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Philip Sandstrom

Singing and Dancing towards the Heavens.



The Wooster Group will present “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation”
A t The Performing Garage (33 Wooster Street, SoHo, Manhattan)
F rom May 17 through June 15, 2014.
Tickets at www.thewoostergroup.org and 212.966.3651

Left to Right: Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzzy Roche, Frances McDormand and Cynthia Hedstrom. Photo by Paula Court.

The newest Wooster Group work directed by: Kate Valk, "Early Shaker Spirituals" is a performance based on a 1976 LP of Shaker hymns, marches, anthems, and testimony recorded by Sister R. Mildred Barker and the sisters of the Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The show features Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand, Suzzy Roche with Matthew Brown, Modesto Jimenez, Bobby McElver, Bebe Miller, and Andrew Schneider.

Philip W. Sandstrom: I know you as an incredible actress and a founding member of The Wooster group. Is this your first time directing for The Wooster Group? And tell me about your history as a director?

Kate Valk: Yes, this is the first time directing a piece by The Wooster Group. I used to make dances. Or I used to do recreations of dances that I videotaped and then transposed. So I'm used to organizing people in Brace Up!, Fish Story, and Emperor Jones (all Wooster Group works). I would work on dances and bring them to Liz (LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group) and then she would incorporate them into the piece. I also directed the Wooster Group Summer Institute. But this is the first time I've been on the outside and Liz has been on the inside. So, it's not like a giant jump but more of a modulation of what I've already been doing.

PWS: So in terms of choreographing, have you always choreographed for the group?

KV: Yes, but again, I wouldn't call myself the choreographer; I'm more part of The Wooster Group's creative tradition of copying, transcribing, and transposing. I might have taken dances from a film then changed it or taken a sequence and transposed it to other music. It's more like I'm a dramaturg; it's the same way we work when we are working with source material for one of our theater pieces. I call it just making dances, that I then bring to Liz to incorporate into the shows (that we're working on at the time). I wouldn't really call myself a choreographer.

PWS: In the tradition of choreographer in plays, you are the choreographer. You decide where people move and how they move; you bring theses ideas to the director who then makes the final choices. This is typical of theatrical choreographers, including musicals. I think you should just accept it; you're a choreographer.

KV: With the Wooster Group, I offer up the movement as text, and since it's a collaborative process, we're all involved in how it all works, but Liz is the one who incorporates the contributions into the piece.

PWS: How did it work out that you became director of this piece?

KV: Years ago, I think it was in 1981, Liz had the idea to take this record album called Hula and with Ron (Vawter), Willem (Dafoe) and me, we made up dances to every part of the album and Peyton Smith read the liner notes. She was the hostess, she read the liner notes to the audience and we danced, (the dances that we created) every cut on the album in order. The album became the artifact that was also the fetish item. That was our novel approach to making this evening of dances.

PWS: So, this process of making dances from existing records is part of The Wooster Group history; what makes this show different?

KV: One of my first experiences with Liz, when I started working with her, was driving up to New England, to all the different Shaker communities. Because we were reading about the Shakers and we were interested in the ecstatic dancing that was part of the formal worship of the Shakers. We visited many communities and actually met with some of the Sisters of Sabbathday Lake (a Shaker group), Mildred Barker, being one of them. We purchased the album (of Shaker music and song that this show is based on) at that time, and it's been in our shared record collections for 35 years….

PWS: This show has been incubating for quite awhile…

KV: The idea of the show came about in a weird way. Awhile ago, Frances McDormand and I were talking about her experiences working on the Shaker piece for Martha Clarke (the creator and director of the musical "Angel Reapers" with text by Alfred Uhry Cutler, which opened in fall of 2011 and toured the US for several months and was presented at The Joyce Theater in New York City in November of 2011). Frances still had Shaker desires; she was really into investigating the Shaker's esthetics of music and movement. I immediately made the connection between Fran's desire and Liz's research and thought that we should do another record album interpretation.
In the beginning of the creative process it was Fran, Liz, and me. Then I thought of including Suzzy Roche, who we had been working with on a number of projects. She was just in love with the songs on this album. Soon it became clear that I was the driving force behind this project. I saw that those three women (Liz, Frances, and Suzzy) were so perfect together in this project that I sort of dropped out (of a stage role) and asked Cynthia Hedstrom to join so we would have four women and I could be on the outside "hosting" and reading the liner notes. I, of course, wanted to work on the dancing. I wanted to keep it real simple I wanted to just use the fragments of descriptions that I encountered (in the liner notes and on our New England Shaker visits). I wanted to just make a series of simple dances that might evoke the spirit of this music.

