photo by Alan Kamara Dixon
Culture Conversations: Dance
Improvising Life and Art
A conversation with Tzveta Kassabova
We’re at my home in my kitchen with my four-year-old daughter. Tzveta Kassabova is not counting out the moves from her choreography (if you know her well enough then you know that she doesn’t often, if ever, work with counts). She is counting cups of flour. She is teaching my daughter how to make bread. Her famous “Tzveta Bread,” as our family calls it.
“Tzveta Bread’ is a token of the choreographer’s warmth and generosity. Not only has she taught me and three of my four children how to make it, but she has also served it to her audiences at after parties and even had an audience participating in the making of the dough during a recent performance in France. This is the grace and beauty of Tzveta: ready to experience with others, generous, intellectual, willing to guide you, and, what I love most, a child at heart.
Tzveta and I became friends in 2010 when I lived in Washington, D.C. She cast me in her work The Opposite of Killing, and we performed together in a project with PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER, directed by Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig. Before 2010, I was in Salt Lake City dancing for Ririe Woodbury Dance Company. Now, Tzveta is here re-staging The Opposite of Killing for current Ririe-Woodbury dancers.
Covered in flour and bouncing around my kitchen, she is gracious enough to entertain me by allowing me to interview her.
Lehua Estrada: So, you are a choreographer and you are a mother. You have a son, Kamen, who is going to be 10 next year. What do you do to balance motherhood and dance, and how much is Kamen involved with what you do in dance?
Tzveta Kassabova: I think the balance, if it is at all balanced, is changing all the time. I am striving for balance. Kamen is great! He, I feel, just being around the studio all the time since he was very young, has learned when it’s play time, when it’s time to be quiet, how to be in rehearsal, how to work with the dancers, and all that. Sometimes it has been really hard, especially when a baby cries and you are working on something.
LE: Will you talk about that a little bit more? I ask because when you gave birth to Kamen it wasn’t long after that you did a residency with PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER at Bates Dance Festival, right?
TK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, when Kamen was born I was still in grad school. I took a semester off, which didn’t end up being a semester off because I was still going to [technique] classes and performing and what not. Immediately after he was born, not even a month later, I went to Bates with him. I had a lot of support from my mom who came to help me with that. It helped me have my life back a little bit, you know, from the changes that have to do with having a child.
[Life] is always steering one way or the other. It doesn’t always happen, but Kamen has participated in a couple of pieces of mine. It’s a good way to involve him, and we do the same things together.
LE: Yes, and you were telling me at another time that he is a natural performer, and that he loves performing.
TK: He is a performer! He loves being on stage even though he would never admit it.
LE: So you’ve not only found a way to have him present in rehearsals, which is actually very hard for some dancers who parent, but you have also been able to involve him in actual works.
TK: [Having him involved in my dance works] actually works much better because he is there on his own accord. It’s also much better than expecting him to wait in the corner trying to not be present at all. So, when he has a role in rehearsal then he’s truly there, and he should be there, and he feels important. I worked on a new piece this year, and it was wonderful to have Kamen in rehearsals. He got along with my dancers that came from New York to work with me in Middlebury, and they stayed with us and played with us and got to know Kamen. Then, maybe two weeks before the show, I decided I wanted to put Kamen into the piece, and it was so nice that he already had a relationship with the dancers. He really felt comfortable on stage in that situation, and he felt very welcomed and accepted. It’s fun when he is very open to it.
LE: I’m sure you’ve had times when you are trying to complete a work that Kamen is not involved with and you have your professional dancer hat on, but as life would have it, you also have more immediate or pressing life demands that are completely unrelated to dance in the back of your mind. This may be an unfair question or a question with many answers, but what do you do in those short-term or long-term moments to get you through it? What is your source of strength?
TK: I think…well, I don’t know exactly. Patience, trying to be patient, and also trying to look from his side, you know? Even though we are so engrossed with what we are doing and it seems there is no time for anything else, the children are thinking, “Be with me!” I have to see him and make the moment about him for a little bit, and then we can go back. The break is also good for me, and it makes the work and experience better.
On the process of her work, “The Opposite of Killing”…
LE: You have performed and re-staged The Opposite of Killing many times. In helping each dancer to personally connect with the basic structure of the work, can you tell me about your process and the challenges that show up with the different casts?
TK: Oh, yes, it’s very different, and I feel that that is one of the challenges - to kind of let go and not try to control it. I have to believe in and trust the structure and the people that I’m working with. Some casts have great intuition for some of the sections, and it’s really just perfect. I have to ask myself how do I transfer that to the next cast without stealing the process away from the new cast, still giving them the unique opportunity to come up with whatever they need to come up with.
LE: Do you credit the initial cast in Bulgaria as helping you define what the structure is in The Opposite of Killing?
TK: I think the structure changed after Bulgaria, but by the time the work was performed in Washington D.C., the performance you and I did together at Dance Place, the structure was what it is today.
On her solo, “Letter (to Ed)”…
LE: The Opposite of Killing came out of the solo Letter (to Ed), whichI have seen you perform almost a dozen times in rehearsals or performances and I have learned what a major influence Ed Tyler was on your work. After attending the Meet the Choreographer event that was hosted by Ririe-Woodbury, I became curious about your experience with the solo. I specifically wondered if you ever find yourself communing with Ed as you perform it?
TK: Sometimes it’s very easy to know, and I feel sometimes that it is not at all. What I have learned is to really rely on the movement. It was this moment that I was trying to capture with movement. Somehow I find if I truly do the movement it will carry me through to an emotional change.
