Ever since the pianist and curator Melinda Faylor established Areté Venue & Gallery in 2017, her mission to create a home for adventurous music and art has emphasized multimedia and interdisciplinary performance. So it is no surprise that when the Greenpoint space premieres “Movement on Film” on October 25, the collaboration will engage two exceptional exemplars of interdisciplinary practice: Muyassar Kurdi and Janis Brenner. The video installations and performance festival seeks to underline themes of embodiment, women in interdisciplinary arts, and lineage.
Brenner and Kurdi not only share artistic philosophical values, and create works that focus on voice and movement, but also share a direct line of über influential lineage from the visionary vocalist and composer Meredith Monk. Brenner performed with Monk and the Vocal Ensemble from 1990 to 2005. These wisdoms have been passed to Kurdi, who enrolled in Monk’s workshops when she first arrived in New York in 2014, and since that time has collaborated with Brenner in her studio.
National Sawdust Log spoke to the two unique trailblazers about their approaches to interdisciplinary work, the importance of lineage, and their indispensable shared mantra of laughter and tapping into joy at all times.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Lineage is one of the articulated themes of Areté’s “Movement on Film,” and connects the pair of you in this series. As artists, our personal lineage can be far ranging, and sets us on our path. Our own voice can be tracked and traced to a mentor, a philosophy, a teacher, or an artistic movement. What lineages have proved seminal influences in your work?
JANIS BRENNER: The first person I consider, as an important mentor still, is the dancer-choreographer-teacher Phyllis Lamhut, who danced originally for Alwin Nikolais. I encountered her, her improvisation classes and particular movement language, while in college, and I actually left college on Long Island to follow her into New York City and study with her, Nikolais, Murray Louis, and the legendary dance pioneer Hanya Holm, who still taught at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab in the mid-1970’s-80. I then became a dancer in Murray Louis’ company, touring the world for seven years, and having the experience of working with artists such as Rudolf Nureyev, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Public Theater, and Batsheva Dance Company. Murray Louis became a life-long mentor for me, until his death in 2016.
That rich dance lineage, tracing back to Mary Wigman and German Expressionism, is how I have moved in the world and how I express myself through teaching, choreographing, performing. When I began working with Meredith Monk in 1990, on the monumental opera ATLAS, I had already been incorporating vocal explorations into my own work and teaching, following a bit of Nikolais’s example.
Of course, I consider Meredith an important mentor, being in her many interdisciplinary, iconic works for more than a decade, and still being an associate member of the Vocal Ensemble. I believe that when we first worked together, we felt this particular connection/simpatico through the somewhat shared paths of growing up as both dancer and singer, and the early desire to synthesize and explore these worlds in non-conventional ways—although of course Meredith really invented a new path, a new language.
Muyassar, I understand that your relationship with Janis began when taking Janis’s movement/voice classes. Can you talk about your journey?
MUYASSAR KURDI: I met Janis at Meredith’s loft a handful of years ago, and continued taking workshops and retreats with Meredith and ensemble – even currently–what a gift!! – which eventually led to my private voice lessons with Janis at her apartment on the Upper West Side. Ever since I first moved to New York City from my soul-searching nomadic life in Europe via Chicago, where I was born, I remember looking for guidance, and Janis was accessible. Not only that, I felt many commonalities in our personalities; she is also a big jokester clairvoyant Gemini child.
I knew it was important to stay in touch with this part of New York City, and it felt and feels like I am part of something. I never attended “art school” or the “music conservatory,” something which I am continually proud of: I am self-made. But spending time with the Meredith Monk crew, and the people I have met and worked with over the years, has really given me so much more than I can ever imagine.
What does interdisciplinary mean to you, and how have the applications of your interdisciplinary practice evolved in your career?
KURDI: To name it even feels strange to me; I think the combination of disciplines equates to fullness, an aliveness in accord with all of the senses. I have been practicing analog film since I was 16 years old, and I grew up singing in church since I was old enough to walk—living a sort of dual life, one for my blond-haired mother and one for my Arab father. This “cultural clash” has informed my perspective: a spirituality and embodiment I experienced at both the church and mosque. Music has always stayed with me; my mother was a folksinger, and I took piano lessons for many years from the organ player of our Chicago Baptist church. As a child I remember thinking that my voice was my only freedom to break free of my body, a power that I would cultivate.
