Articulate

S2 E7 | FULL EPISODE

Kyle Abraham, Maggie Nelson, Ruth Slenczynska, Saya Woofalk

The works of choreographer Kyle Abraham feel like a memoir. Nelson is one of her generation’s most celebrated writers and critical thinkers. Nelson is one of her generation’s most celebrated writers and critical thinkers. Woolfalk’s imaginary world is populated by mutants, governed by utopian values.

AIRED: November 14, 2017 | 0:26:48
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TRANSCRIPT

- 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.

- 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.

- 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.

- 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.

- 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.

(cool soothing music)

- Perhaps you can't make America

into a land of milk and honey.

- Even though they continue to fire,

at our own citizens.

- Perhaps, there is a certain amount of violence

that is always essential.

- Even in the land of milk and honey, milk and honey.

Milk and honey.

- 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.

- 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 it 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,

lot's 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.

- 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.

It's world premiere in May 2017 came several years

after it's inception.

But for Abraham, its themes have yet to lose

their emotional resonance.

The title of "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 we're 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 od incubation.

(soft piano music)

- "Dearest Home" audiences have the option to wear headsets

to hear musical accompaniment.

The dancers on the other hand

have never heard the soundtrack.

- 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--

- You're up there with all of them.

- Yeah.

I'm up there.

People are seeing my truth or seeing,

they're kind of reading, not to be super cliche,

but they're kind of reading my journal.

- You've always allowed that--

- Yeah, I'm a pretty open guy.

(gentle piano music)

- But in rare instances, Abraham's work

is ultimately too personal for him to continue performing.

Such is the case with 2010's "The Radio Show,"

which reflected on his father's descent into Alzheimer's.

- 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 love 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.

(soft piano music)

- Happily, those charged with realizing

Abraham's artistic visions really do get him.

- 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 help to distribute that perspective.

(soft piano music)

- 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.

(soft piano)

- 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.

- 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.

(soft piano)

- 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--

- 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,

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

humanities 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 different threads into cohesive finished product.

Her pitches are still often met

with skepticism from publishers.

- 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.

- That's what I was going to say.

- 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--

I want to write about cruelty and art via a 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.

- I think it used to seem real fun in my 20's and stuff,

and now it doesn't quite as much fun anymore.

- Why because the bar is higher?

- Yeah, the bar is higher,

I'm not entranced by my own

rhetoric,

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 Argonuts,"

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.

- 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.

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."

It's 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 though this passage was romantic.

You read it as 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.

- 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 cross so much,

and how does it relate to this broader point

I'm interested in?

So it doesn't feel like a buried 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 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.

- While she doesn't believe in self-censorship,

Nelson does prioritize consent when exposing other people's

private lives to public scrutiny.

- Then all through my labor--

If you give people the benefit of the doubt

of sharing with 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.

- 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.

(Upbeat piano music)

- 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.

- And then after the lessons were over,

we'd go to the upright piano,

and I would pick out the tunes,

the different people were playing,

and I would

wait until I got the exact pitch

that they we're 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 everyday

made Ruth skillful enough

to give her first public performance 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.

- 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 sister's 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.

- 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 to taken aback.

- Ruth Slenczynska is the last living link to Rachmaninoff,

and she remember his lessons being both

practical and esoteric.

- 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 remember 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.

- Teachers had me train my hands

so that many hours day we're

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 sound 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 90's,

Ruth Slenczynska is still an accomplished pianist,

giving lessons in performing all over the world.

And more than 80 years later,

she still carries Rachmaninoff's

most important lessons with her.

- The color of a sound,

also that if you read the story,

that it gives life to a piece of music.

If you got to a museum and see a beautiful picture,

that also can be told

with your fingers.

(musical chorus)

The conceptual artists 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.

- 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.

- 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.

- For more articulate, find us on social media,

or at our website articulateshow.org

On the next articulate, growing up in New Orleans,

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was steeped in Jazz.

Now he's leading his genre into its next chapter.

The world was introduced to Tommy Pico's epic poetry,

through a thoroughly modern medium,

and both Ron Nagle's hit songs and his ceramics

are borne out of a dedication to harmony and craft.

Join us for the next articulate.

Articulate, with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

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