Unfolding Inspiration: Interview with Tommie-Waheed Evans

BalletX choreography fellow would rather be ambitious with the support of the company than play it safe.

by Evan Fugazzi, a painter based in Philadelphia, PA.

Editor’s note: We would like to note that this piece by Tommie-Waheed Evans is in dialogue with artist Bill Viola. For background two videos about Viola’s work are included here:

I am sitting on a couch with Tommie-Waheed Evans in the quiet few moments between the end of lunch and the beginning of rehearsal in the Performance Garage in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. We are surrounded by the noise and laughter of those washing their dishes, making brief phone calls, and taking care of small tasks before the afternoon’s work begins on the upcoming performance. It is an atmosphere with a creative energy. Whether it is due to the youthful choreographer with an obvious appetite for learning or BalletX, the seasoned company, it seems to be an environment of trust and comfortable confidence. Evans is relaxed as we discuss his work in progress that is just one and a half weeks from its debut. There are decisions to be made and plenty to be finalized but this is a man who appears comfortable with a loose structure; an unfolding process that embraces chance and collaboration. He speaks as someone as excited to see what the final performance will be as someone sitting in their seat awaiting the curtain to rise.

Unlike those executing a clearly defined and premeditated vision, Evans is guided by the slow accumulation of decisions and discoveries which he navigates with emotion, intuition, and his community. He trusts his company and his mentors, and trusts his process that allows for arrival at an unspecified destination fueled by a desire to build empathy between the audience and the dancers. For this work, he has saturated himself and the company in the work of visual artist, Bill Viola, and allowed that influence to provide a loose structure in which his collaborative and instinctive process can unfold. While at times in the performance Evans echoes Viola’s works with visual quotations, the video artist’s influence is subtle and appears to be internalized by the choreographer and his dancers. The underlying tether of Viola’s work may not appear vital or obvious, but with Evans’ process one imagines that the work of Viola serves as the gravitational pull keeping this unfolding, exploratory, and digressive performance in orbit rather than flying off into space.

Evan’s performance is challenging and playful reflecting his core creative values. It engages and challenges those involved, both on the stage and sitting in the crowd. It is a work that deemphasizes a linear narrative in favor of rhyming, echoing, and looping movements which elicit an emotional and empathetic response to how it feels to be a fellow human.

Tommie-Waheed Evan’s World Premiere performance is included in the BalletX Spring Series 2017 at The Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, PA from April 26 through May 7th, 2017. Tickets to the Spring Series 2017 at The Wilma Theatre are available online at www.balletx.org, or by phone at 215-546-7824, or in person at the box office at 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA.

Evan Fugazzi: Can you tell me about your relationship with Bill Viola?

Tommie-Waheed Evans: My mentor at the University of the Arts, Donn Faye Burchfield, was reading through a proposal on ‘Light and Darkness’ that I had written and gave me the advice to look into Bill Viola.

EF: Was that your first exposure to his work?

TWE: That was my first exposure to his work, in her office, and I connected to how he relates to religion in his work. I think because of my gospel choir background as a child, religion is also a part of the experience of my work.

EF: What is it about religion that is important?

TWE: A lot of his works are centered on concepts found in Buddhism and Christianity, and they’re contained within the experience of the work. It’s not the narrative, but it’s the sense that we’re going through this thing of struggle and we’re trying to survive. Those elements come in and weave throughout his works. I connect to that. I connect to the fact that his work talks to the human condition. I desire to show people on stage… a sense of humanity, a sense of reflection.

And I ask myself “How can I do what Viola does through his images?” I don’t think I necessarily looked at his video installations all the time and then directly brought them into the studio. I’ve been definitely taking away, though, from writings and how he built a particular installation and incorporating those thoughts into my work.

EF: When you say you draw from writings, were they from his writings or people writing about him?

TWE: People writing about him. But I still used some of his works more directly. “Six Heads,” for example. We use that imagery in the piece.

EF: So how did you bring his work more directly in?

TWE: Through conversation with the dancers.

EF: What are those conversations like?

TWE: Basically what I’ll do is bring an image, or I’ll bring a series of images. I’ll ask the dancers “How can we reinterpret this?” Or sometimes I will say ‘What is about this image that can bring textures to the movements?’

EF: So how has, over the course of preparations for this performance, your approach shifted or your relationship with Viola’s work shifted?

TWE: For me, Bill Viola’s work has been this humongous playground. Taking the information and the vocabulary we have developed and now trying to shape this actual piece has been a bit of a challenge. There’s so many things that he played with. He played with life and death. Rock bottom. He plays with survival. He plays with religion. He plays with water. He plays with the duality of danger and promise… and I can go on and on.

The question now is “what one thing are WE are playing with in THIS work?” That question has been my challenge in playing with the vastness of Viola’s body of work.

EF: Where are you in that process now?

