Stephanie Wolf: Hi, everyone. I’m Stephanie Wolf, host and producer of UnSequenced. Before we get into today’s episode, I just want to take a few minutes to say that this podcast is truly a labor of love. And if you enjoy listening to it and hearing how these artistic works come together, now is your chance to support this podcast and DIYdancer’s other forthcoming audio projects by becoming a Patreon subscriber. Just visit patreon.com/diydancer. And thanks. Now, here’s today’s episode.
Austyn Rich: Usually when I think of a new work, I give myself a sort of list of things I would want to happen. Whether it’s revisiting prior themes or motifs that I’m interested in, or it can just simply be ‘I want to do x, y, and z…’ For my choreographic process, usually I like to give myself rules. And then of course, when you’re workshopping different things, you get to a point where the rules are broken or you make more rules. So my first rule was, I wanted to get out of my house.
Stephanie Wolf: In mid-April, after a month of quarantining in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Los Angeles artist Austyn Rich invited a select few to his first drive-in dance performance, done guerilla-style in the heart of the downtown arts district.
AR: STAY SANE came to me as a moment for us — my immediate community and my immediate support group. It came to me, in a way, to provide the option to safely continue with experiencing art and dance and movement. So I thought about a sort of vintage or retro analog way of experiencing like, community, and also art — I thought about drive-in movies.
SW: On today’s episode of UnSequenced, we’ll share Rich’s creation process for undertaking a new type of production for a new — and socially distanced — live performance venue. I’m Stephanie Wolf.
THEME MUSIC CONTINUES
SW: Contributor Celine Kiner attended college with Rich, at the University of Southern California. They spoke after he performed the work and released a film version. Here’s Celine.
Celine Kiner: Rich grew up in Georgia, where he would escape reality at the drive-in movie theater.
AR: Everyone’s having a good time, to have fun, and just kind of get away from your sort of reality. And the reality at the time was fear. The reality at the time was a lot of questions being unanswered about what we were dealing with. And I think for me I had to kind of go in a very nostalgic direction to get inspired for this work.
CK: For the first few months of the stay-at-home order, Rich lived above and managed a Los Angeles dance studio called ‘we live in space,’ so he had immediate access to a rehearsal room. With so much time on his hands, it seemed natural to dig into creation.
AR: We all were kind of shifted in a way, when we first were approached with.the pandemic and what it meant to quarantine and be in a sort of sense of solitude. For a while, I had been making work at home. I would go downstairs and take the moment to dive deeper into my movement practice.
CK: He finds a particular solace in artist Pink Siifu’s track STAY SANE, which became both title and motivation for the work.
AR: I just was playing that over and over and over and over, you know a lot of the music that I end up trying to choose for choreographic work is my favorite song. It’s just my favorite song, and I allow myself to create from that place and that’s where the name came from.
When I have a song, however long it is, that is the only music I’m listening to. So that song really becomes me, and that playlist really became the soundtrack to what I was going through.
CK: Rich works often with an index of collaborators, a number of which played a role in this work.
AR: So when it came to the styling and wardrobe, I worked with a friend of mine who has a company named PHLEMUNS. And I was explaining to myself, really about how the sky felt really different living in Los Angeles, and I didn’t realize this sort of obsession that I had with taking photos of clouds. There was just something about the sky that had possibility, you know? I had no idea that PHLEMUNS at the time was working on a collaboration. And I didn’t know he had… cloud print was his next thing until he’d shown me, like selfies that he was taking of the more unreleased work.
CK: Rich says he also location-scouted with a friend who had been driving him to the grocery store during the pandemic. He chose an alley in the LA Arts District, and invited his friends to pull up to an address — he’d lead them to the performance site from there.
AR: People were in their cars. They had no idea, you know, where I was taking them. And I loved the processional of the cars, me being basically the conductor.
All of the movement in the piece is improvisation. I just knew that I had a plan. And I also visited the site a couple times as well to get inspired by, you know how can I choreograph the experience. Because it was really more about — to me, the way I see it as the performer — is choreographing the experience of escape for some people, or freedom, or just a walk outside. So it really became about how can I choreograph and facilitate an experience for the viewers.
When I see measures and the way notes are kind of displayed on the page, I see a wave, I can follow it in a wave. So I think me listening to the music and kind of what piano music does to me, it makes me feel, in a sense, underwater. And I kind of already in my work, and a theme that I really try to keep consistent is redefining an aquatic theme. But you know I think the waving was really coming from the simple gesture of getting people to go where they should be, but also you know allowing people to see that they were seen. And I think when we wave, you know waving hi, it’s a confirmation to let you know that you’re seen and I wanted to make every person in the car know that I was there, really for them.
