: Amway is a multi-level marketing company, these are companies like Herbalife, Avon, Mary Kay… Basically you sell a product and then you sign up other people to also sell products. It is not a pyramid scheme, but it is very similar to one. It’s in this legal gray area where because these companies make so much money, and because our government is so corrupt, they don’t have any regulations. So they’re everywhere. They’re very popular right now because people are having a hard time getting by, so they see this presentation where all you have to do is sell things… It’s this idea that you put your nose to the grindstone at the beginning and then you’ll retire by the time you’re thirty or whatever. g1br33l was very clearly about a cult leader and a cult, and these multilevel marketing companies are similar, they’re economic cults. You know, “things are hard right now but your day is coming and all you have to do is stay positive and believe it’s going to happen and keep working towards this goal.” So I was interested in that and in watching this woman give me this presentation in complete sincerity. The opening of the show is verbatim a recreation of her presentation.

It was actually a really weird synchronicity, because I was already trying to investigate the idea of dance as a pyramid scheme. [Sarah Anne Austin] wrote an article a few years ago [for Dance/USA] talking about modern dance as a pyramid scheme. Her main point was that a lot of people are going into dance and are becoming teachers to support themselves, and they need a lot of students in order to support themselves. The article got a lot of backlash: these people aren’t making a ton of money, not everybody who takes a dance class wants to go on to be a dancer or choreographer, you can get so much out of taking a dance class… And absolutely that’s true. But I think what it really did touch upon is the student loan crisis. If you want to support yourself by teaching at a university, you are depending on a large number of students to take out a large number of student loans that will be going to your salary, and those are loans that they probably cannot pay back.

So the two things came together to ask: what would it look like if dance really was a pyramid scheme? Or in that gray area where you couldn’t tell if it was or not.

PG: I saw g1br33l and this new piece struck me as, in some ways, a direct evolution. Were you always envisioning this piece as the next phase of that project?

AR: A lot of the visuals came together, the use of plastic, the white floor…

PG: Both pieces have geometric shapes on the floor that the dancers follow…

AR: And the opening is me talking, the second part is a ritual, the third part is a kind of finale. Yeah. After g1br33l I realized that I touched on a lot of spiritual things and spiritual beliefs but I wanted to talk more about… I didn’t really touch on anything economic. So a lot of this stemmed out of Occupy Wall Street and wanting to capture how I felt and what I was thinking about when it was going on. I personally believe that as inequality continues to grow it’s going to be reflected in everything, including the arts. You’re gonna have a few people who are making millions of dollars off of their art, and a whole bunch of people who cannot make art, not without spending a bunch of money. The middle is disappearing along with the middle class. In the music at the end of AmeriSHOWZ, there’s a Shepard tone, which is an auditory illusion where it sounds like something is going up forever but it’s actually just repeating.

PG: Can you talk about the process of creating the movement in the second part of the piece, the ritual? Do you do improvisation with the dancers, or do you set things on your own and teach it to them?

AR: The posing in that section I created on my own. That was done by chance operations and a Rubix cube. I found points for the arms and legs and head, and instead of creating poses and teaching those, I taught the dancers where the arms and legs are supposed to be and let them decide how that was done. It was this idea of finding individuality. Trying to navigate a set system in your own way.

PG: Before we officially got started, you mentioned that this section is actually a live competition that determines who will dance the solo in the final section of the piece. Can you tell me more about that competition; were those rules you developed in rehearsal?

AR: We each have a different color of dollar bills and we take turns going into one of the squares on the floor. When you go into a square you have to drop a dollar, and you’re trying to collect one of each of the other person’s dollars. But you can’t go into a square that has your color in it, so you can’t go back to the one you were just on, and if you’re trapped then you have to lose a turn. That’s the first part of it. The second part is we count the dollar bills and it’s an odds-even game, and people are eliminated that way.

PG: Is that something you’ve used before as a strategy for developing movement? Games, chance…

AR: No, I was just trying to come up with these nonsense, arbitrary elimination rounds. The first game is strategic, the second one is pure chance, and the last part is this competition. I wanted there to be… do you know those games, like you’re inside of this cage and you collect dollar bills, there’s wind and there’s dollar bills all over the place–

PG: Oh, yeah, and you have to grab as many as you can–

AR: That’s what I wanted, and then I thought, it’s a little too literal. But the last section is this idea of collecting the most money, you have to place dollar bills in the right area first. I wanted this highly structured rule-oriented thing that was just complete nonsense to determine who was going to do the solo.

