CEREMONIOUS/UNCEREMONIOUS: Interview with Brontez Purnell and Sophia Wang

As you may know, I'm a big fan of Brontez Purnell's work, which includes his band The Younger Lovers, his zine Fag School, and the recently published The Cruising Diaries (with Janelle Hessig). He has ALSO been dance performance work as the Brontez Purnell Dance Company, and although they've mostly been making and showing work in the blessed Bay Area, they recently had their first international performance in Montreal last month, and I am more than a little bit anxiously awaiting their New York debut star turn. Brontez and BPDC co-founder Sophia Wang have made a new work, Ceremonious/Unceremonious, which will debut October 10th and 11th at Airspace SF. I had a chance to chat with them both about their newest piece.

Unwanted Conversation + Radical Gestures photos by Yvonne Portra

FAG CITY: How did you two start working together? Can you describe your collaborative process? How does this piece differ from the work you two do on your own?

BRONTEZ PURNELL: We had been in each others indie rock orbit for years but we "officially" met at a Ballet Class at Shawl Anderson some 4 or 5 years ago. Sometime in 2010 i got the notion that i wanted to start a dance company and asked Sophia to be a part and its been snow balling every since. Our collaborative process is basically (as i see it) 50% inspiration and 50% perspiration. Its alot of talking and processing and agreeing and making intentions congruent and then when the mental pathways are clear we get down on the floor. REAL GIRLS GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR. I don't really feel like this piece is hugely different from a solo either of us would do. I mean we are different people with regards to how we move, musculature movement training, etc. but underneath I have always sensed we have the same basic intention driving our movement language or fundamentally that is.

SOPHIA WANG: If I had to name a common intention driving both of us, it might be something like "realness": real bodies in real time, no virtuosic illusions or masking of effort. We've been told that we're both very physical movers - but I wonder what non-physical movers look like?? That's probably a euphemism for something having to do with our particular bodies and how we work with mass and gravity. Brontez and I are both literary thinkers, so we often build a piece like a story: character dynamics, a theme, a catalyzing event. I'm always amazed at what Brontez comes into the studio with - he'll have a vision, a whole idea for a piece, movement material, a visual aesthetic. I'll try his movements on and he'll try on mine, and we'll build phrases out of what sticks. It's really clear what elements Brontez brings to this process when I'm working alone; the pieces I make for myself feel headier, less explicitly joyful - Brontez brings a lot of exuberance to his work and ours.

The Episodes photo by Robbie Sweeney

FAG CITY: You've said that this piece picks up where Brontez Purnell Dance Company’s The Episodes left off. Could you elaborate on that? I'm curious how your works speak to one another (albums, books, performances). Do you often feel like your work is a continuation or response to another project you've done?

BRONTEZ PURNELL: Well The Episodes have a basic post-Modern dance premise. That is- the everyday ritual as performance. But this notion becomes less basic when you think of the millions of people and the millions of ideas driving each one and then you multiply that by the million different variables pulling us as individuals which every different way and you have an infinitely renewing story telling resource. "Ceremonious…." is different (in my head that is) in that its not about the everyday but about those times in which your life is rewarded with celebration. Those times you get to have your cake and eat it too, though there are times when celebration gets routine… I often feel like I explore the same themes through all my work. Its pretty fascinating to me how a basic human theme of say loneliness or restlessness can manifest itself in writing as opposed to a dance work

SOPHIA WANG: I started dancing and performing as I was finishing my PhD in poetry a few years ago, and the piece I ended up making and performing last year in collaboration with Brontez, our filmmaker friend tooth, and the poet Bernadette Mayer (whom I'd written a dissertation chapter on), felt like my graduation ceremony and dissertation defense combined: as if the ultimate goal was to be viscerally, generatively moved by the texts I'd been writing about all those years. And since then, Brontez, tooth, and I have kept making new pieces from the resources we gathered for that first piece, so I do really think that material persists across projects, whether you take "material" literally or figuratively: like the audio files of Bernadette reading her poetry or the movement phrases we revisit vs. more conceptual material: a theme or affect, like loneliness or restlessness.

The Episodes II photo by Robbie Sweeney

FAG CITY: I'm interested in this piece's investigation of the Rite of Passage. Are there particular rites, cultural symbols or historical/social tropes that lead you into this subject?

BRONTEZ PURNELL: YES. I had (after 12 fucking years) FINALLY graduated from college, stopped drinking again, moved out of a house I lived for a decade and all these themes came popping up. I think sometimes this dance presents itself as a theme of "Holy shit….WHATS NEXT?!?!?!"

SOPHIA WANG: Yeah and I'm gonna just come right out and say that it took me 13 years to finish my doctorate, so Brontez and I were on parallel adventures through schooling, and only just recently finished up, so now we've both been cast into the terrifying abyss of the rest of our lives...

Unwanted Conversation + Radical Gestures photos by Yvonne Portra

FAG CITY: I'm curious about the "Ceremonious/Unceremonious" axiom, as opposed to questions of everyday movement versus dance-y movement, or classical versus vernacular dance. How did you come to the idea of ceremony or ritual? Does spirituality or ideas of the sacred play into this?