In 2014, I took my first workshop at Meredith Monk’s loft, with Janis and other ensemble members. This proved to be a monumental moment in my life, and has continued to inspire and open me up to the connection between the voice and the body, as well as interdisciplinary works. It was a cinematic experience. Ten years earlier I had a near-death experience, which led to my motivation behind the healing and embodied arts. What inevitably led to my 16mm film making was my interest in combining both analog photography and movement. What does embodiment look like on camera, a poem, the geography of the body—an urgent presence.
BRENNER: So well said, Muyassar. Yes, that’s a complicated question. I’ve always been immersed and interested in the fusion of forms, particularly dance/movement/voice, music/theatre/comedy, first as a performer and then as a creator. These loves and passions have been with me since childhood, as Muya also mentioned. I recall my sisters saying that whenever there was any sort of tension in the house, between our parents or between them and my sisters, “Janis went leaping out the front door,” off to one artistic pursuit or another: ballet, violin, enacting Beatles albums and musicals, modern dance, community theatre, folk singing, mime troupe, rock band, anti-war protest gigs… what a gift that all was!
Of course, my practice and creative interests have evolved over the decades to become more refined, disciplined, and nuanced. I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to explore, experiment, invent until I exit stage left.
You are both creatively linked to the explorations of the nexus where movement and breath influence each other. Can you talk about this symbiosis?
KURDI: There is a connection between the two, and it is felt: an interdependent relationship. It is like saying that lightness cannot exist without the presence of darkness. With sound and movement come shape, color, form, and light, which are constantly recreating themselves in the present environment.
Janis and Muyassar, can you relate a quintessential experience or work that you have created where the symbiosis of voice and movement has aligned, and your vision has manifest?
BRENNER: I would offer that my most recent work, the full-length, interdisciplinary Inheritance: A Litany – which premiered in 2018, and is still touring and feeding me in life-changing and life-affirming ways – fills that vision. The work has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in a 40-plus year career, in terms of the symbiosis of all the elements I have been working with and interested in since… childhood, actually. Billed as “a personal narrative, dance-opera-play, and comic drama,” it managed to encompass all these areas I have been devoted to through deep exploration and creative “play.”
As well, it actually means something in terms of its more narrative subject matter, both to me and to the various audiences that have witnessed it. At this stage of my career, it also feels like a revitalization of my performing persona, and a gift my late parents could never have known they would be giving me at this present moment.
Muyassar, can you relate an experience that you would like to share?
I created a 16mm short movement film in 2018 called “A Song for Many Women” – which is part of my 16mm trilogy that will be presented at the exhibition – performed by my collaborator, Eryka Dellenbach. It was largely inspired by Audre Lorde’s poem, “A Song for Many Movements,” dedicated to the South African freedom fighter Winnie Mandela. I originally read the poem in her book Sister Outsider, on the topic of ”Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”
I included a many-layered solo voice piece. I created the image and sound separately but alongside each other, and combined them later in the editing process. It was a fruitful experience to see how the movement and voice effortlessly related to one another. Recently, I provided voice scores and graphic scores to my collaborator to inform her movements. This was part of the process for my most recent untitled 16mm film work that premieres in the spring of 2020, as part of my Roulette Intermedium commission.
Film is your next interdisciplinary endeavor. What is the experience for you and what can people expect to discover when they attend the series?
KURDI: The series is a very special occasion where I can connect the different worlds inside of me: photography, film, and movement centered on embodiment and lineage. In collaboration with my teacher and friend Janis, we are presenting works that connect disciplines and histories between two women of different generations. It is important to me to have that intergenerational connection; there is much to learn on both sides.
Within my practice, film informs choreographic expression and vice versa. It is clear to me when working with the overall flow, cadence, rhythm, color/light, and camera movement, that there is indeed a strong connection. Maya Deren once wrote, “In film I can make the world dance.”
