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WILDERNESS' The Day Shall Declare It Defies Convention

by Jessica Abrams
February 28, 2015
Imperial Art Studios
2051 East 7th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90021
(310) 435-1051
Near the warehouse district east of downtown Los Angeles, I walk past a couple of guys welding on the roof of a building, past empty shipping containers, onto the set. I know it is the set not only from the half-eaten quinoa salad on a chair, but from the various props and set pieces strewn around this dark and cavernous space: a rocking chair. A clothesline of linen napkins, all with different designs. Mason jars lined up on the floor. I am here to watch Annie Saunders and Sophie Bortolussi rehearse The Day Shall Declare It, a dance theatre piece conceived of by both, and performed by Saunders, Nicholas Konow and Chris Polick using text from Tennessee Williams and Studs Terkel.

Saunders is a performer, theatremaker and founder of WILDERNESS, a theatre company whose mission is to challenge traditional ideas of the theatre experience and under whose umbrella the piece is being produced. Bortolussi, a French choreographer, dancer and director who specializes in site-specific dance, choreographed the piece.

When I walk in, Saunders and Konow are side-by-side in what in yoga-speak would be considered shoulder stands, their legs up against the wall, their upper torsos anchoring them to the floor as they roll towards one another playfully. Watching Bortolussi direct is almost as interesting as watching the dancers: she is intensely focused, smiling to herself when something works and not holding back when something isn't. She is small, with a French woman's knack for style with her loose chignon and black jumpsuit which seems as functional as it is chic.

At the end of rehearsal I sat down with them both.

Jessica Abrams: Okay, so tell me about this piece.

[laughter]

Annie Saunders: So one idea that I had originally at the beginning of the founding of WILDERNESS was this idea for a piece about work and working which was something that I was cycling through a lot in my mind about the connection between what I do for a living and what I do with my time and what I do creatively and how that connects to my identity. I feel like there was a lot of public discussion around that because of the recession. There was a lot of upheaval around work and self-identification and fulfillment and disillusionment about that. I knew that there was this whole genre of American drama about labor and about work from the last great economic crisis. I was just interested in exploring that text and looking at why that economic crisis spurred all of these artists to write plays about it. It seemed to me that theatre was a major outlet of expression at that time. And in the contemporary crisis it seemed like there were a lot of large-scale performance events going on – big, highly organized and highly choreographed public protests but more spontaneous and not necessarily written down. So I was mulling over those ideas and wanting to do something that had contemporary physical language and used texts from the previous crisis. And I wrote to [Sophie Bertolussi] on Facebook in May, knowing she had a site-specific dance company –

Sophie Bertolussi: And we met then.

AS: No, it was months later. It was crazy. I had written to you, and then I went to London for the summer and I was stopping in New York for two days and just before I arrived you wrote to me and you were like, "I missed this message."

SB: Yeah, because it went into Spam.

AS: And you were like, I lost this message, are you still coming to New York? And I was like, I'm going to be there tomorrow for two days.

SB: And I got you a ticket to see the show, then we met after and we just had a great connection and she told me about her project, which then was [laughter] a little bit ambitious cause it was involving… Well, to go back to the project, it's based on diverse short stories of Tennessee Williams and excerpts of [Studs] Terkel's interviews. Then, Annie wanted to do, like, two with Tennessee Williams.

AS: One Mamet play and one by Jean Claude Van Itallie, "America Hurrah". Yeah, I went into Sam French and I was like, "Okay, I'm looking for a genome of 'Waiting For Lefty'" and the guy was just like, what are you talking about? And I just started going through plays, starting with "A" and I found this collection of short Tennessee Williams plays very early, from the thirties. It was the first collection of short plays that were ever produced of his by the Group Theatre. He was in Southern California at the time working on a pigeon farm and he submitted these five plays under the title of "American Blues" to the Group Theatre and they offered him a hundred-dollar commission.

