Our Time In Wassaic
DavaMike is a New York City-based performance project created by choreographer/dancer Davalois Fearon and composer/multi-instrumentalist Mike McGinnis. The artistic duo’s performances feature original dance & music.
Davalois Fearon, one of seven Dance Magazine’s Up-and-Coming Black Artists to Have on Your Radar, is a Bessie award-winning, critically acclaimed dancer, teacher, and choreographer born on the island of Jamaica and raised in The Bronx, New York. She is the founder/Artistic Director of Davalois Fearon Dance. Her choreography has been presented by prestigious venues such as Joyce Theater and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Multi-reedist and composer Mike McGinnis is a musical explorer unbound by stylistic barriers, unwaveringly individual and open-minded. McGinnis’ penchant for experimentation has led him to work with a dizzyingly impressive array of artists – from jazz innovators like Anthony Braxton, Alice and Ravi Coltrane, Hank Roberts, Ben Goldberg, Steve Coleman, and Lonnie Plaxico, to indie rock mainstays Yo La Tengo, to the Afro-Baroque Stew & the Negro Problem.
We performed here in Wassaic last year and were invited back for a two-week music and dance residency this year. To us, Wassaic, is a fun-loving, experimental arts community tucked away in a quiet, grassy community. The amount of freedom and the unique landscape have allowed us to go beyond our normal ways of creating. Having access to multiple spaces, particularly the mill, which always has amazing debits on display provided a fruitful landscape for creation and exploration. We will bring this sensibility with us into our future creative processes. Wassaic is absolutely awesome and everyone should make the trip up to experience the amazing festival!
By Joe Brommel, July 2018
This is your second year in Wassaic, right?
Dava: Consecutive, yeah.
Great. Can you talk a little bit about what your piece was for last year’s festival?
Dava: Last year we actually premiered a piece here: “Lift Up.” It was something that I was really inspired to make after doing this piece that we created together, “Time to Talk” — this really grueling solo dance project with live music that looks at systemic racism in academia, particularly in dance history, and then broadens out to different threads of American society.
It’s a really heavy piece, so I wanted to do a piece that was emerging out of “Time to Talk” and looking at different ways of celebrating Africanisms in American modern dance or American dance in general — different strands of things that can be traced back to African diasporic ways of moving, or having joy and celebrating happiness. That’s what the vibe of that piece was. And poor Mike spent all night making the music for it.
Mike: Well, right, because beforehand she was all set to do another piece, but then about ten days before the festival you decided that you want to make a new piece — which is cool, but that new piece needed music. And so she finished the choreography, like, the afternoon of the day before. I think we were leaving the next day at some ungodly hour in the morning. Usually we’ll have a lot of time to talk about the piece and find the music, but this was like, “no, it needs to be ready by the time we leave.”
So I thought, alright, well, I’ll just compose the whole thing in GarageBand, and write all the parts and everything for this 15 minutes of music. And I remember sitting down at 5:00 PM, and starting with the shape — after I’d gotten everything I needed from her for the direction — and just going and going, and it just seemed like the dance kept going on. And then sometimes when you're too deep in it you forget the whole shape, and so I'd come up with whole sections and then realize, “Oh, no, it doesn't work! I have to readjust the flow!” So then it just kept going, and I finished at 5am after sitting in this chair for like, 12 hours thinking “why did I do that?” So when we had to drive up I was just asleep in the backseat with the dancers.
Is that usually the direction of the collaborative process for you? Choreography first, then the music afterwards? Or does it usually take on a more collaborative shape?
Dava: It’s more in tandem. With “Consider Water,” for instance, he actually had music first. I was doing a residency in Florida for about a month at the time, and so for the first three weeks, we were just sending video files and music files back and forth. I’d create a phrase and, based on what he’d sent me, I’d have a little bit more of an idea of where I wanted to go. And then he came in for the last week and we finished it out together. That's a healthier collaborative process. “Lift Up” was the first time that I actually finished the whole 15-minute dance and he had, like, zero done.