BRENNER: Oh, that’s such a perfectly wonderful quote! As for my dance film, “Where She Is,” I was so taken with the work of Iranian artist/filmmaker Bahar Behbahani – who, by the way, I also met when she took a Vocal Ensemble workshop with me some years ago – that I re-opened a work I had previously created for my female-identifying dancers and myself, originally titled “Where-How-Why Trilogy.” We recreated and re-envisioned it in an amazing, unique environment, filmed partially in Bahar’s temporary, evocative art studio in downtown Manhattan, and then, quite daringly, up on the roof – way up – of a construction site overlooking the city. It’s impressionistic and expressionistic, and another resonant example of intergenerational collaboration from a feminine perspective.
The concern with history and lineage finds the perfect expression in this collaborative show and event between Muya and myself. I was so touched when she asked me this past summer to be the subject of a photo shoot, with her 35mm film, thus sparking this entire interconnected event. The intergenerational artistic connection is essential, as far as I’m concerned.
What themes are you interested in expressing at this time as a woman and as an artist.
KURDI: I am interested in taking up space as an Arab-American woman, and exploring my ancestral lineage as a second-generation Palestinian refugee. Other themes include embodiment, ritual, sensuality, womanness, and queerness. I am currently working with homemade electronics, and continuously exploring this alongside movement and voice, which I refer to as MACHINE//BODY.
BRENNER: I’ve noticed that in the last 20 years or so, as I have aged, I’ve become mildly obsessed with the ideas of memory, history, where “we” come from, our stories—and particularly as a woman, I have long been an activist in the uphill battle to empower women in dance and in the arts. I still have these concerns.
The span of experimental and contemporary voice vocabularies is far ranging. What are the essential traits and philosophies behind your vision when you use your voice?
KURDI: I have been tapping into my joy these last years, and my laughter. I am the biggest joke I have ever played on myself: this is my mantra. Through laughter I have gained so much wisdom, clarity, and lightness. I am recognized for my laughter in a room these days. I had a friend who told me this past year that my speaking was like a song. It must be my intonation when I get excited. I have a playful approach to the voice.
BRENNER: I can attest to this laughing woman who is Muya Kurdi! Yes, you know she’s in the room, and this, for me, is fine and infectious. I’ve never felt I had to suppress this playful, life-affirming aspect of her while conducting a workshop with perhaps 20 other people in the room. I tend to be somewhat of a clown sometimes in my own work, and in other artists’ work over the many years, so personally I encourage the making-a-fool-of-yourself approach to art making.
My own vision, I have to admit, often oscillates between comedy and tragedy, in both voice and movement, as two sides of the same coin—a reflection of my personality and DNA, I’m afraid! Often I am very interested in bringing an audience into my world through lightness of being, of humor, even ridiculousness, making them feel comfortable, and then… slowly unraveling those qualities and ideas to get to the heart and the depth of the material or situation.
When I reflect on the work with my company – which has been mainly through movement, but also text/voice – I am often taken aback that I have been concerned with this comedy/tragedy – lightness/heaviness narrative, whether rather abstract or less so, for such a long time. Perhaps the laughing and crying seem to be ever present states and reactions to our human condition and predicament.
KURDI: What Janis says resonates with me as well. For all that comedy, there is tragedy—oh, but of course! I am often embodying both aspects in my artistic practice and performances. Many people tell me my performances make them uncomfortable or even scared. And I think: good! We need to be spooked a bit, to get shaken into aliveness. Urgency, confrontation, and presence scare people. I am anti-entertainment, so when it comes to performance, I want the audience to also be a part of it, as an exchange, and I want them present—energetically.
“Movement on Film” opens at Areté Venue & Gallery, Greenpoint, on Oct. 25 at 7pm, and runs through Nov. 6. Special screenings are featured in an opening-night event on Oct. 25 at 8pm, and Janis Brenner and Muyassar Kurdi perform live on Nov. 6 at 8pm; aretevenue.com.
Brenner will present a complete performance of Inheritance: A Litany on Oct. 27 at 6pm, as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival, at Theatre Row in Manhattan; unitedsolo.org.
As an opera singer, writer, cultural commentator and curator Xenia Hanusiak contributes to the stage, the page, and the intervals in between. She holds a PhD in Literature and several degrees in classical music. Her works for the stage include the play Ward B, Un_labelled (Boosey & Hawkes/Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival, Venice Biennale); Earth Songs (Homart Korean Theatre); and the dramatic monologue The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet). www.xeniahanusiak.com
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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