ROOM CONVERSATION 23.09.2020
Stace Gill and Maria Nilsson Waller (Flora Fauna Project, Glendalough, Ireland)
Charles Moulton (Dance Choreographer and Visual Artist, Oakland, CA)
ball passing, community, project, people, arts, dance, group, cooperation, participation,
Stace Gill: Man oh man, what a project. It's incredible.
Charles Moulton: [Laughs] It's really been. It's really been great. I really I love it.
Stace: Yeah, what a whirlwind of a journey, I'd imagine.
Charles: Sort of every at every turn, it's been unexpected. And the piece [Ball Passing] has been a lot bigger than I have. So one of the things that I've been doing over the last four years is I've been working with kids and hospitals. And I've been to Germany now for three years, and teaching one-week workshops in Stuttgart at a children's hospital there to children with chronic illness. I know nothing about being in hospitals. I don't. It's not-- I don't have any training and working with children with chronic illness or their families. But it's been just, you know, such a great life journey for me. And we've been working at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital here [in San Francisco, California]. And so it's very, you know, personally very moving to be in these environments, to be learning things, to be humbled, to be inspired. As I am and I have been. You know, it's kind of one of these things where the piece [Ball Passing] is different things to different people. And yet it all fits within this very human container of you know-- there's a wonderful comedic side to it as well. I don't know if you know, the choreographer, David Gordon, if you've ever heard of him. Postmodern choreographer in New York City and he saw [Ball Passing] in London many years ago. And he said, you know, the thing that's wonderful about Ball Passing, is that when people are making a mistake, they're more themselves than they ever are.
Maria: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Charles: Because it's kind of like being a dancer where you know, you're a dancer and you're like, "Here I am." It's just all under control.
Charles: Ball Passing, it's just like balls are falling on your head. Somebody's forgotten this thing next to you. Like, somebody shouting out the next thing that's gonna happen. And it's wonderful to see, you know, that human-ness that we hide from each other-- which is that confusion, awkwardness [laughs]-- other than in our families, and in our personal relationships. You know, we don't exactly walk out into the world and go, "You know, I'm really confused" infront of 1000 people, 3000 people, you know.
Stace: You get to see something special when things start going wrong.
Charles: Yeah and then you also get to see this wonderful, this wonderful human thing that people have of picking each other up of helping each other. There's always a person in every group, especially the larger group, there's a person in every group who knows everything, who knows everybody's parts. There's like a, and then myself, I'm a terrible ball passer.
Stace: Oh really? [laughs]
Charles: Yeah, I can't remember anything. I'm just not that person. I can't remember it. So I was always next to the person that remembered everything. And that sense of, we all have strengths and weaknesses. And how do we, as a group, create a symbiotic energy for all of this stuff? And it's just-- it's just been wonderful, I have to say, it's just been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
Maria: And your [piece] is particularly interesting, because of the longevity of it, obviously. It's such a huge, huge thing. Yeah and somehow as well like, to maybe know what was the culture then? It says online, [Ball Passing] started '79. So like, even the '60s, '70s, you know, those kind of, the thinking about it, what kind of inspired it, what led to it, influences, you know, like all of that.
[ life in agrarian communities ]
Charles: Well this goes way back to previous generations for me. Both my father and my grandfather were in vaudeville in the United States, but at a very low level, like the lowest lowest level. So that's barn dances, what we call "smokers." They were community organizers and they were in agrarian communities. And the agrarian communities, you know, typically have much higher levels of cooperation than communities in city communities simply because there's less vertical stacking.
Charles: And when it's time to bring the hay and it's time to bring the hay in, everybody's hay has to come in, you can't do it without everybody. So this, a lot of this comes from southern Minnesota where my family comes from, and the agrarian community there, and then it kind of gets moved through different, you know, my own interest in games, my own interest in sports and games as a kid. And then through a kind of a postmodern aesthetic, where there's an idea of treating something like this very seriously. That's a very postmodern idea, to take a children's game, or something that could be thought of-- I mean, it actually has a lot to do with indigenous games as well. I don't know if you know, Cat's Cradle where you play with string?