SB: Anyway, it was a huge amount of text. She also wanted a huge building and I was like, I don't know if you realize the amount of work. But then we started to workshop [it] in New York. For me the one that touched me the most from all of them was the Tennessee Williams one. I find him very… there is something so human about him that I find it very interesting because I think that the humanity is something that the body can express so well. Those kind of exchanges. It's not so much from the brain; it's something from the emotion of being left or the loneliness. There is something so simple in a weird way. The humanity of it really touched me and I found the movement really appropriate for that.

And then I saw the show Saturday, February 28 at Imperial Art Studios, 2051 East 7th Street LA CA 90021.

The piece began in a speakeasy with people sipping wine and settling into the space. That would be us, the audience members. A man wearing a suit began to mingle, and soon the activity started to center around him as he courted a woman in a red dress from the thirties. Saunders and Polick begin a mating dance involving each other, text and the audience. As they command the space, moving while they're talking, talking while they're moving, they not only casually brush up against audience members, they guide us, moving us out of the way and pulling us toward the part of the space they're using. They also make eye contact. Lots of it.

Did I mention we're standing?

The space, a former engine shop, seems to hold no reminders of its functionary past. In one corner of the main room is a vanity, feminine in its details. A separate alcove holds a desk and wall covered in clocks. For now, however, we are in a small hotel room with this couple as they push the boundaries of both the space and the relationship. They fall into each other and attempt to flee. Their movement is precise, spare, with nothing wasted and the words flow as easily as the simple, human activity. At one point, Saunders is putting coffee cups away in the kitchen area as Polick blocks her, vying for her attention. The choreography of the cups alternately hitting each side of Saunders on the counter as they both move them away is brilliant. It serves the purpose, as does all of the movement, of heightening the emotion to the point where the words are able to stand out in their own right.

Soon, Saunders – or her character; the piece is able to blur the two – dances with a new man, Konow, making a life with him in a new hotel room. In between, the two men interact in the office alcove, two men talking about work; but my favorite moments are those that encapsulate a man and a woman confined not only by space, but by circumstance – the circumstance of their lives separately and their life together. These, including the one I watched being rehearsed, with Saunders and Konow in their side-by-side shoulder stands, run the gamut from innocence to depravity with one sweep of an arm.

"The Day Shall Declare It" goes beyond the novelty of an audience on its feet moving from room to room, although the intimacy of that experience tells its own story. What Saunders and Bortolussi have managed to accomplish is to allow an audience to live alongside three lives and to experience – firsthand – three peoples' struggles as they try to make sense of a harsh world.

The Day Shall Declare It
February 26 - March 22 2015
Wednesday to Friday 8.30pm
Saturday and Sunday 7pm
$25
Imperial Art Studios
2051 East 7th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90021
http://thisisthewilderness.com/portfolio/the-day-shall-declare-it-los-angeles/
Annie Saunders and Nicholas Konow.

Annie Saunders and Nicholas Konow.

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Potter


Annie Saunders with Sophie Borotlussi and Nina Caussa in background.

Annie Saunders with Sophie Borotlussi and Nina Caussa in background.

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Potter


Chris Polick

Chris Polick

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Potter


Chris Polick and Nicholas Konow.

Chris Polick and Nicholas Konow.

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Potter


Nicholas Konow.

Nicholas Konow.

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Potter


Anthony Nikolchev and Annie Saunders in the London version of The Day Shall Declare It (2014)

Anthony Nikolchev and Annie Saunders in the London version of The Day Shall Declare It (2014)

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Potter


Anthony Nikolchev and Annie Saunders in the London version of The Day Shall Declare It (2014)

Anthony Nikolchev and Annie Saunders in the London version of The Day Shall Declare It (2014)

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Potter


Anthony Nikolchev and Annie Saunders in the London version of The Day Shall Declare It (2014)

Anthony Nikolchev and Annie Saunders in the London version of The Day Shall Declare It (2014)

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Potter

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