Mike: Yeah, we never want to do it that way. You know you can do it, but the all night thing is better when you're in college.
So how has that experience and that piece informed your piece for this year’s Summer Festival? I take it that you have not undergone that same process.
Dava: No, this year we're going to do a little bit more of a DavaMike thing. Last year it was my company, the Davalois Fearon Dance Company. We had two other dancers, and half of it started really serious. I tend to either be really serious as an artist or kind of goofy. I have the video, and there's a little kid saying, “Mom, what are they doing?” For that section I think the audience was thinking “what is this piece?” But then as it progressed, it got more and more joyful and celebratory and Mike played live. And the audience responded really well to that piece as it got more and more groovy and fun. So that’s my safe zone: having something completely choreographed and ready to go. But later in the day we did improv up and down the mill with Charmaine Warren — one of the curators for the for the festival — where Mike was playing live. And it was so much fun to respond to the art and move through the space.
So last year was mainly about the dance. But this year, we're going to be responding more to what we did in the improv portion of our time last year, exploring that element.
Mike: Yeah. When you go to a place you always ask, “where's the inspiration?” And I tend to be more sensitive than her; I just can’t deal with certain spaces. But when I walked into the mill that first time last year, I instantly felt my imagination going and had tons of ideas. I don’t know if it's just that I like wood spaces, or maybe because my relatives worked in mills in Maine, but there’s something about this space, to me, that feels really alive, resonant, and inspiring with all the art and all the different shapes.
And so, last night, I was walking around the different floors when no one was here; playing in different rooms and checking it out. There's so many possibilities.
One thing I'm interested in doing is just like having us go up in each of the rooms and practice improvised pieces, and see how they’re affected by the environment: by the art that's around, by the size of the room, by the light — all factors. Using the space as a catalyst; starting things and then seeing what we can mine from ourselves based on what's here.
From there, maybe some things will become more codified. We've done plenty of completely improvised things, and I think the reason why we kept doing it is because when we did last year, it worked. The chemistry was great. So we know we can do that. But I want to try and do something that is a little bit more codified within an improv structure, more predetermined than just in the moment. That’s what I look forward to doing next week: just hanging out in the mill and soaking up as much as I can.
Can you give me a specific example — or a few examples — of how you’ve gone about responding to a piece or a room in the mill? It seems like a very interesting process there.
Mike: I think you can find inspiration really anywhere. For me, when I'm going into an open space like this, all filters are open. The first thing that I usually catch is the vibration, the sound of the room, what the acoustics sound like. So, for instance, last night, I was practicing a lot of time near the cloud setup on the first floor. That was big and open, but when I got more into the corner it changed the way that the clarinet responded in the lower register. And I thought, “whoa, I want to check that out.”
But the very top floor, the carpet room, has such a different feel — when I got in that room, all of a sudden I just wanted to lay down on the floor and play. Because it’s so dead, it really affects the sound of the instrument a lot more — brings out a lot more of the highs, takes out a lot more of the lows. That’s purely acoustic, but even walking on the stairs affects how you play because walking creates some pulse. Which you can either respond to or ignore, but it's another element. Or standing in the room with the big engine on the second floor — if I look at that and just start playing, it's going to be completely different than what I had in the the carpet room.
So the room and the environment show you different aspects of what you're already doing, that you might not have seen. And then you also start to see things differently in the room, because of your perspective. That’s the surface level of looking at it. But if you stick with it, you can go a lot deeper with any one thing. You could take an aspect of carpet versus wood and think of a bunch of different things. So I'll take what's there and think, “well, okay, if I'm looking at this, and I just stay here for a while and really sit with it, what sort of sounds am I starting to hear based off that?” It could be a musical thing like a pitch, but it could also be a sound that's maybe not songlike.
I can talk for a long time about the mill.
Dava: I definitely concur with a lot of that. But instead of what kind of sound comes to me, it's usually what kind of movement does a shape inspire, do colors inspire, does the landscape inspire, does the texture inspire?