CK: In the film of the live performance, viewers experience Rich leading you to the site from an attendee’s car, parking and waiting for the performance to begin. Videographer Adam Agostino films from his seat inside the car, so sometimes you can see Rich dancing and sometimes you can’t. This guerilla style is common in Rich’s work, especially his work for screen.
AR: I always see camera work and documentation of dance as surveillance, and that’s really the way that I approach dance on film and dance on camera. I see it as surveillance. And a lot of my favorite video captures are surveillance cameras. There’s just something about the angles. But there’s always this choreography of your mind. Knowing that how I’ve approached and been absorbing dance before is that, they need to see everything, but that everything is perfection. The rehearsals are sometimes the best runs, but that’s not what is shown on the stage, or shown on camera. Maybe what’s unseen from the way we are used to absorbing dance on camera. That’s really how I love approaching dance on film.
CK: In the documented live performance of STAY SANE, Rich goes out of frame and a man in a wheelchair comes into view. He sees Rich performing and changes his pace, slowing down so as not to interrupt.
AR: I kept it, because I felt like it isn’t just really about me, it was also about the space that I was in. It was also about the cars you were able to see, or you know, the man in the wheelchair. It then becomes about him, and how it all becomes a part of the performance, and even that happens, you know, in the theater as well.
CK: His work has a nostalgic auteurist or almost voyeurist frame, even when there isn’t video playing.
AR: And I think really my earliest introduction to surveillance is being the youngest child, and being the baby. And you know sometimes it’s like, if the baby’s crying, something’s wrong.
CK: Rich likes to call his work a crafting of trauma into triumph. We won’t go into specifics here, but he often draws on recollection of his childhood experience.
AR: And I think the trauma that I might have dealt with is why I was going to dance. Or the joy that I didn’t know how to experience, was dancing, or wanting to be creative.
At first, you know I was creating really horrific work. I love horror films, so when I was creating dance and choreography pieces, I was taking elements from horror films. And it was about trauma, it was about just putting that all on the table.
MUSIC BY ALGORYTHM CODE FROM BL**DY SPAGHETTI
AR: All of the trauma was before. The trauma was the process, you know, the trauma was what you didn’t see, what wasn’t a part of the surveillance. We might see the trauma on camera, but we don’t know the triumph.
I really wanted to just really close the door on allowing my trauma to be shown in the work. I didn’t really want to show viewers and supporters that I’m going through it. It has also sometimes been a moment of running in place. Showing people that I’m struggling. I think for me, being in this body and skin that I’m in, every day can be traumatic.
Maybe that trauma that I know to be the past, present and the future, it’s just really changing that for me and knowing that I’m triumphant now. More works of joy. I am a happy and a beautiful and bright creative, brilliant person, and just allowing that to be what you see from now on. And knowing that there is still room to be real and put it all on the line, but knowing that that is not only what this body that I’m in–that’s not the only paintbrush that I can express about myself. You won’t have to only just see the struggle or the labor.
Maybe that’s relaxing my process. And letting myself absorb what I am dealing with, but knowing that that’s not the only way I can purge of that.
CK: The relaxation in this work is evident, especially in contrast to Rich’s last work, BL**DY SPAGHETTI. He’s playful, even donning a pair of Heelys midway through the performance before he repeats the waving motif.
AR: I never was able to have a pair of Heelys growing up. When it comes to art, I’m allowing myself to really participate in my imagination even more, so I actually stumbled across these Heelys at the Goodwill, and I saved them. And there was just something about Black boy joy, that really allowed me to be in that moment. Like I had a pair of like wheely shoes, but they weren’t the Heelys at the time, and I knew being in school and being poor, I had to deal with the off-brand. And now me stumbling across them, and them being my size as an adult man was just something that, there was just that trauma now being a triumph, to be honest.
AR: I’m in my Heelys, I finally got em.
CK: Rich is hoping to safely tour STAY SANE in the future, but in the meantime he’s working on an interactive dance media project, which can be found on his social media profiles.
THEME MUSIC CONTINUES
SW: That’s dancer, choreographer and artist Austyn Rich, discussing his drive-in performance work STAY SANE with Celine Kiner.
UnSequenced is produced and mixed by me, Stephanie Wolf.
Joe Kye composed our theme music. And thanks to all of our Patreon subscribers. You can join them in supporting this podcast at patreon.com/diydancer.
Find UnSequenced wherever you get your podcasts. And thanks for listening!
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