Stephanie Wolf: It started as a gift for someone’s birthday.
Tiffany Rea-Fisher: We have a board member and her husband wanted to commission a piece from me for her for her birthday. And when I was speaking to him about what we wanted the piece to center around, they are immigrants here. So he kind of gave me the task like, I want you to do whatever you want. And I was like, no, no, no, no. I want this to feel specific to her. And so we talked about, you know, he’s really fascinated by being an immigrant to New York.
SW: That conversation led to the creation of “Emerged Nation,” a work by choreographer Tiffany Rea-Fisher, who is also the Artistic Director of Elisa Monte Dance in New York City.
TRF: I’m always really appreciative of a deadline or a commission or something because as artists, when we look back at our legacy, like hopefully there’s a legacy through your teachings, through your company, through whatever community and environment you’re making. But you know the things that stay and last are pieces of work. I’m just really thankful for all of the elements that came together that made “Emerged Nation,” “Emerged Nation” because I do feel now that I’ve had a little distance from it, that it’s a strong contender for, I think, my signature piece.
SW: Today, in this bonus episode of UnSequenced, we learn about the piece that Rea-Fisher believes might be her seminal work… from Rea-Fisher herself.
I’m your host Stephanie Wolf.
SW: “Emerged Nation” debuted at the Flea Theater in Manhattan in November 2019. The evening-length work is divided into three movements. Each movement has its own backstory and message.
Rea-Fisher was initially interested in tackling the New York immigrant experience. That’s a massive topic, one that had Rea-Fisher stumped about where to even start.
TRF: New York is such a melting pot that if I focus on even like 200 cultures, I’m leaving out like 500. It’s really hard to make it something that is inclusive for everyone. And then I was worrying about appropriation also because I am only what I am. So it’s like, ooh, this is a tough one. But again, I love a challenge and I said let me see. And I sat with it for what felt like forever because I could not find a clean entry point that felt right to me. And so when I was thinking about it, it’s like, okay, let’s not even start from a place of new, let’s start from a place of like what I know.
SW: What she knew was a 2017 work, commissioned by New York City’s Department of Transportation.
TRF: I made a piece “Tilted Arc,” which is based off of the sculpture that used to be in 26 federal Plaza of the same name, a very controversial sculpture that ended up being dismantled and removed.
SW: The artwork, by Richard Serra, was installed in 1981. A 15-ton steel slab that was 12 feet tall and the length of about two and a half semi-trucks. The artist reportedly wanted it to alter how people experienced the space as they walked to nearby government buildings. Some criticized this as manipulation. A New York Times art critic even called it an “awkward, bullying piece.” It was taken down, during the night, in 1989.
TRF: It was meant to kind of show the barrier to entry that immigrants go through. And so I was like, well, let’s start there, and let me start at that place. That opened up the idea of global migration and then also immigration. The way that “Tilted Arc,” how it kind of transversed Foley Square was very specific. And so movement one has five sections in it, and the first section doesn’t really work pattern that much. It is kind of this amorphous blob that’s continually evolving and it’s kind of introducing each character into this environment. Sections two, three and four are very, spatially, pattern heavy. The relationship that the sculpture had in the square, that is Foley Square, each dancer has that pattern. How to describe this? So it’s as if each dancer has a square around them, then their walking pattern is specifically within that square and I can move that diagonal anyway to make sure that once everyone is doing their own individual “Tilted Arc” square, it works as a whole. It would be like there are nine different Foley squares and each of the dancers has their own pattern that they’re putting together. It’s not anything that I’m expecting the audience to get or really care about. But, for me, it helped really ingrain this sculpture into the piece in a real way. And I used it as my true North to kind of keep coming back to that so that I, as a choreographer, didn’t go on a tangent.
MUSIC FROM “TILTED ARC”
TRF: Kevin Keller is a composer who’s worked for the company for many years and he has this album, “In Absentia” that I am obsessed with. And I always wanted to do something to that music but I just wasn’t able to find the right thing. “In Absentia” is an album that was based on a tragedy that happened in Kevin’s life. And so there’s pieces that are named like anticipation and struggle and peace. And so there was something about that journey that resonated with me with the kind of immigrant journey too. There’s this, you know, this hope at the beginning. There’s this anticipation, during there’s fear, there’s struggle, there’s a final reckoning.
MUSIC FROM “TILTED ARC” CONTINUES
TRF: So the second movement, I knew I wanted it to be like high energy. I wanted the audience to want to jump out of their seats and be like onstage with us. So there needed to be a high-energy element. There needed to be a communal element. And, I always loved a rave scene because I like the idea of just feeling music in your chest like that.
