When a composer, a choreographer, a poet, a book artist and a filmmaker came together nine months ago to share their unfinished work — as part of Paul Besaw’s performance project called “The Solo Workshop” — no one knew exactly what to make of the situation. Critiquing work in other disciplines made the participants a bit uncomfortable at first, writes Burlington filmmaker Deb Ellis in an email. “I didn’t know what to say,” she confesses.
But before long the conversation got going, and all five artists found themselves teasing out ideas they might not have found on their own. The ensemble will present their finished work this Saturday in FlynnSpace.
Besaw, an assistant dance professor at the University of Vermont, initiated the informal workshop last year. “I was feeling like I should make a solo,” he says. “But because I’m involved in a pretty social form, I didn’t like the idea [of working alone].” So he invited four other Vermont performance artists to join him in a workshop. The idea was that they would each work separately but meet regularly to share unfinished projects.
This year, Besaw and composer Patricia Julien, a colleague in the UVM music department, decided to expand the boundaries of the workshop to include artists who might not traditionally perform, including Ellis, poet Major Jackson and visual artist Erin Sweeney.
The individuals hadn’t initially intended their finished pieces to have anything in common, but during nine months of sharing and critiquing, they began to circle similar themes, exploring relationships between husband and wife and mother and son and bonds of community.
Though the process had a collaborative aspect, each of the five artists will present his or her work separately in the show.
Besaw’s piece, performed by Clare Byrne, another UVM colleague, combines elements of dance and theater. In addition to singing and speaking, Byrne uses abstract and stylized movements as well as two chairs — one for her and one, ostensibly, for someone who has left her. The piece explores how relationships define our sense of home, and what happens when our most intimate relationships dissolve.
“You sort of follow this woman as she’s trying to figure out how to live alone,” Besaw explains.
Ellis will present a multiscreen video installation inspired by the notion of mothers raising and protecting their sons. “The piece focuses on that moment when a mother recognizes her powerlessness to affect the trajectory of a son, but at the same time rediscovers power in her own life,” Ellis writes.
From Jackson comes an experimental performance of lyric monologues set to music and video and depicting discord between husband and wife, played by Jason Lambert and Abby Paige.
Drawing on the singer-songwriter tradition, Julien has written a piece for vocalist and pianist Amber deLaurentis. Her performance, which will incorporate both acting and a cappella singing, tells the story of a woman whose partner was killed in a car accident while taking his usual Sunday bike ride on a beautiful day.
“It’s not entirely about devastation and loss, though,” Julien shares in an email. “I’ve tried to capture many different moods in this piece, from horrible disruption to sweet, gentle memories.”
Sweeney has had the difficult task of crafting a performance from her visual art — she creates large-scale, hand-bound books filled with stories she’s gathered from past viewers about their ideas of community.
“My audience is generally very different than ... a performance audience, and I’m intrigued with the idea of them being somewhat ‘captive,’” she writes in an email. She will present a video of herself working, zeroing in on her busy hands, to the narration of some of the stories that fill the books. Those finished books will be displayed below the video screen.
Besaw says he is already planning the next “Solo Workshop,” which will return to a single discipline, focusing this time on musicians and composers. But for these five artists, it seems, the interactions across disciplines were well worth the trouble.
“I am generally so moved by music,” Julien writes. “I didn’t expect to be similarly undone and uplifted by the other mediums. We’ve wrung some work out of ourselves that might not have come to fruition but for this project.”
“The Solo Workshop,” presented by Paul Besaw, Deb Ellis, Major Jackson, Patricia Julien and Erin Sweeney. Saturday, May 8, 8 p.m., at FlynnSpace in Burlington. $12-18. Info, 863-5966.
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