DIGG: Premiere by Maida Withers
DIGG explores a timeline of political uncertainties and entanglements with reverberations in time and place until tomorrow, hopefully, when we may stand together as humans on the edge of normalcy. Maida Withers
DIGG is a fiercely intimate multimedia performance created and performed by pioneering dance artist Maida Withers – an excavation of the current political landscape revealing a kaleidoscope of emotions, antagonisms, and suspicions. In DIGG there is a meeting of dance, emphatic gesture, vocal music, video, and text. Withers performs “live” in a dance within a film. Experimental vocalist, Audrey Chen (Berlin) and Phil Minton (UK) perform “reality-piercing” vocals. A haunting visual installation by filmmaker Linda Lewett and photographer Diane Falk features surrealistic footage shot in the 14th Century Monastery on Solovky Island, Russia coupled with photographic assemblages – intrigues and provocations sweeping over the current political scene. Animation provide by James Hahn & GW Institute for Computer Graphics, Motion Capture and Analysis Laboratory. DIGG is framed by Withers’ many tours and projects in Russia since 1996.The visual installation features film shot by Lewett during a 3-week residency by Maida Withers Dance Construction Company on the famous Solovky Archipelago in northern Russia, site of the first Soviet-Era Gulag experiment. Solovetsky Monastery, with its dungeons and secret alcoves. served as a primary PLACE for engaging dancers in retro-time. The backdrop for the torturous GULAG experiment is the spectacular natural beauty of the arctic forests, the White Sea, and Miniature Chapels spread throughout the territory. Memories of Solovky are sobering still as are the events of politics today. DIGG embraces the notion of shared emotional distraction and consumption.
DIGG is a sequel to Withers’ Thresholds Crossed (2006), a multimedia opus “A fusion of East and West that explores the events, ideology and humanistic issues that link the U.S. with the former Soviet Union and contemporary Russia.”.
Photos by Diane Falk Photo by Anthony Gongora
Photos & assemblages: Diane Falk
What the press is saying
Kei Takei & Maida Withers
DIGG, 2 Solos from LIGHT — LIGHT, Part 28 (The Rice Washer) (Okome wo Arau Onna) (2005) and LIGHT, Part 47 (run) (2017)
February 10, 2018
There are times when words are inadequate to describe what one has seen. That’s often, if not always, true when it comes describing dance. Encapsulating a dance viewing experience is an incredible challenge. The performance of two powerhouses Maida Rust Withers and Kei Takei defies words. But as I’m limited to words here, I’ll just have it give it my best effort.
I don’t have room in this review to cover the history of these two daring, cutting edge artists. Withers is 81 years old, and Takei is a decade younger (according to the internet). If you’re not familiar with their lifetime of work, I encourage you to seek out more information. Doesn’t every dancer dream of a career that continues to thrive past age 40, age 50, age 60 and beyond? These women have accomplished much, but it’s perhaps most striking that they’re still creating remarkable dances and are actively dancing themselves.
Withers performed DIGG, which the program explained “explores a timeline of political uncertainties and entanglements with reverberations in time and place until tomorrow, hopefully, when we may stand together as humans on the edge of normalcy.” Although I can’t completely summarize Withers’ background, she’s served as a dance professor at the George Washington University (GWU) since 1964 and has created over 100 dances for the Maida Withers Dance Construction Company, which she founded in 1974, on stage, site, and film. Among other things, Withers is known for for works that combine experimentation, collaboration, improvisation, video, and social and political commentary. She’s also been at the forefront of integrating dance and interactive technologies. Withers has toured internationally and has engaged in projects in over 20 countries, including Russia and Brazil. Without question, Withers is a dance legend.
Maida Withers in DIGG, photo by Diana Falk
To those familiar with Withers’ work, DIGG probably didn’t have much shock value, but to anyone unfamiliar with her, I can imagine they may have been surprised. She begins by vigorously wriggling in a straightjacket, with two figures in all black on either side (GWU senior dance majors Kristen Lamb and Linda Ryan). Withers ping pongs between them, and even when the straightjacket is undone at the back, she whips about as the shadowy pair grip the sleeves. Once freed, wearing a thin white slip-like garment, she moves to a square of light on the floor on which waves undulate. Waves appear on a large screen behind her, and on a pair of smaller screens across the stage, too.
Two vocalists (Audrey Chen and Phil Minton), who sit on bar stools facing the stage, make sounds of wind. Withers moves with assurance, arms flailing, fingers flickering. Images on the screen behind her change — a close-up of a man’s bare back leaning forward in a narrow boat, a steep outdoor staircase. Video footage includes scenes of the first Soviet-era Gulag shot by Linda Lewett during a 2004 visit by Maida Withers Dance Construction Company to Russia. The vocals change as well, going from breezes to frog-like croaks to distant screams and even the whirring of a helicopter. The vocal score is impressive and eerie and sometimes exhausting.
