June 2–4, 2023
“How can we find the time to pause, memorialize, and learn from our collective histories?” asks choreographer Chris Masters, director of Mausoleum, a capacious dance work aloft with themes of love and loss that also raises discomfiting questions about digital surveillance and over-consumption of media. Together with four performer/choreographers (cove barton, Sabrina Canas, Abigail Linnemeyer, Marcus Sarjeant) and original score and videography by Sven Britt, Masters revisits a concept he initially staged as a work in progress for Danspace Project in 2014.
Mausoleum marks the return of ChrisMastersDance to the concert stage after a nearly ten-year hiatus, during which Masters directed a series of videos for the debut solo album of his husband, composer Sven Britt (known as Ex-Fiancee), and together they created an immersive theater experience in Beijing, China. I spoke to Masters and to dance writer and curator Eva Yaa Asantewaa, who served as lead dramaturg for Mausoleum, during the final weeks leading up to a June 2–4 engagement at BAM Fisher.
Karen Hildebrand (Rail): Let’s start with the title, Mausoleum. A tomb. On your website, you describe Mausoleum as “a place to acknowledge and remember a past that has been laid to rest.”
Chris Masters: The title comes from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The character Quentin talks about a pocket watch that his father had given him and he alludes to the “mausoleum of all hope and desire.” The entire text sticks out to me as having a lot to do with love and loss.
Rail: How would you describe the Chris Masters movement aesthetic? In a description for your contemporary technique class, you referenced Laban and Bartenieff, classical ballet, release technique, and “lots and lots of wiggling.”
Masters: The classes that I facilitate are essentially giving a toolkit that would enable someone to be successful in my work. But I have not choreographed a single kick-ball-change in this entire work. I would describe my concert work as hyper-physical, thoughtfully crafted with a heavy focus on relationships. When I say relationships, I don’t specifically mean partnering, because some of the most interesting relationships are between two points that will never meet. If you’re the only person onstage, there is a very rich duet occurring between you and the audience, there is a duet occurring between you and the floor, there is a duet occurring between you and the music.
Eva Yaa Asantewaa: I was really blown away by the facility of the dancers. Also by the sophistication of the choreography in terms of embedded structure and relationship of dancer to dancer. I was also impressed by the way that Chris talked about how they derived these solos, duets, and ensemble pieces, based on not just material coming out of his experience, but the actual lived experience of the performers. Everybody was contributing something from their own experience with loss, with grief, with transition.
Rail: Can you describe what a day in the studio looks like when generating movement?
Masters: There’s a lot of improvisation, there’s a lot of task-based generation. All of the prompts and tasks that I give them are about something related to the work. For instance, there was a section called “Grid,” where the dancers did a free write for a few minutes harkening back to an experience they had. One example was: if you think of the month February, what is one of the most impactful things that has occurred for you? They wrote about the experience, either a joyful moment or one that was maybe inspired by trauma. They then took their writing and made an erasure that turned the writing into something that was poetic. They then built movement phrases for each of the months. I create work this way so that I am not replicating my own autobiography onto my performers. As director, I want to embrace their unique histories, their abilities, their inabilities, all of these things create the cocktail of who this person is.
Rail: Is the writing they created included as text in Mausoleum?
Masters: I want to create a space where my performers and choreographers feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable and honest. I don’t know what their personal stories were. I know that the end result is beautiful, lush, full-bodied movement. So they use that written language to generate physical material. They’re not talking in the work, they’re not speaking anything they’ve written. We hired a writer, Jayson P. Smith, for much of the writing that has become part of the score. It’s an original score, pre-recorded.
Yaa Asantewaa: When I first got a look at some of Jayson’s poetry that would be part of the work, I was really struck by the musical resonance of it, how very sonic it is. And at the same time, elusive. There is something that beckons you and then slips out from under your eyes. That reminded me how dance manifests for us. There is movement in the poetry and I see it as dancerly movement. And this whole notion of it being elusive and not rational, not linear, really tracks with the experience with much of dance, especially with contemporary dance.
Rail: Eva, can you talk about how you contributed to the work as dramaturg?
Yaa Asantewaa: One of the things I said to Chris straight up was, I am not going to talk to you about your choreography. That’s not what I’m here for, that’s not my skill. I’m here to look at things like your ideas, how they are being conveyed. What’s coming between you and the audience? What’s unclear? How can we get anything that is obstructing the viewer’s view out of the way? How can we entice the viewer through the various elements of the piece?
Rail: Can you give me an example?