And I feel nearly every time I perform I do reach this emotional change, but I feel that if I try to push it to make it happen and I get too emotional it is a disaster. For me the movement is the key. However, there is something about bringing myself to a little more of a vulnerable place beforehand, and it’s not so much a preparation but it’s existing in a kind of openness.
LE: Did you find yourself saying something new or saying something you never got to say to Ed?
TK: I don’t know. I feel that it was so much about him at the moment that I made it and my preparation was so much about thinking of him and remembering him, but while I’m doing it I don’t want to channel that. It’s more of riding a wave and whatever happens happens.
There was a solo that he prepared on me. Have you seen it? It’s called Thaw.
LE: I don’t think so.
TK: When he passed away, he and I were in the middle of preparing for a show, and I decided to switch the whole program around. I decided to do this solo that he made on me, and that was really strong…that was truly a conversation with him. It has always been a meaningful solo for me, but that night was extraordinary for me. It was like he was sitting at the top of the curtain with his legs dangling down and watching me.
Happening: Salt Lake City
Live and In-Person
Performance Art Fest returns to the Salt Lake City Library
The Fourth Annual Salt Lake City Performance Art Festival is coming to the Main Salt Lake City Library on Friday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct. 1. Get ready to be amazed, delighted, enlightened or, perhaps, confused.
To be forewarned is to be somewhat prepared, though the totally unscripted and unrehearsed performances may change slightly depending on interactions with each viewer. Visitors to the library may encounter performances almost anywhere in and around the building. There will be plenty of library employees around to answer questions, hand out programs, and help visitors navigate from one performance to another.
Curated by Utah artist Kristina Lenzi, the festival includes eight local artists and five nationally- and internationally-known performance artists. All are asked to create something that is specific to Utah, Salt Lake City, or to the library.
For example, returning artist Marilyn Arsem discovered on a past trip to the festival the unusual spaces between floors of the library, which can be seen from the Urban Room. Curled up in such a space, under the first floor, she will read aloud for eight hours The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. Viewers may watch her from the Urban Room or go inside the library and hear her voice through the floor vent. Arsem performs and teaches performance art at the Boston Museum of Fine Art and Tufts University.
Some performances will make you think. For example, Bountiful artist Marci Hamblin will invite viewers to sit down and write their life stories in one page or less. Anna Kosarewska, from Warsaw, Poland, will ask viewers to reflect on environmental responsibility. Hiroko Kikuchi, from Tokyo, will invite the public to engage in an activity that asks them to think about their feelings of bitterness about their city.
Viewers may choose to move from performance to performance, watch as long as they wish, and engage with the performer if invited. Performances may be as short as a ride up the elevator, or take as long as eight hours. Viewers may watch a while and come back later to see how it is developing.
Though performance art is not a new art form, it is more likely encountered on the East or West Coasts. Lenzi, who also teaches performance art at Weber State University, and her library sponsor Paul Reynolds, view the annual festival as a way to educate Utahns about performance art. Unlike usual art forms like painting or sculpture, which involve objects made by artists and viewed by a viewer, “You don’t have a product in performance art,” says Lenzi. “What happens resides in the viewer. The viewer might then go and tell a friend and word spreads about the experience.”
Andrew Shaw, communications manager for the library, says the festival is “bringing performance art to those who wouldn’t otherwise encounter it. And it’s an experience they probably wouldn’t seek out.”
For a viewer, an encounter with performance art may be unexpected and even a bit uncomfortable. Suppose, for example, you were going to the library to return a book and found someone in the revolving door going around and around with each person arriving and departing the building. Whatever you, the viewer, feel in the encounter goes with you as a memory and a story. And that’s what all art attempts to do – make the viewer feel, think, and experience something.
The performance artist also may find interactions with viewers surprising or even uncomfortable. Lenzi explains that each artist must have an intention for their performance— what they would like the viewer to experience. But, she says, “Everything is in the moment. It is very frightening to me [as an artist] because I don’t know what will happen. Afterward, there’s this euphoria that I got through it. I survived.”
As the librarian responsible for the event, Reynolds, who also has a performance-art background, has seen all kinds of reactions from library visitors. Take the performer in the revolving door, for example,” Reynolds says, “People reacted in every way imaginable. One guy came through the door and walked over to me and said, ‘What is this? Performance art?’”
“Kids are really interested and want to be engaged,” says Reynolds. One year, artist Jorge Rojas of Salt Lake City did tortilla readings. “One on one, he would sit down with people, like you would do a tea-leaf reading. Kids were just chomping at the bit to sit down with him.”
“On those two days of the festival,” says Lenzi, “this is a place where our community is really engaged. There’s a strong sense of community because of the audience participation and involvement."
Comings & Goings
Charley Hafen and Other Departure
We’d call this “Comings and Goings” but it seems everyone this month is going.
Our very own music editor Laura Durham is leaving her position at Utah Division of Arts & Museums to go to work for Mary Dickson at KUED. Thankfully, she still will write for 15 Bytes.
Julie Fischer also is leaving UDAM to pursue brighter opportunities in the outside world – a consulting position is what we hear.
Everyone knows that director Sheryl Gillilan is leaving Art Access (they just threw her a big farewell party, after all). But she will be around the Utah art scene in various advisory capacities so we really aren’t saying goodbye, just hasta la vista, baby.
A big surprise was seeing FOR SALE signs on Charley Hafen Jewelers Gallery and his home next door on 14th South and 900 East. We confirmed that both are, indeed, on the market and that Hafen will be moving to Thailand when the sales are completed.
After Ideologue opened at UMOCA (see our story here: ), curator Becca Maksym moved to Portland with her boyfriend who is attending law school there.
Roni Thomas from Salt Lake City Public Arts is another valued member of the local arts community who is hitting the road. For where and what, we do not know, but thought you’d like the information anyway.