Site-Specific Performance Class Brings Artful Surprise to Everyday Interactions on Campus
On one of those trademark Southern California winter days--briskly cool yet gloriously sunny--that attracts jealous ire from the rest of the country, about a dozen students stood in a long line on Marston Quad. From Bridges Auditorium to Carnegie, members of the Site-Specific Performance class stood about 30 feet apart, waving rich blue flags in succession, creating a rippling wave of movement down the Quad.
"Blue River" was the final project in this unique class offered by the Theatre and Dance Department and taught by Guest Artist Jessica Harris ‘11.
Harris returned to Pomona last year to finish her degree after dancing professionally for nine years in New York. While taking the course Traditions of World Dance last year, she wrote a research paper on flash mobs. Harris also did an independent study on living statues, painting herself and posing still for an hour at a time on the neighboring campus of Claremont Graduate University. At the end of last year, Laurie Cameron, head of the dance department, came up with the idea for a site-specific performance class, and asked Harris to try it out this fall.
Harris and her students spent the first half of the semester studying various types of site-specific performances like flash mobs, corporate viral campaigns and yarn bombing, considering, says Harris, "the commercial, social, political and aesthetic aspects of the work, which also blur traditional categories of performance." During the second half of the semester, each student organized their own performance.
“In my research for the class, I discovered syllabi from other schools that all covered a lot of theoretical information, but lacked in experiential learning.” says Harris. “It has been my goal to focus on experiential learning and have the students perform as much as possible, ideally covering all aspects of performance that we examined in the lectures.”
YT Wong, the grant coordinator for Pomona's Elemental Arts Initiative, a movement art and mime instructor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, and a New Resources freshman at Pitzer College, created the "Blue River" piece on the Quad. "Many of the pieces we explored, including 'Blue River,' were about surprising and delighting people, getting them to notice where they were, and having something different happen in the middle of a normal day," says Wong.
View some of the performances on the class blog:
Other performances included "Wind-Up Doll" by Seo Roh '12, where Roh walked around campus with a winder on her back and, when she wound down, waited for strangers to help her out; "Free Range Bike Valet" by Roxana Garcia '13, which found members of the class creating a valet service outside Frary to treat parked bicycles more humanely; and "Musical Stairs," a group performance where students, wearing all black, lined both sides of the Frary entrance stairs. Each student focused on a single stair and sang "what" in a soft voice as passersby stepped on the stair. "It was fascinating to hear the visual flow of traffic," says Harris, who hopes to bring the performance to L.A. with volunteers next semester, "and especially to see what would happen when someone lingered on a single stair for a while or sat down."
Some performances were created for large campus events. "Blue Mirror," performed during the Founders Day celebration and Elemental Arts Initiative launch, consisted of students in full blue makeup sitting still for one hour and then slowly mirroring one another's movements. When noted environmentalist, author and advocate Bill McKibben spoke for the Distinguished Speaker Series, the class sat still and silent in inside a heart made of words ("Thank You Bill for your Earthmindedness") with globes upon their head. McKibben walked by and thanked them for the artwork. And for Halloween, Jenna Tico of Scripps helped the group join a worldwide phenomena by arranging a "Thrill the World" flash mob, where participants in zombie make-up perform the Michael Jackson “Thriller” dance spontaneously and in unison.
For her project, Ellen McCormick '12 celebrated the symmetry and geometry of the Stanley Academic Quad, with performers aligning their bodies with the natural lines in the space, creating tangents, parallels and other shapes, and using the fountain for leverage and as a center point.
A chemistry major and trained ballet dancer, McCormick says “This class seemed like it would challenge me because the performances are not necessarily based in dance technique. Since I have mostly only performed where I had a deep technique foundation to rely on, I have definitely felt outside my comfort zone during Jessica's class. You're so much more vulnerable when you're performing without a technique to make it credible."
The many performances of the class provided a formidable challenge, but it also brought them together. For most of the events, including those designed by individual students, the classmates had to work as a cohesive unit. “The students genuinely recognize the value of creative group collaboration and have been fantastic at listening to each other, building on each other’s ideas, offering constructive feedback and generating solutions,” says Harris.
Part of the class curricula also involves recording and disseminating the events. "We explored how performance is changing with the advent of the information age and digital devices," says Harris. Each student had to create a blog post on http://sitespecific47.wordpress.com with documentation of their individual performance. "This has helped students experience firsthand the power of presenting material on the internet," says Harris, who notes the "Thriller" flash mob video has been viewed more than 350 times, widening the audience far beyond those who actually witnessed the live event.
As Harris noted before when speaking about the "Musical Stairs" piece, the class may have a life beyond this semester, even though there are no current plans to offer it again. Recently, she and Zac Belok of Pitzer auditioned for and performed at the annual fundraising gala event at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, art directed by Marina Abramovic.
Wong has enjoyed the class and is excited about the idea of the performances continuing. "The world of site-specific performance is still undefined and it was very good for me as an artist to see and learn from another artist who is discovering along with everyone else," he says. "Jessica has talked about starting a performance collective to keep this work going. I don't think you've seen the last of us yet!"