PWS: So as the show continued to develop where did the men come in?

KV: I knew that I wanted to keep going along with the feminist theology that is very attractive to me about the Shakers. I wanted to keep the older women at the center of the piece. All the women are 55 plus. I wanted four men to balance the four women; I wanted younger men to balance the ages. So we have 55 plus women and men in their early 30's and younger. I enlisted two of the men who have already been working with the Wooster Group on other projects and another I had been working with on other projects. I have been working with this young man since high school in an arts and education program. I knew I wanted him to be involved.

PWS: How did you proceed with the piece now that you had both the men and the women?

KV: The dance and the piece is all based on a circle, so when I got the men involved I had them and the women dancing in the circle in different directions. When you see renditions of the Shakers dancing, you will often see huge numbers of people; we opted for a simple evocation of what these patterns and steps might have been.

PWS: I noticed that there were 40 songs in total on the entire album. Why are you just using 20?

KV: We're only doing side A of the album, the 20 songs that you listened to, there are more on the other side. The A side are the labor songs, the hymns, an anthem, and two interviews.

PWS: Labor songs?

KV: Labor songs, which for Shakers meant the spiritual exercise, which would definitely have been the songs that they danced to. The second side (B) is more hymns; the first side (A) is as far as we've gotten so far.

PWS: How does this work as a show?

KV: I see the first part of the show as a recording session with the four women. In the second part of the show we play the recording and the women are free to dance. When the women are singing with the in-ear monitors they are listening to the record and you see the technician and the record player as artifact; this is very visible.

PWS: Did you get any of the movement ideas from Sister Mildred? Where you able to observe any of the proceedings?

KV: Oddly enough, when we started working on this project we found a documentary that was made at the same period of time when this album was being recorded. In one section of the documentary, one of the sisters demonstrates the motioning, the hand movements that go with some of the songs. The Sisters of Sabbathday Lake had never seen the original dances; that fact is in one of the interviews on the album. Although Sister Mildred has not seen the original dances she had seen one of the older women do some of the dances.
In the original dances there were no prescribed steps; it was truly ecstatic dancing. Any thing you needed to do, the shaking, the twirling, the twisting, was all spontaneous. But when Mother Ann (one of the founders) died and Joseph Meecham, who was selected by Mother Ann to lead the communities he codified the dances into simple steps and marches with patterns on the floor. In the 2nd Flowering, in the mid-19th Century, many of the communities were receiving gifts of songs and dances; that's when these steps were codified. I have this one little book that I love called A Shaker Dance Service Reconstructed it provided descriptions of what the movement and patterns on the floor would have been. This book is brought to us by the Institute for the Study of Worship and Religious Architecture. It's a great little book.

PWS: What all did you include in the movement from your studies?

KV: We took much from the book and documentary such as the patterns and the steps and worked with things like the arm swinging and coming up on your toes; we sort of spun off from there.
I originally thought we'd work with children but instead we used our study with children, like getting dizzy by spinning and incorporated some of those ideas in the work. Shaker communities have lots of children…

PWS: I thought the Shakers were celibate??

KV: They had lots of children; they took in children who were orphans or from families who could no longer care for their children. It was a very child filled community.

PWS: From the video clips that I saw of your rehearsals, and in contrast with Martha Clarke's "Angel Reapers" in which sexual urges, meanness, jealousy, and damnation were the focus of the work, your work dwells more on the ritual and appears very respectful of the Shaker community; there is no layer of judgment in your approach.