Withers clings to a bench, then fearlessly topples backward off of it. Later, she uses the bench while lacing up combat boots. She’s agile, and her knees still can lift to her chest. In second position, her thighs shudder back and forth, her hands clapping in between. Withers drags rocks tied up with rope. The rope encircles her neck, her face. She becomes a ghost of woman sentenced to 8 years of hard labor. She picks up smaller stones in a washtub, and they become soap.
Maida Withers in DIGG, photo by Diane Falk
Like Jacob Marley, chains come out. Then Withers dons a military coat and a blood red tie, which she twists and contorts. Putin and Trump and a dunce cap appear on the large screen. The red tie may be fashioned like a noose but Withers will not be silenced. To the contrary, she begins a clever impassioned monologue. “React,” she says strongly, followed by “reactivate,” “realize,” and a spout of other words beginning with “re” (rebut, rebuke, rebrand, recuse, recant, recall, redo, redact, retweet, revolt, redundant — she humorously says redundant more than once — and the list goes on). At some point, she falls into sobs that resolve into laughter. Eventually a white bird of soars across the screen, and Withers sweeps a handful of branches around. There’s a sunset, shimmering water, and hope. Withers indeed appeals to us all to strive for peace, to protect the earth and humanity.
Takei is a legend, too, in the United States, in Japan, and around the world. Her Moving Earth dance company has performed in 60 U.S. cities and 17 countries. Growing up, Takei studied dance and drama and completed an apprenticeship with dance master Kenji Hinoki. In 1967, she came to this country on a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Juilliard School. In 1969, Takei began creating the epic LIGHT, which presently has 47 interlinked parts, ranging from solos to large group dances, that have been described collectively as a “spiritual diary.”
Takei and Withers have more in common than their age and their slightly wild thinning hair. Among others, they were both inspired by Anna Halprin. Although their individual styles are widely divergent, one senses a deep commonality in their enduring devotion to expression through dance and in their desire to widely share their shared passion for this art form. They’re certainly both visionaries.
Kei Takei in LIGHT, photo by Shunsuke Mizo
Takei’s two solos from LIGHT ignited my imagination despite their quiet simplicity. In contrast to DIGG, which overflows with ideas, Takei’s solos follow a less outwardly complex approach. In LIGHT, Part 28 (The Rice Washer), from 2005, the stage is bare except for a circle of light. The only prop is a small square wooden stool. Takei’s costume is made of wrapped pale fabric and long shorts. She bends forward seated on the stool, her legs spread apart, and swirls an arm repeatedly in front of her. You sense water as her hand dips and gently swooshes. A shoulder raises, a foot swings, and a soothing rhythm develops. I was reminded of a conductor. The ritual of washing rice is transformed into something completely mesmerizing.
In LIGHT, Part 47 (run), created in 2017, Takei wears a similar pale fabric, but with wide-legged pants. Her shoulders swing back, then her arms freeze in mid-air like a speed skater. There’s an underlying drum beat. Takei moves slowly, engagingly, and it feels cosmic and eternal. In a deep plié, a wide martial arts-like stance with her legs firmly planted, her upper body goes up and down and tilts forward, arms swinging. She’s a facile mover. With her chin tucked into her chest, her exhalations undisguised, you feel she’s aggressively dashing despite the fact that her legs are still. Takei’s fight and determination are evident, and the way her limbs are weighted yet free is nothing short of fascinating. So enrapt was I that I hardly noticed she had gradually crept to the front of the stage.
I left the theater with so many thoughts, but primarily I was impressed by the tenacity I observed. Seeing Withers and Takei perform together, I became a small part of their unfolding stories. I’m so thankful for their gifts and am glad their creatives lives continue to gain ground. Carmel Morgan
Kei Takei & Maida Withers at Dance Place – Feb. 10 at 8pm by Kacie Peterson
Maida Withers and Kei Takei presented an evening of dance from opposite sides of the visual spectrum on Saturday, February 10, at 8pm at Dance Place.
Withers presented her work DIGG first on the double artist program. DIGG was a display of unapologetic commentary on the global state of political affairs, or what Washingtonians know as the morning news. In a sophisticated mix of prop work, costuming and technology, Withers has created a work that spans the human experience of witnessing modern American politics: anxiety, fear, anger, nervous laughter and resilient hope.
Dressed in a straightjacket, Withers set out on the lit path before her downstage. As she thrashed her body against the constraints of the costume, two “Shadow Figures” (played by Kristen Lamb and Linda Ryan) kept her from breaking outside the straight and narrow beam of light. It’s a relatable scene of the unrelenting struggle to survive in a society that seems determined to reverse its progress.
Having shaken free of the jacket, Withers continued while wearing a white nightgown, perhaps commenting on the fragility and purity of the original American Dream. Vocalists Audrey Chen and Phil Minton provided the movement’s soundtrack, working to enhance the emotional intensity already set in motion by Withers. At times, the duo’s vocal projections were physically uncomfortable to endure. Chen’s ability to shriek in high octaves had audience members plugging their ears. The point was clear: we should not be comfortable with our current situation. This is not normal.