BRONTEZ PURNELL: I feel like themes of the sacred play into EVERYTHING I do/think about. But I'm also a pretty visceral creature-I over think only in retrospect but in action I go with gut feelings as a general rule because of this I sometimes have a hard time discerning the sacred vs. the vernacular. Like, why cant I eat a fucking box of Oreo's everyday? Isn't that what life is about? (this is the basic ponderance of my everyday life!). Thats just one example. Its funny you say that about pedestrian movement vs classical movement. We had a works in progress showing of the piece and Keith Hennessy (Bay Area dance super hero dude) was questioning my use of Ballet in certain parts or why I made that choice as opposed to the faux African movement I had used in another part of the dance. I have a high booty and flat feet so naturally ballet on my body is always going to look like satire. I don't share with alot of my contemporaries a hate for ballet. I really love it and think it looks pretty but I do have my point of contentions with it (its not an interesting argument to me but I'll lay it out) just like the classic themes of it being a dance for ethereal thin people. BUT I like how fucked up it looks on my body. I like the dissaffection of it. When I do ballet I think it looks punk. Plus my continuous performance of my "failure" of balletic movement is something I kinda see as a theme developing in alot of movement phrases of mine. Its the charge of being in constant coversation with something that you don't really do that well….which to me is in a way (for lack of a better term) "sacred".

SOPHIA WANG: That basically describes my relationship to performing dance: it's never about showcasing expertise, and always about confronting my own limits and flaws, whether or not that's legible to whoever's watching. What I most want to be good at is exactly that: being willing to do something I don't really do very well, and being willing to be seen fumbling through the process, because that feels like the ultimate human rite & right: to be stuck in this body that's built the way it is and didn't happen to get trained in ballet or modern from the time you were little, and to put it to work, despite all that. That said, one of the things I love about working collaboratively is learning body intelligence from other dancers through mimicry. Brontez's "faux African movements" are even more faux on me cause I don't even have that training in me, so there are a couple places in Ceremonious where my task is to approximate this movement that Brontez can do gorgeously and which on me feels disjointed and wrong, but it's one of my favorite moments, it's like homework: pure practice.

The Episodes II photo by Robbie Sweeney

FAG CITY: The notes describe both of you as MC's at a party while also being party crashers, functioning something like the archetypal trickster, asking: “what makes this all so goddamn special”? I'm curious about the idea of interrogating a party situation. Where did this question or this position come from?

BRONTEZ PURNELL: When I started BPDC with Sophia I feel like it was gut instinct and me going on a lot of faith that I was going to fail and look silly in some ways but also I was going to keep going and get better and better at it. I had no real ties to the Bay Area "Dance Scene" (whatever the fuck that would mean) so when BPDC was started there was the sense that we were crashing a party. I mean my dance training (or my "untraining" should I say) started in my going around the country in my early 20's in my tighty whiteys and performing/dancing with Gravy Train!!!! and from where I stand I think that's every bit as valid as someone who say studied "serious" technique (not that I didn't buy the way-but just as example) only works/shows in the Bay and select spots in Europe and New York. I think the Bay has a WONDERFUL and SUPPORTIVE community. I LOVE making work here! But I also have to contend with the fact that I generally make work not for people who wouldn't normally go see a dance show.

SOPHIA WANG: Starting to dance with BPDC fast-tracked me into this weird, late-in-life (well, late in terms of normative dance trajectories) obsession with dance where suddenly I was performing and making work having had basically no prior inkling that I'd be doing any of this. I really love that the company celebrates and prefers movers without traditional training or any prior experience with performing. So yeah, when I was suddenly performing here and there and going to auditions and getting cast and finding support in the dance community here - and it's a well-established, deep-rooted community - it felt like I'd pulled off some fantastic trickery. But like any party crasher, I think the party likes being crashed.

The Episodes II photo by Robbie Sweeney

FAG CITY: Could you walk us through the "story" of the piece? You mention that it begins with a physical exertion, a response to listlessness, almost an explosive reaction to boredom. Can you describe how you decided to start where you're starting and end where you're ending?

BRONTEZ PURNELL: CONSTANT CONVERSATION. I don't really know how to answer this because I feel like this is the first dance piece we've done where the choreography might change up until the day of!

SOPHIA WANG: This is definitely not the first dance piece we've done where the choreography changes up till the showing! It's not feature creep so much as eleventh hour inspiration and elements clarifying themselves in due course. As far as story goes, I feel like this piece has less of a trackable story than The Episodes do; I find my way through it more energetically - there are esoteric tasks that transform into recognizable actions and then drift away from the literal and back to the symbolic. We contend with the physicality of our props, the floor, the ceiling, and we make the audience do this along with us. I think of the ending as a reward for everyone in the room and the work we'll all have done together.

Brontez Purnell Dance Company at Pop Montreal, 9/20/14

FAG CITY: How does documentation figure into making these dances? Do you want there to be video, text, photos? Do you have any plans to tour this work?

BRONTEZ PURNELL: Some people hate documentation, but I feel like without it you have a body of work that never really existed. Which is fine if that's what your going for but I feel like I lose enough to memory everyday. BY ALL MEANS IF YOU SHOW UP TAKE A PICTURE!

SOPHIA WANG: I don't think it's pics or it didn't happen, but for sure you need documentation to share your work widely when you've got limited resources to travel and produce. BPDC just did our first international gig at Pop Montreal, and we've been scheming up ways to tour and we already know the ppl we'd love to tour with... so: YES.

Ceremonious/Unceremonious, a duet by Brontez Purnell and Sophia Wang, founders of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company.

October 10th and 11th at 8pm
1 Grove Street
San Francisco,CA 94102
Presented as part of AIRSpace - Queer Performance Art Residency Program

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