Walks on the Wise Side
- The works of choreographer Kyle Abraham feel like a memoir.
- Maggie Nelson is one of her generation’s most celebrated writers and critical thinkers.
- As a child, Ruth Slenczynska studied under Rachmaninoff. At age 92, all she learned can still be heard in her music.
- Saya Woolfalk’s imaginary world is populated by mutants, governed by utopian values.
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate, the works of choreographer Kyle Abraham, feel like a memoir. They reflect his own personal experiences and the social changes he’s lived through.
Kyle Abraham: It’s really exciting for me when people have some kind of experience from the work. And these works generally have such a social commentary that I think people can connect in some way.
Writer Maggie Nelson is one of the most celebrated critical thinkers of her generation, but all of her work feel starkly personal.
Maggie Nelson: I don’t really experience the writing as a rush of confessions as much as I’m thinking, why did this particular story stick in my cross so much, and how does it relate to this broader point I’m interested in?
Ruth Slenczynska studied under Sergei Rachmaninoff when she was a child. At age 92, all she learned can still be heard in her music.
Ruth Slenczynska: He had a long hand which he pointed way down to me and he said, “You mean that plays the piano?”
And visual artist Saya Woolfalk’s imaginary world is populated by a race of mutants and governed by utopian values.
Saya Woolfalk: It’s not that it actually is teaching people things it’s that it’s paralleling the world that we actually live in.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Kyle Abraham wants to choreograph the full scope of the human experience. He takes on issues he finds personally meaningful: identity, prejudice, love, and loss, in ways that are both specific and universal.
Kyle Abraham: It’s not as imperative that you see exactly what I see, or feel exactly what I feel. But I think it’s really exciting for me when people have some kind of experience from the work. And these works generally have such a kind of social commentary that I think people can connect in some way.
But don’t let Abraham’s humility obscure the fact that he’s a really big deal in the dance world. After winning a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant,” in 2013, his career was put into hyper-speed. This meant a wealth of performance opportunities, lots of attention, and health insurance for his dancers. But it also meant he was forced to present works he didn’t feel were fully finished, just to satisfy demand.
Abraham: Performing something that you really—at the time it’s being presented—doesn’t feel finished, is pretty devastating. And that’s happened to me now, more than once. A show that happened thereafter didn’t feel finished, either. I was still working out pieces. So now, kind of years later, I feel like this new work, Dearest Home, is healing for a whole host of reasons. But it’s me saying, “Yes, this is what I want to do. This is a finished product that people will see. This is something I feel so full about in every way.” It’s very personal, but I’m also really proud of it. And I haven’t been proud of something that I’ve made in a while.
That latest work, Dearest Home, was the result of a much slower, more deliberate process. Its world premiere in May 2017 came several years after its inception. But, for Abraham, its themes have yet to lose their emotional resonance.
Abraham: The title Dearest Home, for me, is really personal. It’s bringing together two different things. One, these letters that my father used to write to my mother when they were in college, and they all began, “My dearest Jackie…” And I found a lot of these letters when my mother was moving out of our home. My partner at the time and I were helping her pack up things and we found a lot of these letters. And then the second half, “Home,” for me, was in correlation with my then-partner, someone who I saw as my home. I spent so much time on the road, that it’s hard for me to think about how I can consider a place a home, or something that makes me feel just settled in some way. And he was that for me. We’re no longer together and my mother is no longer with us either. So it’s been a really interesting process and project, having experienced those two different types of loss within this creative process, well after the piece was titled. And the themes of love and loss were part of its kind of incubation.
Dearest Home audiences have the option to wear headsets to hear musical accompaniment. The dancers, on the other hand, have never heard the soundtrack.
Abraham: And they never will. But this work is first generated from a feeling, and then from that feeling becomes movement, so that it all seems really natural and more than palpable. It seems that you have to kind of be living in that skin. The challenge for them is to figure out how to really live physically in the work, while people are right in front of them. It’s a really vulnerable place—so much so that me, as the choreographer, it’s really clear, I think, to people when they’re watching this that I am ideally telling parts of myself. So the vulnerability that that’s taking is really trying, in some ways, because—
AJC: You’re up there with all of them.
Abraham: Yeah, I’m up there. People are seeing my truth or seeing—they’re kind of reading, not to be super cliché, but they’re kind of reading my journal.
AJC: You’ve always allowed that, though—
Abraham: Yeah, I’m a pretty open guy.
But in rare instances, Abraham’s work is ultimately too personal for him to continue performing. Such was the case with 2010’s The Radio Show, which reflected on his father’s descent into Alzheimer’s.