I want to talk a little bit more about your collaborative process. Because usually in dance you come up with a choreography to a pre-recorded piece of music. It's not often that you have —
Dava: A composer at your disposal!
A composer at your disposal, yeah! So how does that change your choreography process? And, conversely, how does that change your composition process, Mike?
Dava: It keeps me and the dancers on our toes. We can never get too complacent. But what I love about it is that I get to decide what the rhythm is. And generally, because of the work I do, it's syncopated, so it has all of these shifts in tempo, texture, and meter. If I'm stuck with one set piece piece of music, I sometimes feel like I have to choose whether or not I'm going to have this dissonant relationship with the music — to stand with my own rhythmic integrity or to shape it to it.
Before I even had a company I used to dance with Stephen Petronio, and there would always be the house music for the half hour before the curtain opened. So for fun, I'd always play around with how to do the same choreography to all different types of music. It was inadvertently training me to be able to adapt my choreography to whatever Mike comes up with. It’s more fun, because then the choreography is alive. It’s never like “this is how it is and this is how it always is.” And even within his compositions, because he usually plays live, there's a little give. There might be a track that he plays on top that provides a pulse. But because he's playing live, there's always a little bit of wiggle room to reach like “oh, this this feels really good if I extend it a little bit longer here. And then I can make up time a little bit later.” Whereas set music is super easy. Like I can do that in my sleep.
Sometimes I'll choreograph to set music and right when my dancers get used to it I say, “Okay, so here's Mike’s music!” It's so funny. I have this dancer Morgan who’s been with me for about four years, and a new dancer Michaela. We were working with Missy Elliott while developing the piece for “Lift Up,” and Michaela asked “okay, so do I do this on the “lose control” part?” And Morgan, before I even said anything, said “oh, no, don't get married to the music. Cuz Mike's gonna come in here and mess it all up.”
Mike: The first piece we did, “Consider Water,” was so tedious. Because what I'm trying to do is find that balance between whatever she needs for the dance and all the other ideas that I want to put in. So before I even start, I feel like I have to carve out a map — on all levels — of where we're going. That could be emotion, duration, any factor. But I've gotten pretty good now, after doing this for a long time. I give her the 20 questions: “alright, what's the length of this? Okay, what are we doing here? What's the vibe here? What do you want here? Do you want pulse? Do you not want pulse? Are you going with pulse? Are you going against pulse? How intensive is it?” It’s a barrage of questions, and then I make all my little notes, map it up, and have my timeline. And then at least I can throw something up against it. That's one way to do it.
Or, one time, she showed a piece to me, and I didn’t know what I could make to go against it in the amount of time we had. But I thought of this old piece that I had written, like, 20 years ago, and thought “hmm, I wonder.” So we put that recording up against the choreography, and it worked. It was just laughably easy.
The other biggest thing that's new for me is that in the past, whenever I composed things, it was always for players of instruments. I knew I was going to give them the part and they were going to play it with acoustic instruments — or even if it was for electric instruments, it was still a musician generating it. Whereas now — because we're dealing with different budgets, different setups, etc. — I’ve realized, “oh, if I want to make something any bigger, I can't depend on other musicians.” So I’ve had to start learning how to play things into the computer. And that's why I started using the novice GarageBand (which is still amazing because the Beatles were using, like, eight track tapes, so even that is more than they had).
I’ve also had to deal with making other types of music, too, aside from just jazz, or classical, or things with pre-1970 aesthetics. Because, for example, for one of her pieces she was using a Sia song. And so I had to study and figure out the elements of the piece that made her want to dance to it. How could I take those elements and, using my own vocabulary, still meet the requirements of what the piece needed?
The other thing I wanted to do is to not use any pre-recorded samples, drum beats, or whatever — to make my own thing. A lot of times I’ll go through 300 sounds until I find the one sound. Every little part — whether it's a drum part, bass part, or keyboard part — is composed and played by me. Which takes a long time, but in the end it sounds better to me. It feels more organic, it feels alive. And even though it's electronic, it doesn't sound like like a 13-year-old kid in his bedroom.
Photos by Walker Esner