TWE: We know it’s about life and death. Also, the fact that this piece is 25 minutes. That this endurance has to be placed within the dancers. I think that aspect is about survival. How many ways can you survive in this piece with 25 minutes where you [the dancers] are constantly entering and exiting; standing and dancing? This one particular character goes from having a solo, to having a duet, and then into the group entering… so she’s going and going and going. I’m trying to represent survival purely in a bodily way.

EF: Through the exhaustion of the dancers?

TWE: Through the exhaustion of the dancers. Asking: “How can you survive?” Time and mortality keep coming through, as well. There’s shifting. There are three duets, and each duet means something different, but they’re built out of the same language. Through these shifts I want to leave spaces open.

EF: Space for?

TWE: Space for your own interpretation. I don’t want what I’m seeing to be exactly what you’re seeing. I want it to be like as if we’re watching a Bill Viola video installation and I say, “oh, I think that it’s about this” and you say “No , I think it’s about this.” And actually both end up leaving complete and satisfied.

EF: What have you found that works to keep something open and approachable?

TWE: It’s coming through the dancers. There are things that they’ve manipulated that I don’t ask them “How did you arrive to this place?” I gave them a phrase and asked them to create a solo. They have this information about his [Viola’s] work, but no one is ever asked to answer why “This is my solo and this is why I made it.” and I’m kind of placing it in this piece so there’s something that I’m interpreting from them but they haven’t told me how they’ve done it or what their thought is so I think that leaves the space open.

EF: It sounds like your process is fairly collaborative. What challenges come with that?

TWE: With BalletX, they’re so quick. They’re… [rapidly snaps his fingers]. It’s an extremely professional company and they’re able to work with different genres very easily. So I thought it would require more time to manipulate combinations with them. I had these pre-made combinations, pre-made duets, and after two days of manipulating them, we already had all the material down. And I liked it. I believe they’re naturally answering my questions. They’re naturally placing things into the context.

And then we also had an issue with our composer where I now have to use a whole new song and there’s a challenge with that. So I’m using this new song and a lot of information was coming from the composer about how we use their music and finding moments in the music.

EF: How fundamental has that adjustment been?

TWE: It’s been very, very, very… challenging. (laughter) But the dancers are making it great. Because they got my language so quickly, and because they’re this particular kind of company, they’re able to quickly put everything into context for me. Christine told me “You can just put the music on and they’ll figure it out.” And after one run, we gathered around and everyone said “Well, I think we can do this… and we can do that… and how about we do this and how about we do that.” And quickly it started to shift. That said the most challenging aspect of this collaboration has been us connecting to music.

Me, teaching them my language…. Not a problem. Them manipulating phrases … not a problem. Them learning… not a problem.

EF: How would you describe your language?

TWE: There’s a heavy African influence. I started out being a jazz dancer at my first studio and later on I started to learn hip hop and ballet. But then I danced with a company in Los Angeles, called Lula Washington Dance Theatre, and she had this very African-influenced style, modern technique, and I quickly adapted to that. When I moved to Philly, dancing with Philadanco, I worked with an array of different choreographers: Ron K. Brown, Bebe Miller, Jawole Zollar, Talley Beatty, Gene Hill Sagan, and think all those languages, continuously, have been molded into what I do. And since grad school, I’ve been incorporating a lot of post-modern ideas, theories, and mythologies.

I love poly-rhythms. I love aggression. I love things that are tribal or ritualistic. It shows up in the work. And it’s been a challenge to keep some of that language juxtaposed with the classical music we are using by Górecki. [Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) Henryk Górecki.]

That’s been a huge challenge. [Laughter]

EF: As you develop your performance is there a way that you keep an overall structure as you’re having these collaborative moments with these different influences that you’re trying to reconcile?

TWE: I know what you’re saying. I knew I wanted six people and I knew I wanted duets. So I came into the process with duets. Then somewhere in my research period before coming to BalletX, I created a solo. I wanted this solo to go somewhere in the piece. So I knew I had three duets, a solo, two group parts, and I knew I wanted to start with movement but then I had a ‘beginning part.’ Then in the process, I wanted to create a line dance. So we created a line dance.

In two weeks I basically listed all seven sections and then said “Now, how can I order these sections?”

One day we try it one way and it doesn’t work. The next day we “put this here and now that there” and kind of like a puzzle and it all kind of miraculously comes together.

EF: What will happen between now and the opening?

TWE: We’re fine-tuning, we’re clarifying, and we’re cleaning some of the sections. We’re going bit by bit and then I still have one-minute to fill but I think what we did today earlier is going to fill the moment We’re trying to become more connected to the new music with our material.

A lot of it is me asking the dancers, “How does this feel?”

I am trying to tie up any loose ends. We’ve made the garment, I love fashion, and the garment is made but it needs tailoring. It needs taking a hem in there, letting it out here…maybe adding a scarf.

EF: Having gone through this process, would have approached it any differently based on what you’ve learned?

TWE: If I were to do it again I’d just stick with one piece of Bill Viola’s work, instead of the entire body of work, and really diving into that one piece. But I was infatuated with his whole body of work and I was ambitious.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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