Early this month, in a revival of the avant-garde artistry of 1950s Japan, New York-based video collective LAST HOUR and Amsterdam-based performance collective House of Makers presented happyokay.
Bathed in violet light, both performers and audience gathered in the old Third Ward space in East Williamsburg. Guests stood shoulder to shoulder or sat Indian-style on a cool concrete floor, separated from the immersive art “happening” only by white spike tape outlining the performance space.
happyokay, or happyōkai (meaning “recitals” in Japanese), was directly inspired by Jikken Kobo (the Experimental Workshop), a creative collective based in Japan, which brought together composers, choreographers, filmmakers, artists, and poets. The Workshop’s performances were organized like recitals and performances mixed international work with newer Japanese compositions. Set almost entirely outside traditional museum environments, the ensemble distanced itself from the academic and formal art world.
In the spirit of The Workshop’s recital-like happenings, happyokay featured live performance by dancers from the New York City Ballet, choreographed by Dutch National Ballet choreographer Peter Leung, and included interactive videos, live classical musicians, and ambient soundscape. Throughout the three-hour event, three ballet dancers floated through the industrial-like space flanked by scenes of the same ensemble suspended in the air on screens overhead. Video showed the trio in dichotomous interactions, embracing each other softly or with mouths and eyes moving rapidly in some frenzied monologue. This immense experience was the shared vision of two collectives, House of Makers and LAST HOUR.
The subsequent film happyokay, scored by Caroline Polachek of Chairlift and Ramona Lisa, aimed to act as an extension of the physical happening.
LAST HOUR is a visual collective that produces and features experimental video content and installation work. The collective includes a roster of visual artists, DPs, editors, and creatives, founded by Elena Parasco.
House of Makers, comprised of Matthew Sky, Peter Leung and Sterre van Rossem, is a collective whose members include a dancer, a choreographer and a writer. The group’s mission is to constantly blur the lines between their separate fields. Both collectives creatively directed the immersive installation, adding to their body of work, which has appeared in major museums, festivals and international publications.
A week after the happening, I spoke with Dutch National Ballet choreographer and House of Makers founder Peter Leung. He had just returned to work in Amsterdam, and I could hear the shuffle of dancers in the background as we spoke via Skype from the studio. Leung told me about himself, his practice, and how happyokay came to be.
Alyse Archer-Coité: How did you find yourself working with happyokay?
Peter Leung: Well, 11 years ago I left Amsterdam for the South of France. I was looking for something a little more creative, something different to the classical work I had been doing with the Dutch National Ballet. I eventually returned to DNB, but never lost that need for something new, and began House of Makers to help find new markets for dance. We sought to expand into a younger and more dynamic demographic.
It was through this that I was introduced to Elena Parasco, of LAST HOUR, who conceived happyokay and invited us to choreograph it. I am English so, perhaps in a style typical of my countrymen, I am a bit of a realist. I often feel that like all is possible and all is impossible, simultaneously. Elena is not of that school of thought! She has a “yes” attitude – and when I came to America, I planned to meet her for a coffee to tell her that the project was too ambitious, we didn’t have enough time or resources, and House of Makers had to bow out. Of course, after one hour with Elena, I called my partners to report that we were embarking on this mission, and there was no other choice but to succeed in bringing this program to fruition.
AA: Is your work through House of Makers “anti” Dutch National Ballet?
PL: Matthew Sky, my partner at House of Makers, also has a background at the Dutch National Ballet, which means that we both come from strong aesthetic and classical ballet lines. We made the choice to be other, or not as classical, when we started House of Makers. When I say other I don’t just mean anti – it’s about ballet not sitting in its tradition and roots. I love the discipline but this new work is not about career building, it’s about self-building through the power of interdisciplinary growth.
AA: I understand the score was mostly finalized after you had already choreographed the performance. Is it typical to choreograph with no music?
PL: Not having music is definitely not typical, but it is not unique in my experience. Very often in my creative process I work with music in the post-production phase. I will choreograph a series of movements or feelings and then look for music from a diverse selection of genres. With the movements in mind, I will listen to Michael Jackson, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, the Twin Peaks soundtrack or electronic ambient sounds, and I look for landmarks in the music. It’s like being in a conversation with a stranger – you have no idea what the rhythm will be, what cadence, what tone the conversation will take when you are introduced. You are forced to adapt while it happens; as it evolves, so do you.
AA: And when the score was finished, the music was like nothing I had ever heard, but somehow had some familiar elements. How did that play a part in the choreography?
PL: The music was deconstructed classical music. It was Greig and Montiverde in 16-bar signatures, deconstructed and reconstructed by our resident musical genius. Although it was a brand new piece of music that was not necessarily rhythmic or with a traceable arc, it was on a loop, which made it repetitive, which helped massively.
AA: It seemed like the dancers were in sync, even though many parts of the performance were improvisational. How did you manage that?
We used a system we called Absolute Time. It basically added a much-needed timekeeping element. The structure was so free form, but also so dependent on exact timing for each portion, especially because the night consisted of a rotating presentation of live music, dance, and video installation. We asked ourselves, how do we make sure it is not a cacophony of sounds and images? How can we keep time, but also keep it a synchronized and submersive experience for the viewers? So we implemented this system, where I walked around the dancers with pieces of paper, at first in small increments of time, but eventually the dancers were able to keep the time on their own. It was like they could feel the ebb and flow even while they were creating.
AA: happy okay was a one-night event, a happening. Its sensation is rooted in its brevity. What do you hope are the long-term effects?
PL: Well, in the days after the performance, I received all of these messages, some from friends and many from strangers, all of whom had been in the room that night. Their reactions to the piece varied, some expressing a love for the experience, some simply said that it had been haunting them since they saw it – not that they necessarily loved it, but that it had stuck with them. That really struck me as important. I want people who experience happyokay to feel something, whether physical or emotional, good or bad.