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A Conversation with Ralph Lemon

By Alessandra Gomez

Oct 29, 2015

Choreographer and artist Ralph Lemon will be premiering Scaffold Room at The Kitchen on October 30th, 2015. Please visit our event page for the live performance schedule.

Ralph Lemon’s intellectually rigorous practice as it is understood and celebrated today may be said to have arisen from his break with habitual structures of dance making—and, more specifically, from the disbandment of his successful modern dance company in 1995. In his subsequent practice, a desire to examine his own history alongside his charged, personal engagement with the social and political quickly materialized. Accompanying this desire is an emphasis on interdisciplinarity, especially given his expansive background as a choreographer, dancer, writer, and visual artist.

Described by Lemon as a “flexible architectonic space,” Scaffold Room exists as both an architectural and conceptual framework of intricate sensibilities. In fact, as it appears at The Kitchen, the work is an emphatic infiltration of the building that extends beyond the borders of a traditional theatre space. Within this setting, the live performance connects three women—Okwui Okpokwasili, April Matthis, and 86-year old Edna Carter with her extended family in video—who collectively access an archetypal black female presence mediated by pop culture, science fiction, and American history. Okpokwasili and Matthis sift through a spectrum of personas, ranging from Moms Mabley to Beyoncé Knowles, developing a citational choreography along the way in an effort to reveal the exclusionary history of representation.

In anticipation of the opening, Ralph Lemon reflected on his collaboration with April Matthis and Okwui Okpokwasili.

Alessandra Gomez: Can you describe working with Okwui and April on Scaffold Room, especially given your extensive history with them as performers and collaborators?

Ralph Lemon: Scaffold Room began with Okwui and I sitting in the studio and improvising with some text that I had previously written. All of this [text] was interspersed with extemporaneous talking, debating ideas, and other things that I was thinking (and not thinking) about and reading at the time—specifically, passages and quotes that I felt related to what was spinning around in my head. Okwui would furiously write down everything I said. She would then edit her writing so that it made more sense, especially given the automatic writing that was required. Afterwards, she sent the text to me and I would re-write it. We did this for a number of weeks and that really began the textual language of Scaffold Room, which originally was going to be a one-woman performance with Okwui—Okwui as me being Okwui being Ralph being Okwui. It formed this unreliable narrative container that felt very fresh as well as ongoing in our working relationship.

And then Okwui became very busy, so I continued the writing without her—but with her in mind—especially given the body of work we had accumulated at the time. And then, Okwui became even busier and I realized that I needed to find another performer to continue the process, and that’s when I thought of April—April Matthis. When I got together with April, whom I had never worked with before, I thought it would be interesting to think of her as a binary to the collaborations I’ve had with Okwui. Because I know Okwui really well, I thought it might be useful to not know April. For April’s part, I just continued writing by myself. We didn’t share a writing collaboration; there wasn’t that specific translation that was happening between Okwui and I. Instead, April took the accumulated text and started to translate it as the performer who is translating it; the discussion of what the text meant and where it was coming from remained usefully removed.

Scaffold Room, which began as a one-woman show became a one-woman show played by two women. We’ve been able to maintain that relationship to the piece throughout. Okwui is someone I’ve known for many, many, years and we have worked together on many, many projects. On the other hand, this is the only piece I’ve worked on with April. We found a way to conceptually use the idea of being strangers to one another as generative material.

AG: Why did you decide to work with April, specifically? Was there a moment in time that prompted your interest in her as a performer?

RL: I had seen her work before. She is another interesting black female performer in this small, experimental performance scene. She was previously part of An All Day Event. The End, an event I curated at Danspace and was also a part of Deborah Hay’s piece at MoMA, as part of Some Sweet Day. We knew each other but we had not worked together before. She did something in An All Day Event. The End that really impressed me—it was beautifully weird, a Beyoncé-esque song that she sang and it seemed to take…forever. It just stopped time. It was a long time since I’ve seen someone hold and manipulate time like that. It really impressed me. Scaffold Room is a lot about pop culture and iconic female performers from different generations, and Beyoncé is very central to the source material of the work. In one of our previous discussions, April mentioned that she was “channeling her inner Beyoncé.” I thought that was perfect because it’s exactly what Okwui and I were doing differently, so that really helped. I feel like the two of them are so different that they’re refracting off of each other.

AG: How are they alike and different from one another?

RL: They are around the same age, they’re both mothers of young children, they’re both in the experimental performance scene, and have both worked together. However, they are very different as women, as black women, as performers, what they’re interested in, and how they work with me. It has been really fulfilling. I never work with them at the same time. I work with Okwui on part one and I work separately with April on part two. I remember the first time they saw each other’s part, and I was really nervous about what they would think.

Conceptually, they are performing the same person—that was the initial idea—it just morphed into two performers for practical reasons. The piece is one performance in two parts played by two women. They have their own secret language in how they’re relating to one another and what they think of each other’s parts. I’ve been amused and excited about what they bring each night to the work.

AG: What about your experience working with them as both a director and collaborator?

RL: There are different requirements for each of them because the piece is about what they bring to this textual container—and how they are literally translating it as women, as black women, as performers. For me, a lot of it dances that fine line. In terms of the work’s authorship, I felt it was very important for my input to disappear within the material, however, I also felt like I had to know the shape of the work and where the boundaries existed. It was really important for them, and for me, to see them taking it some place else.

AG: Is that how you began the editing process?

RL: I wouldn’t say the editing process because the text really held it together. Okwui and I built the scaffold of the text, which became the frame for part one. April took the text that had been built for her (as a stranger) and embodied it, taking it to a place that was kind of surprising to me—or that continues to surprise me.

AG: That’s what fascinated me—the possibility that this piece will continue to evolve. The cultural icons that are central to the work are relevant now, but what about fifteen years from now?

RL: It’s been interesting because we have had to update certain parts of the text. We have been working for a few years now, and in popular culture, people come and go. As I’ve been updating it, people become central to some of the texts, such as Beyoncé or Lady Gaga, both of who are still relevant now—but relevant differently then they were a year ago. If this were ever to be re-performed ten years from now, it would be an interesting relic. Popular culture is always evolving, and certain things that are being proposed in the work have to be constantly revisited.

AG: Yes, it exists in a continuum.

RL: Right. When famous people have died during the process, we have had to add “RIP.” It’s about the present and how loose that framework is; and how we conjure history as popular culture, such as Mamie Smith and Etta James, how they weigh in their own histories.

Some of the names mentioned are historical, but in some instances, nobody knows who they are. These personal histories endure—there’s this weighted importance on a particular type of talent and power that someone honors by writing a book about that talent. That’s interesting too. How reliable is that mythology of all of this?

There also exists the mythology of April and Okwui. They embody these particular characters that are holding all of it, but they are also absolutely Okwui and absolutely April, and, moreover, they are performing this from a male’s instigator’s point of view. All of this is subsumed by gender politics. There’s a great amount of trust between all three of us and we discuss it all of the time. For instance, Amy Winehouse versus Beyoncé? What’s black versus white? How is Janis Joplin black? How are they black? How are they not black? We would have weeklong discussions about that. In the work, there is this essence to something that is truly and quintessentially American. That’s another thing that was revealed to me later on…it’s a very American piece. It’s very much about that kind of performance politic, and each iteration is very different because it’s about the space and how it’s held. Scaffold Room is just a frame trying to address all of these different things—culture, architecture, gender, politics, sexuality and race. There are also new parts nobody has seen—a lot of source material—refractions of refractions of refractions.

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