Charles: So sort of cooperative puzzle solving. It is almost like a participation, participation in art making and puzzle solving is is an indigenous, tribal activity that goes back forever. And a lot of tribes, there's this, this idea of participation engagement. You know, so what's happened with Ball Passing is the more and more that we're losing this, which is, you know, we're really losing it-- and in the United States, these ideas, you know, people really aren't part of communities, they don't, that doesn't work that way--Ball Passing has become more and more important.
Stace: Yeah, absolutely. There's no, it's no coincidence either from our side that we have a strong community element to our work and our project.
[ Arts in the community ]
Charles: One of the, sort of the larger goals of Ball Passing right now-- And I'm excited about this work that you've done in inner cities. I mean, as you know and as I know, you don't just show up in a different community and say, you know, here, hold my cape. And you know, I'm gonna now turn this into magic, you know. That community engagement is a different kind of creativity where you [inaudible] up in the community. So when I go to New York, I have a track record in New York, I have a lot of reviews from New York, people know my name in the United States, they know my name in Europe. And so an institution will do a project of mine and it will be the respect held by that institution that then brings me up into the area, and I'm then able to call out to the little people. And you know, that doesn't work in these kind of neighbourhoods that you're talking about. Where you know, your word is your bond, where they need to respect you, you need to respect them. Oftentimes, you will be challenged for excellent reasons. People will want to know how much you want this and why you want it, and that might be a daily ongoing dialogue that takes the form of slagging or that takes the form of questioning. I think that kind of work is, you know, there are the arts, and then there's the Community Arts. I think it's very different.
Charles: You know, it's like a completely different set of concerns, anyways.
Maria: Yeah, big time. And I suppose it is kind of rare, actually, to have the people who managed to go into both worlds.
Charles: It's very rare
Maria: You know, so I think that's also one of the things we are looking for here
Charles: Because I think the community work is a big, big rude awakening.
Stace: It's everything.
Charles: Because I don't think people give a flying fuck about my New York Times reviews.
Charles: They don't care about it. They just don't care. That's not where they live. That's not how they live. That's not what their lives are about. That's not what matters to them. That's some you know, fairy tale somewhere a million miles away.
Maria: Yeah. But there is also something I think that the these communities really teach us. Like, they really test the value of what we're doing somehow, because they feel...
Charles: Of course.
Maria: ...and in that we offer them if the project if the participation isn't actually valuable, there's no point in doing it.
Charles: Yes completely true.
Maria: So I think there's also trying to also bring that conversation to about what dance actually is. You know, like, and the kind of the findings that what we learn, and what these women are your groups, you know, what are the benefits? What are the effects? And how, you know, like those things they really need to be understood, I think better even in the dance community.
Charles: What we're learning is that the largest group that we work with, with 72 [performers], that was a massive, that was a massive group of people. And kind of only in Canada, is what I would like to say about that. The Canadians have a very coherent culture in a lot of ways. I mean, it's there's a lot of different things, a lot of different people, but the Canadians want immigrants, they need immigrants, they want people of colour, they want women working, they want children learning, they want everyone healthy. It's like some very basic things where, we're not going to survive unless we have more immigrants and unless they, you know, feel Canadian.
Charles: So there's a lot of support for that in Canada. So, you know, with a project like that, we're working with a variety of different socio economic groups. So we were working with immigrant groups, we're working with senior groups, we're working with dancers--were part of it. We're working with kids, we have kids, 12 year olds, in that project, we had grandmother's in that project, we have everybody in that project. So it's a very big container. And in addition to any of the cultural issues that we're facing, in terms of communication, working with different refugees who were in that project, you know, people who you would ask where they came from and they wouldn't want to respond, because it was, you know, it was just too painful. They weren't there to talk about Iraq. They were there, you know, that English was their third language, not their first, not their second. The four brothers from Sri Lanka. There is then a mixing all of these people together to be on teams of three, everybody is on a team of three that are locked together. The issue with Ball Passing-- it's a very interesting process but it's-- it's both very easy to do because kids can do it. A 12-year-old girl is the best ball passer. A 12-year-old girl ball passer will get it like that [snaps his fingers]. And she'll just [say], "I get it. First time I got it. What's next?"