Yaa Asantewaa: A lot of what I did was amplify and affirm. There was enough there that was going in the right direction. It was like, maybe a shift in the order, or let’s talk about the transition from segment to segment, that sort of thing. We talked about how the presence of death hovers over this work as a witness and how death is always over our shoulders, each one of us. We had some back and forth about what the figure of Death was in the work. At the time, Sven was posited as this sort of death figure, and he would walk around with a camera during some of the action onstage. We were trying to be very subtle, and yet this character is walking around with a camera. Who the hell is he? Either you say, this is Death, or if not, people are going to wonder, Why is this person doing this? I think things were somewhat altered as a result of my skepticism about how that would be understood.
Masters: Eva and her co-dramaturg Vidya Ravilocha bring their own histories and their perspectives to the room so that—I do not want the work to be perceived as the singular opinion of one cis white man. Vidia is the one who brought Sartre’s No Exit into the conversation, the concept of being witnessed. I’ve read that play several times since she introduced it. She saw the material, she saw the conversation we were having, and she provided this different perspective that was not at all on my radar.
Rail: In addition to No Exit, there are other literary sources that served as influences: Virgil’s The Aeneid; Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff about privacy issues in the digital era; and Capital and Ideology on wealth inequality by Thomas Piketty. I’m trying to imagine how these highly intellectual concepts mesh with the lyrical movement sequences by the dancers.
Masters: These help guide the questions I want to ask and how I want to frame them. A lot of the simulcast element is connected to No Exit and to Age of Surveillance Capitalism—the idea of being witnessed all of the time during every moment of your day. How, if you stop and think about that, it can be a very paralyzing experience—that in everything you do, someone is watching you. They’re watching your internet experiences, machine learning that’s growing day by day. It can be a scary moment. On the flip side, imagine you lived on a desert island with no one around. There’s a sense of paralysis there too. If there’s no one to hold you accountable, what do you do then?
Rail: One of your defining values is that you pay your collaborators fair and equitable compensation: a minimum of 30 dollars per hour of rehearsal; 250 dollars per performance. I commend you on this commitment. How do you imagine your example will change things for the field at large—beyond simply setting a high bar for your own fundraising?
Masters: I believe we have rehearsed to date somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred hours. The hourly rate includes the thirty-minute warm up that is part of every rehearsal, and also photoshoots, video shoots, tech and dress rehearsals, focusing. Even if they’re just standing onstage for three hours, they’ll be compensated at the hourly rate.
It’s tough because the current industry norms have been in place for a long time. But organizations like Dance Artists National Collective (DANC) are doing a lot of advocacy for dancers’ rights. I feel like the more voices that continue to champion this change, the more we’re going see things being done.
Immersive work appeals to me because its commercial aspect serves as a means to create a thriving wage for performers and creatives. I want to find avenues for artist compensation so that we’re not bouncing between five different jobs.
Rail: You mean like Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell, and punchdrunk’s Sleep No More?
Masters: Yes. Something that’s also beautiful about immersive work is that we kind of put directorial agency into the hands of the audience so they get to follow what they find intriguing. They’re not stuck in the seat with one point of view. They’re allowed to explore. I’m interested in what happens when a performer leaves the space. I know they’re likely grabbing a sip of water and breathing, but narratively I want to know how their story continues to unfold. That is one of the things I’m trying to bring to proscenium performance with the simulcast element of Mausoleum.
Rail: How does the simulcast video work in Mausoleum? There’s the performance onstage, and there’s also a video going on with something happening offstage?
Masters: We deliberately create moments when the audience must make a decision about what to watch. The performers will be coming in and out of the space. There is a section where I have dancers onstage performing a very physical trio. Another dancer offstage in a dressing room is having a contemplative, self-reflective experience. There is movement in a chair, with all the set dressings of the dressing room. These things are happening at the same time. The dressing room scene is projected onstage while that other trio is happening.
Rail: What advice would you give the audience to get the most from their viewing experience?
Masters: The work is a series of questions. We are building a world that is to be interpreted by the witness. I like to think of the work as a seven-layer dip or like a set of nesting dolls. I’m citing a lot of highly intellectual things but there’s no version of reality where I want someone to leave and say, “oh, I didn’t get it.” If your response is just, “wow, these dancers are really talented,” that is valid. If you want to dig a little deeper as to why these characters are interacting with each other the way that they are, I invite you to have those questions, have those thoughts.
Rail: I was drawn to this phrase from ChrisMastersDance.org: “Every love story is a ghost story; we are all haunted by our own histories, by the ghosts of those who have impressed themselves on us before.”
Yaa Asantewaa: I would say that each story has ghosts. Each life is haunted. What Chris intends is to somehow reveal or have us feel the ghosts that are present with each of us. And also experience ourselves in that way—to whom are we ghosts? As we go through time, through our own story, we are part of somebody else’s story, even if we’re not present with them. All these things are part of who we are. We are carrying the weight of these things that you can’t necessarily see. This is very important to an understanding of what Chris is doing.