KV: No judgment, this show is totally an ecstatic pursuit. We love these songs and we love these little dances that we made. I want the feeling of a big open community hall; it's not a theatrical narrative. We're interested in getting as close as we can to the women on this album. Did you listen to the two interviews with the Shaker women on this album?

PWS: Yes, very touching.

KV: They are with Mildred Barker and about how she learned the songs. Fran does one of the monologues and Suzzy does the other one. In one of the monologues Mildred says she couldn't read the Shaker music notation but instead learned the songs from hearing others sing them. That's exactly what we are doing. Now this doesn't say that there isn't some whimsy in our approach we are after all five old ladies (including Bebe Miller, who is not one of the main four) making a show. There are some flights of fancy, it's not always serious but we don't have a point of view on who these women are and we haven't invented any narrative.

PWS: Earlier, you touched on some of your casting choices, with Frances being the impetus in getting you to move forward with the project. Tell me about your casting of the other female roles; then about casting the men.

KV: I've worked with Fran before, we're friends, and she was the impulse; she really wanted to do some more Shaker. And for me, with Liz as head of the Wooster Group, I make a simple transposition of the idea of art, actually, my life and art, she (Liz) to me is Mother Ann (one of the Shaker Founders), she is the female leader of the group. And Suzzy Roach, whom we've worked with quite often, is such a beautiful singer. She is perfect for the role and the same with Cynthia, who isn't a trained singer, but she comes from a strong dance background; she's perfect too.

PWS: Isn't Cynthia also the producer of the Wooster Group?

KV: Yes, she is our producer too.

PWS: I've never seen Liz perform, this seems like such a special occasion.

KV: The show is a little bit of a giveback. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to see Liz performing. Liz has worked so hard as a director and that's what she's driven to do, but she doesn't have the pleasure of performing, so it's nice that we have this opportunity. Liz is perfect, she has a beautiful voice; it's perfect for this piece. She loves these songs. I feel we have the perfect four women to do this piece. As soon as we started working I knew why I was doing it.

PWS: Among the dancers who join the singers, you have one female, mature, experienced, dancer/choreographer; Bebe Miller. How did it come about that you brought in Bebe?

KV: Well that was a gift. She had called up the Wooster Group and she wanted to observe rehearsals. Right when she wanted to observe rehearsals is when we were working on the Shaker piece. While we were in rehearsal and she was observing, I encouraged her to join in and she did and wanted to perform with us so I worked this run that begins in May to work with her schedule. She has been invaluable.

PWS: You mentioned some additional research and other influences that have worked their way into this piece; tell me more.

KV: Being a modern person I looked on You Tube, of course there are no Shaker dances on You Tube, but I did read the obituary of one of the last original McIntosh County Shouters and that got me interested in their worship style. In addition to their singing, their dancing is part of their worship. It takes place in a circle, like the Shakers. Now, this is modern, it's happening now. In watching the dances of the Shouters, it became clear that it has a similar definition of spiritual dancing as the Shakers and you can get away with anything as long you don't cross your feet. That was the key for me; they have all kinds of crazy rhythms and they get away with these rhythms as long as they don't cross their feet. This influenced the piece, there's a little of that in there.
I also saw a documentary on Malcolm X where they showed some of the marching done in the Temples in The Nation of Islam in Harlem; I see a correlation between those marches and the marches of the Shakers. Malcolm X called it "movement in search of the miracle" and that "the miracle is in the movement". This all makes sense to me. We've used these marches in our research too.
And, of course we watched Dan Graham's "Rock my Religion" and drew connections between the Shakers and more hard-core rocking religion.

PWS: Earlier, you mentioned ecstatic movement; will that feature in this play?

KV: To some extent; I don't want to give the people the wrong impression that they are going to witness a charismatic service. The series of dances are simple and they might evoke that kind of feeling but no one is called upon to shake themselves into frenzy.

PWS: Will the movement all be set or will there be moments where the performers would be allowed to carry themselves beyond the fixed structure?

KV: No, the performance will be set. But hopefully, like all good dancing, we might see some off balance moments. There are some places in the piece where that's possible. But there will be some spinning, turning, twisting, reeling, and shaking.

PWS: May the dance take us to a higher plane! Thanks for your time.

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