Abraham: I made the work when my father was still alive, and I just remember performing that work. I wasn’t trying to imitate him, but I was trying to kind of live in his essence as a performer. And after he passed, doing it just became that much more real and emotional for me to do. So every time I’d leave stage, it was really hard. So that work, the company has performed without me in it a couple of times. I think we may go back and start performing it again, but it’s a hard one for me to watch.
Happily, those charged with realizing Abraham’s artistic visions really do get him.
Jeremy Jae Neal (dancer): What I think is really interesting about Kyle is that he sticks to speaking about his personal experiences, and combining that with the social-political climate that’s happening currently. He speaks from a black, gay male perspective often—which is what I am as well so I can connect and relate—and also helps to distribute that perspective.
Tamisha Guy (dancer): For me, I think I kind of just pull from my life and what I’m going through. If a situation kind of seems similar, or just the feeling maybe, it can relate in some way. I kind of try to bring that in.
Ultimately, Kyle Abraham has two requirements of his dancers in every performance that have nothing to do with technique: be honest and be emotionally present.
Abraham: Those things are very important for what we’re doing. You can get too in your head and then it seems very false. But the authenticity is more important than getting around for however many turns or getting your leg into a certain place.
Since 2001, Maggie Nelson has published five books of non-fiction, four books of poetry, and received some of literature’s highest honors. And yet…
Maggie Nelson: You hear the same things all the time. “Disjunctive, what’s she getting at?” “Digressive, no strong thesis.” “Too personal, self-indulgent.” You get used to the litany of things that people who don’t like your writing don’t like. But the people who do like it, typically those are often the same thing. That’s exactly about it that they do like. They just think it works.
Nelson’s books are deep dives into subjects that have consumed her at various points in her life. Jane, a collage of poetry, prose, and documentary sources, exploring the life of Nelson’s aunt Jane, who was murdered in 1969 at the age of 23. 2009’s Bluets, a meditation on suffering, grounded in an analysis of the color blue. 2011’s Art of Cruelty, which explored humanity’s well-documented attraction to cruelty and violence, as expressed through art. All of Nelson’s works are defined by her sharp critical eye, focused equally on society at large and on her own, inner world. But despite her proven ability to braid seemingly disparate threads into cohesive finished product, her pitches are still often met with skepticism from publishers.
Nelson: Whenever I’m kind of heading in a direction, formally, that’s interesting to me, or that feels that I have too much going on, and someone tells me it can’t resolve that way, I usually really buckle down.
AJC: That’s what I was going to say.
Nelson: And I insist that it can be done. With The Art of Cruelty, there are a lot of artists and a lot of thinkers in that book, and really trying to whip them into shape, and find the chapter shapes that could hold… Like, “I want to write about cruelty and art via effacement, and I have 24 pieces of art that involve defacement or effacement that I think belong. So how can I get this chapter written in such a way that someone finishes it and feels like all those things belong in this chapter, and not like their head was in a blender?”
Nelson’s attention to craft is so acute, that her process has only become more challenging over time.
Nelson: I think it used to seem really fun in my 20’s and stuff, and now it doesn’t seem quite as much fun anymore.
AJC: Why? Because the bar is higher?
Nelson: Yeah, the bar is higher. I’m not entranced by my own rhetoric or good sounding words. I think, when I started as a poet, I would just be more amazed—not always, but, you know. The rush of beautiful words was very exciting. I think I’ve also become, in working more in non-fiction, I’m more stringent about how good the ideas are, as well as the language.
Maggie Nelson’s most recent book, 2015’s The Argonauts, may have been her boldest idea yet. The memoir examines the limitations of love and language by delving into her own story of building a family with her fluidly gendered partner, Harry Dodge.
Nelson: That book, in particular, tries to give a kind of swirling portrait of a relationship between two people, in which both characters stand on shifting stands, as it were. But it’s definitely about—it’s connected to broader issues, but through the lens of two individual people, you know.
(passage from The Argonauts):
A day or two after love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase, “I love you,” is quote, “like the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name,” end quote. Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time, but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase, “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as quote, “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new,“ end quote. I thought this passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.
But for as intimate as the anecdotes may seem, Nelson is quick to remind us not to take for granted, her ability to edit, obfuscate, and exclude however, she sees fit.
Nelson: I don’t really experience the writing as, like, a rush of confessions, as much as I’m thinking, “why did this particular story stick in my craw so much, and how does it relate to this broader point I’m interested in?” So it doesn’t feel like a bared soul to me. It feels like, the book that needed to be written, you know? I don’t personally feel very exposed by the things I write. I think I make a lot of decisions along the way, and I’m kind of an aesthetic. It’s a kind of trick as a writer to do to yourself, where you stay very focused on aesthetic decisions, or structural decisions, as a means of allowing yourself to be writing whatever content might be coming out.