Stace + Maria: Yeah.
Charles: But it requires that people are very close to each other. And that they are reaching their arms around each other. And it's like being in a submarine. It is a very upsetting-- it can be very upsetting for people to be that close to other people. That being said, when we find the spirit, when we find the group spirit, when we begin making decisions together as a group about what our goals are, what our aims are, how we're communicating what's best, how we move forward, for everyone, it's the best experience anybody has had. So the experience of Ball Passing comes with a price tag.
Stace + Maria: Yeah.
Charles: It's not like we're putting on party music. It doesn't work like that. And people get very upset, and we work with each other to develop skills that have not been taught to us.
Maria + Stace: Mm hmm.
Charles: You know, and we're at a point with the project right now where we have enough visibility and where it's big enough that people look at it and go, what is that? Let's put it on TV. Right? They it's newsworthy in a way. That you know, people look at it, they're like, "This is crazy! You know, wow!" It does have a certain-- like nobody really knows what it is. They don't know whether it's a game, whether it's a toy, whether it's a Rubik's Cube, whether it's a dance, whether it's why are they throwing it, whether it's a pattern. Nobody knows what it is. And so that still is the case. And that's the best thing going for the work. So I think that, you know, every project is different, every alignment is different, every population is different. You know, we've worked with, we've worked [to include], you know, people where language was a real issue. And I don't need to speak anybody's language. I don't, I can instruct this to anybody. I could teach goats how to do this. I've worked all over the world. I have a few words like, yes, no, good, next. That comes easily to me. What begins, you know, when it it starts getting really big, that's when we need-- it always needs community support. The people that do this piece are the community members, you know this. These people from these neighborhoods, that's what this project [The River] needed that you did. They needed to make a decision, this is what we're gonna do with Stacey. And once they made that decision, they're fine. You know, it's about getting to that point with any group, because I can't tell people: Okay, you got to do Ball Passing. This is...
Stace: Yeah, it's hard to get them involved.
Charles: They're like, "No. Why would we want to do that?" You know. I mean, it's fun. It's interesting. It's challenging. It's very beautiful. But I don't think that people I think from both the arts and the community point of view, people don't understand the value of the arts, why the arts are essential to our human-ness. Artistic expression for humans is like, birds singing. We can't stop it. It's part of us, without it we're not human. Without that song, the bird can't be human. So without these dances in theatres and songs and music, we're really not human without this. People don't understand that. They think it's "the arts." And then that's also true with community-- without this sense of cooperation, without this bonding, without this interwoven synergistic concept of cooperation, reciprocity. You know, these are tribal skills.
Charles: Skills of the 20th century. They're skills of the, you know, of the 16th century. I do think that theatre, kind of at every level is based on aesthetic distance. That means that, you know, the Greeks looked at theatre as being mainly comprised of two elements, which is aesthetic distance, meaning there's that wall there, the fourth wall. And that that makes everybody safe. We're safe because the players are here, the audience, the community, the populace is here. And then empathy, which is the other half of the equation, which is our ability to feel what other people are feeling.
Stace + Maria: Yep.
Charles: And we still have those things. We haven't been in this that long. We haven't been in this that long right now. But I know that somebody is going to come up with a solution for this. Somebody's going to creatively come up with a solution that's going to be able to creatively connect people and I think, to be more personally close with the artist, rather than you know, here's this work of art and I come out and I, you know, take my bow and we love each other and bye bye. There's more of a sense of how do we live together through this? How are we actually living together what are the strategies that different people have in their creativity and their living?