The MFA Thesis Performances will be held from April 8 to April 13 in and around the Wyatt Theatre and will present various styles of performance art, from site specific choreographies to adaptations of fantasy novels.
The five pieces — which consist of one hour-long collaboration and four half-hour long solo works — are organized into two programs, which will run on different days. Program 1 consists of works by Lindsay Beamish, Mary Ann Brooks and Deirdre Morris, while Program 2 features works by Peet Cocke, Andrea del Moral and Amanda Vitiello-Jensen.
From Lake Spafford to a fantasy land and from historical female figures to race relations, the MFA Thesis Performances will explore various times and places. MUSE was able to speak with most of the artists behind each piece. Lindsay Beamish was not available by press time; her untitled piece features performers interacting with video footage.
Mary Ann Brooks — Improvising While Black: The Wreck Part 2
Mary Ann Brooks’ piece is a work of dance improvisation with a focus on African American dance styles such as tap dancing, step dancing and hip hop dancing. The piece aims to explore how oppression can express itself.
“I’m looking at how, on an everyday level, institutions are set up to undermine people’s humanity, which to me is what it means to be constantly living within a wreck,” Brooks said. “I’m looking at how people live in that as well as the term ‘hustle.’ People learn how to ‘hustle’ in situations that are oppressive. I’m also looking at how there can be some play in an oppressive situation, such as how people use comedy or dance or artistic expression to break open the ways that they’re expected to behave in.”
Brooks began working on this piece during her first quarter at UC Davis in fall 2012, drawing inspiration from her own experience as well as what she had been researching as a grad student.
“I’ve been really inspired by the work of a group of scholars who are looking at the ‘afterlife of slavery,’ such as Saidiya Hartman who coined this term,” Brooks said. “In addition, I was also inspired by the poet and scholar Fred Mohen who writes about improvisation, specifically in the realm of jazz. In my piece you can see these parts in images that come up reflecting jazz.”
Brooks’ piece also exhibits some elements of site-specific choreography, using the bridge outside of the Wyatt Theatre as part of the performance.
“We lead the audience over a body into the theater space which I call The Wreck,” Brooks said. “Using the bare room, I created an undersea world with seaweed and a ladder of rocks. I think my process has been to use these kind of inspirations to create a world that I can bring the audience into based on these images such as a shipwreck, a prostrate body under some force that’s restraining it, or two dancers seducing the audience in one way or another. I like to work with multiple images and piece them together like a collage.”
Andrea del Moral and Peet Cocke – Oracle of the Western Shore
Andrea del Moral and Peet Cocke directed and wrote respectively an adaptation of the fantasy novel Voices by Ursula K. LeGuin, which is part of her Annals of the Western Shore trilogy.
“The scenes and story itself were compelling to me because there’s magic in it that doesn’t seem totally impossible, as it’s a kind of magic that could happen on Earth,” del Moral said via phone. “The story is about a military occupation of a town, but it doesn’t end with a really dramatic uprising or with violence solving it. It was complex how the characters solved the occupation and I was drawn to that complexity.”
Oracle of the Western Shore was written through a process called devising, which del Moral described as making something physically through collaboration. The actors in the piece all helped create the play.
“We’ve been working on this piece for two quarters,” del Moral said. “We made up scenes through improvisation and research. We read the novel and discussed the content, scenes and qualities of place. It was hard for people to approximate things in the story without having lived in its fantasy world, so we spent a lot of time working on that. We also worked on imaginations and what would be true to the novel. This quarter was a process of developing the script through rehearsal time and Peet writing the scenes.”
One thing del Moral was surprised by was how well the actors devised the show’s music.
“We have several songs — instrumental and words — that the actors developed from prompts I gave them,” del Moral said. “A lot of them are in the show, which I feel is one of the strengths of the piece.”
Deirdre Morris — We Do Not Live In Splendid Isolation
Deirdre Morris’ choreography uses the area around Lake Spafford in the Arboretum to explore audience participation in art.
“My main interest with this particular site work was to activate the audience, allowing for participation and agency to occur within the viewers themselves,” Morris said. “We’re getting the audience to walk around with us and do some specific tasks so they have to participate with us. The piece itself is very movement based. It’s both performatory and acting. It is still theater but it’s more of a physical theater if you had to put a label on it.”
Morris’ work in creating site particular choreographies goes beyond just performing in a certain location.
“I’m interested in how to create site work through different modes of research, such as the history of a particular site,” Morris said. “When I looked into the history of the Sacramento Valley, I found out about the the people who were here 10,000 years ago until the 1800s when they got wiped out. I also did a bunch of research on how Lake Spafford got built. I also focus on sociological and biological information. I also focus on working within the landscape itself, such as what the landscape does to the performers and their bodies and how we identify in outdoor places, like how we would feel different in a more organic space as opposed to a cement park with man-made materials. You can look at the structuredness of a space; the Arboretum is organic yet structured.”
Morris said she felt like the experience was a challenge.
“I had to do a lot of permission-getting at first, since I needed to make sure it was okay to use the sites,” Morris said. “There’s a boat in the piece, so I had to ask for permission for that. Thankfully the Arboretum is super helpful, as they helped me find history, water reports and stuff like that. Another challenge was finding performers interested in the piece, as well as people who wanted to stilt walk, which ended up being easy. Out of the seven people I did a project with back in the fall, three could commit so, including myself, there are four performers total. I would not have been able to make this piece without their help.”
Amanda Vitiello-Jensen — Travesty: Representations of Joan of Arc & Gypsy Rose Lee
Amanda Vitiello-Jensen’s piece is a solo performance in which Vitiello-Jensen shifts between the roles of three women: herself, Joan of Arc and Gypsy Rose Lee.
“I take a little bit of the burlesque style of theatre and have weaved this into a piece where I’m playing myself transitioning into Gypsy into myself into Joan of Arc,” Vitiello-Jensen said via phone. “I’m playing with the idea of revealing these women for more than what we know of them as well as revealing myself a bit in the process.”
This piece comes from a lifelong interest Vitiello-Jensen has had in both of these women.
“I’ve been researching these women since I was a child. I fell in love with St. Joan as a young person and when I saw the musical Gypsy I thought, ‘what a fascinating woman,’” Vitiello-Jensen said. “They seem to be polar opposites but I’m drawn to both of them. I’m interested in their crossover, their intersection, which is me. I can relate to traits in both of these women. Even though you wouldn’t think there is a crossover, there is one.”
This is Vitiello-Jensen’s first time working on a solo piece, but she has been working on it for a while.
“I have done burlesque acts on my own and in the past but they’re usually short three-minute long numbers,” Vitiello-Jensen said. “I’ve been working with Chris Wolfe, one of the first-year MFAs, and he’s been acting as a director. He’s been very integral to the process. I’ve spent a lot of time along tearing my hair out but I’m working with material that is interesting to me.”
Program 1, which features Beamish, Brooks and Morris, will run on April 8, 10 and 13 at 6 p.m. Program 2, which features Cocke, del Moral and Vitiello-Jensen, will run on April 9 and 11 at 6 p.m. and on April 13 at 3 p.m. A special performance of Oracle of the Western Shore will run on April 12 at 11 a.m. Program 1 will begin on the north side of the Wyatt Theatre while Program 2 will begin inside the Wyatt Theatre.
JOHN KESLER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.