But while she doesn’t believe in self-censorship, Nelson does prioritize consent when exposing other people’s private lives to public scrutiny.
Nelson: If you give people the benefit of the doubt of sharing something before publication, the kind of violence of feeling like something has been done unto them, they didn’t know about or see coming, is mitigated by spending sometime in discussion. I’m happy to do that.
Maggie Nelson is now one of the most highly regarded non-fiction writers of her generation. And though her topics may vary wildly, one thing is likely to remain the same.
Nelson: I really like books. I think there is always a book there, if you’re just willing to keep discarding the dead ends and keep following the new.
As a child, Ruth Slenczynska was prodigious in a way seldom seen since Mozart. She began playing the piano when she was three after her father, a violin teacher, caught her eavesdropping on his lessons and discovered that she had a remarkable musical ability.
Ruth Slenczynska: And then after the lessons were over, we’d go to the upright piano and I would pick out the tunes that the different people were playing. I would wait until I got the exact pitch that they were playing and my father said I had perfect pitch. And he tested me on it. And that’s how he knew I had to be musical, although he looked at me when I was two hours old and told my mother that I had strong hands. I’d be a good musician.
Practicing piano with her father nine hours a day, every day, made Ruth skillful enough to give her first public performance at age four and to tour Europe at six. But her father was tough, abusive by today’s standards. Eventually, he would kill her interest in playing piano.
Slenczynska: He said if I was talented or intelligent, this wouldn’t have to go on so I believed I was not talented or intelligent. My two sisters both ran away from home because they thought it was a difficult place to live. And I was just doing it because of all the work I was putting in, which is a believable story because you do anything for eight or nine hours a day, every single day, you’re bound to get at least something out of it.
Her hard work and long hours of practice paid off. She garnered stellar reviews and caught the attention of many of her older, more revered contemporaries. Among them, Sergei Rachmaninoff, the great late-Romantic Russian composer whom she began taking lessons with when she was nine. She remembers when her father took her to meet him.
Slenczynska: He had a long hand which he pointed way down to me and he said, “You mean that plays the piano?” I was just kind of taken aback.
Ruth Slenczynska is the last living link to Rachmaninoff, and she remember his lessons being both practical and esoteric.
Slenczynska: He took me to the window, he said, “Look down at those trees, mimosa trees. And I want you to make a sound that has the golden color of mimosa in it.” I said, “How do you put color into a sound?” I never imagined the concept of color in a sound. I said, “Show me.” Now, that was the big advantage of being nine years old because a child just naturally asks.
Slenczynska remembers Rachmaninoff’s physical presence. He was a charismatic 6’8″ with enormous hands. Yet, she says she had an even greater connection to the music of Frédéric Chopin because they both had to adapt their small hands to the piano.
Slenczynska: Teachers had me train my hands so that many hours a day were spent on doing these exercises. And I read about Chopin. That he was trained that way, too, but he did not like the scales exercises, just as I did not like mine. But he—being a musician that was creative—he decided to write his own etudes. And his etudes are beautiful! They’re easy to like. And he wrote them for the purpose of developing strong hands so he’s my friend.
Now in her early 90s, Ruth Slenczynska is still an accomplished pianist, giving lessons and performing all over the world. And more than 80 years later, she still carries Rachmaninoff’s most important lessons with her.
Slenczynska: The color of a sound, also that if you read the story, that it gives life to a piece of music. If you go to a museum and see a beautiful picture, that also can be told with your fingers.
The conceptual artist Saya Woolfalk has created a utopian world, populated by its own mutant humans, the Empathics. If Saya’s imagined world is unusual, so, too, is her real-world background. She is a confluence of cultures. She was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a mixed-race African American father, but grew up in Scarsdale, New York. Yet, with so many cultures to draw on firsthand, she has, from an early age, chosen to construct her own.
Saya Woolfalk: I started building small worlds on my tables at school. So this is just kind of a part of what I’ve always done. The Empathics is this fictional race of people, who, kind of, find these bones in the woods of upstate New York. And, by encountering these bones, they start trying to mutate genetically. But their genetic mutation also causes a cultural transformation. So it’s not just a physical transformation.
But as wild and imaginary as her world might seem, Saya Woolfalk sees it simply as a reflection of her own time.
Woolfalk: Now, more and more people understand that we live in an intersectional, multi-cultural, transsexual society. And the work that I make, it’s not that it actually is teaching people things. It’s that it’s paralleling the world that we actually live in. That’s ideal to me…is that it actually becomes something that captures a moment in history, a moment in time.