MUSIC FROM THE SECOND MOVEMENT OF “TILTED ARC”
SW: The second movement is called “Emerged Nation” — like the title of the full work. She describes it as a mix of Native and Black culture in a contemporary setting.
TRF: For me, it’s just like so close to who we are, like as beings, you know. In the beginning, there was music and dance and there’s a reason for that. And so, you know, as I was thinking about going back into our shared history, it’s like also going back into our cultural roots. That’s music and dance.
TRF: I also think people think of Native Americans and they tend to think historically. And I like to remind people that this is a culture that is ever-present and that is here and that is still contributing. Having that really clean combination of like Black culture and Native culture, I knew I needed someone with a specific type of sensitivity to bring that to the forefront, again without any type of appropriation. And what Twelve45 was able to do is that…”
SW: Twelve45 is a DJ and frequent collaborator of Rea-Fisher’s.
TRF: And with Twelve45, she and I work together on a daily basis. So when I was thinking about, you know, I wanted in the middle to be my most rhythmic, my most energetic, number, I was like, this has to be like a house part. Like I need a DJ.
MUSIC BY TWELVE45
TRF: I was just really worried about grabbing something that’s not mine, you know, I don’t want to use it inappropriately. This was meant to pay respect and homage to, not meant to appropriate. So I really love that so I needed someone who was going to take the time to do that and not sample. Like it was really important to me that anything that was taken for this middle piece not be sampled. Everything had to be original, original. And even though I’m black and Twelve45 is black, even on that end, it needs to be original. If I’m commissioning it, we’re commissioning it.
MUSIC BY TWELVE45 FADES OUT
TRF: And then it ended with “Kinetic Kinship,” which is more of a soundscape of just New York and that composer went all over New York just grabbing sound bites.
SW: The composer she’s referencing is Kevin Keller again.
TRF: And I wanted to show the softness of New York because I think lots of times with soundscapes around New York, it’s like people fighting and sirens and like things like that. And like if it was really that hostile, you know, people wouldn’t be here. All of us that choose to live here, there’s something about the city that draws us, that we really love. And so I wanted to bring those softer qualities to the forefront.
TRF: There’s sounds when he’s in Inwood and there’s like just bachata music that’s just in the air that’s really lovely. There’s someone just walking down the street just whistling. There’s little kids playing. So it feels very neighborhood-y.
TRF: That section, that movement, was the hardest for numerous reasons. One because I was in the middle of an injury, so I was creating it with a boot on. I’m a very physical choreographer and I spend time putting stuff in my body. I was not able to do that so one, I had to be very clear verbally with what I wanted. Even though I had imagined a solo for the beginning of it, it is so hard to verbally express a solo, movement wise. I decided to scrap that idea and actually go for a duet because at least then I could talk to them about negative space. And then there’s only clear choices when you have two bodies that are interwoven, the choices will start to reveal themselves. I knew that I wanted the beginning duet to be not completely interwoven, not like they couldn’t leave each other, but I wanted them to be very close in proximity and I didn’t want it to be phrase work. And so I actually started the duet with two black male dancers because I liked the kind of synergy of two things that are kind of shown aggressively in the media that I find beauty and softness in, and a lot of people do. So I liked that idea of not showing the city aggressively and not showing black males aggressively either. So once that duet comes to its final conclusion, there’s a female solo that comes. I really wanted something, that dancer, she’s really regal in her movement, so literally I was just backing into just poses that I could see of her. Very clear, dance movements that were like pose, pose, pose.
AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL
TRF: And so from that point then I brought in a quartet of women that were connected at the shoulder and kind of worked as a domino effect. To symbolize just the tightness and proximity in which we live in New York City. And I honestly find it amazing. Like anytime I have a smooth commute, I’m amazed and really proud of New York because like there’s no reason for this to work this well because everyone’s tired, everyone’s hot, everyone’s sticky, like everyone. But yet somehow we get A to B, like even though you’re scrunched like sardines. And that’s just the unwritten agreement we’ve made with our neighbors in the city.
SW: I had to know, what did the board member think of her birthday gift? Rea-Fisher says it was a huge sigh of relief when she and her husband were singing its praises after the run.
TRF: It really was a gift to them. They’ve been huge supporters and as you talk about patrons and all the things that make the arts work, this is something that’s going to live in the company’s repertory for a very long time. And so they become part of company history in a very different way and you don’t know where these pieces are going to go. But it was something that I was very proud of. It was something that all the collaborators were very proud of.
SW: That’s New York City choreographer Tiffany Rea-Fisher, who’s also the Artistic Director of Elisa Monte Dance. She discussed her work “Emerged Nation.” It debuted in November of 2019.
Thanks for listening to this bonus episode of UnSequenced.
UnSequenced is produced and mixed by me, Stephanie Wolf. I also reported today’s episode.
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