PG: You “won” the solo at tonight’s performance. Are the other solos similar to yours? How did those develop?

AR: The solos are seven minutes long and they repeat. I was paying the dancers hourly for rehearsals, so I had to be very particular about who was rehearsing when and how often. I would meet with people one on one instead of having three people at once because it’s very expensive. So we started filming improvisations with nobody in the room, just the camera. Then I took the solos and edited them. I chose the timestamp based on the stock market: I took the NASDAQ or whatever, the literal numbers, like 570 would equal five minutes and… actually six minutes and ten seconds because it carries over, and that’s where I’d start the solo. And the next couple of digits would be how long, and then I just kept repeating and splicing them together. So there was some influence of the economy on the solo itself.

PG: I’m curious about the durational quality of the piece, especially at the end with the construction of the walls around the soloist. We watch the whole activity happen from beginning to end, and there’s this horrible but fascinating inevitability of watching that process.

AR: I did want it to be a gradual thing. That part looks a lot different than what I imagined it was going to. I originally had wanted those green construction walls that you see in front of buildings,  but I’m glad that it transitioned to something more abstract. The construction sounds [that are played as they’re building the walls] came from living in my apartment and hearing construction all the time. Ever since I moved to New York it’s been this perpetual sound of construction. And over time I felt that that was the sound of gentrification, it’s the sound of money pouring into a neighborhood. It’s this constant reminder that you’re going to have to move out of your apartment. But it’s a subtle, slow transition. Though it’s also not slow in the sense that one day you look next to your apartment and you’re like, how did that transition to a single family home? That’s insane. When did this happen?

PG: Watching you dance as they built around you was this journey of losing access to your performance. Little by little, impediments start to come between us and you, and then eventually…

AR: Eventually you’re just staring at a wall. Those construction walls are like, you’re not going to be able to live in this building. Whatever they’re building, that green wall means that is not for you. You can’t see that anymore.

PG: You’ve worked quite a bit with Miguel Gutierrez, and I was thinking about something he said in an interview about creating a utopian vision in the bodies onstage. He has this utopian project, whereas aspects of your work seem dystopian. Are you setting out to intentionally reflect the bleakest of what is happening now? Or is it more that it’s not dystopian, it’s just reality?

AR: Miguel is doing more around queer utopia, more about gender and family and sexuality– which I think there is definitely a place for within economic dystopia. I did think, what’s the point of making something that’s just reflecting something terrible, why not come up with some fantastic utopian alternative? Every time I thought about making something positive it just felt fake and wrong. I need to reflect how I’m feeling about this stuff right now. I would hope that other people would want to have a space where they can not try to escape it. Because it feels like people don’t know… like, why aren’t people rioting in the streets all the time? I guess things just aren’t bad enough yet.

I’m very doomsday, clearly. But I do legitimately Google the collapse of America, like, every night. So that’s where I’m coming from. I’m not living in a reality that’s like, good things are around the corner. The idea that things can be better or there is a possibility for something better, it always feels like it’s for someone else because that’s not what I’m experiencing. And I think it’s important to talk about how we’re all struggling, because I don’t think that happens. You don’t want to talk about your economic issues in public with other people, or admit you might not be doing well, because we have this American dream psychosis that if you’re not doing well, there’s something wrong with you. So it’s hidden.

PG: That makes me think about the visible presence of literal money in your work, using actual dollar bills onstage. There were dollar bills in g1br33l too, right? And in both pieces you distorted the bills in some way.

AR: I just like the idea of real money as props. Honestly it’s from counting money at the end of a restaurant shift and being like, paper, I’m counting paper. It’s this mass illusion that we’re all agreeing on. When you’re really struggling to collect it, it just feels like picking up paper. But yeah, I do see AmeriSHOWZ as a Part Two. I don’t know if I would go on to a Part Three… The other part of Occupy Wall Street that I didn’t touch on is politics. The cultish feeling around political parties, and the performance of a politician and the performance of canvassing and the performance of having strong political beliefs. But I don’t know what I will do after this. We’ll see what happens after APAP. Buy my show!

[Edited for length and clarity.]

Photo: ©Alex Escalante

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Theater artist based in NYC and Pittsburgh. MFA candidate in Directing, Carnegie Mellon University.

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