The color red made a frequent appearance in DIGGS. Perhaps it’s meant as a snide tribute to Donald Trump’s tie color choice on the 2016 election campaign trail or as a blatant symbol of its association with power, energy and danger – either seemed fitting given Withers’ choreography. She’d briefly use a red silk handkerchief to gag herself before finding the strength in her voice and remove it. Later in the work, she’d be ultimately consumed, except for her head, by a giant red silk sheet. With only her head exposed, the Shadow Figures held the four corners and shook the sheet like a small child’s parachute in play. The intentional turbulence reminiscent of a daily news cycle – always up in the air.
Withers is a veteran of technology and movement integration and DIGGS is pure example of success. A filmed Withers tumbled down a long flight of stairs located in the woods, while onstage Withers moved up and down a light pattern that resembled stairs; a depiction of life imitating art.
With pop art visuals of collaged images of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin floating across the back wall, Withers, wearing a gray double-breasted, knee-length army coat and (seemingly symbolic) red tie sat on a bench parked center stage. She wrapped the tie around her neck in an attempt to hang herself. Graphics of Trump wearing a dunce cap overlapped the infamous photo of Putin riding a horse while shirtless. They were spliced with images of Withers wearing a rope around her neck. The section was visually striking, yet unsettling, but that seemed to be the intention.
The most poignant moments of the evening came as Withers’ sat on an upside-down bucket on a small platform in the upstage left space. She rattled off words, seemingly calling us into action. React. Realize. Rebrand. Recuse. Redo. Redon’t. Refrain. Subtle chuckles reverberated around the audience. Regret.
Regenerate. Remorse. Remember. Withers sobbed. Withers laughed. Repeal. Replace. Resist. Resistance. Revolution. Withers cheered.
But alas, Withers’ message is one of hope. With two boughs of plants in hand and a dove shown flying across the back wall. It was a symbol of peace. As the image of a sunrise (or sunset) replaced the dove on the back wall, Withers reminded us there is another day coming. The Shadow Figures captured Withers in a full embrace, seemingly trapping the anxiety and fear built up throughout the work. There was an overwhelming release in that moment. We might feel trapped, but we are not alone. Withers melted to the floor and disappeared off stage. A simple “That’s it!” marked the end of her commentary.
The power of artistic vision and activism is not lost on Withers. It is her driving force, her creative fuel. She will always have something profound to say and it’s up to us to watch and listen.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Kei Takei’s 2 Solos from Light, “LIGHT, Part 28” and “LIGHT, Part 47” channeled a softer, simpler approach to storytelling through movement.
In “LIGHT, Part 28,” Takei, holding a small wooden stool, slowly walked into the space, her path to the center of the stage illuminated. She staggered with one hip out, as if she’d spent a life trapped in an uncomfortable position. The sound of nature chirping welcomed her as she placed her stool and took the familiar seat.
She never went far from the stool, and yet, she also didn’t need to. The images she painted through her movement had me imagining her at the edge of a pond. As she gathered, shoved and kneaded the air around her, it was obvious she was gathering tall pond grasses, shoving water to make waves, kneading the mud in which she stood. She sat in her own pool of light, like sitting under microscope, as we examined her little world. Takei gave off an aura of abundant happiness. It was simple. It was refreshing. It felt of the earth.
In “LIGHT, Part 47,” Takai was no longer confined to the space around her stool. She was a gentle, yet powerful reminder that subtle progress is oftentimes overlooked while striving for great achievement.
Her journey began upstage center, arms splayed wide, crouched over like a speed skater about to take his mark. We expect to see a foot race. We expect noticeable progress. We expect too much.
She stood drenched in a pool of light, but she flirted with the edges. With her arms up, she was prepared for battle against what might wait just out of sight.
Takai has mastered the ability to captivate her audience with stillness and suspension. When an audience is deprived of their expectations, they watch and listen with great attention for the moments the artist does speak. We waited with baited breath, thirsty for more movement.
Her arms ran their own marathon, pumping with determination and force, but her feet remained (mostly) still. With her head down, we imagined the barriers and boundaries she faced head on. She was resilient. While her progress was minimal, she never once faltered. It was a theme she’d repeat until she was dripping with sweat. She was insisting we keep moving forward, even when it feels like we’re standing still.
Like particles of dust trapped in a beam of light, Takei suspended her upper torso into the backspace with her arms raised. Without warning, she stood in the front of the stage. Her performance was straightforward, but still a surprise to see her standing at the end.
Where she stood, seemingly finally exhausted, there was a beautiful moment of realization. As if she’d only just noticed she had an audience, Takei looked up, wide-eyed, and began to fade back into the darkness. It was a perfectly simple ending. It was a reminder that we’re not alone on our own journeys. We only need to look up.
Though both DIGG and 2 Solos from Light were performed by individual artists, the works tapped into the greater concept of the human journey: if one wants to go fast, go alone, but to go far, go together. Withers and Takai have chosen to go together. We’re all along for the ride. Kacie Peterson
Tokyo's Kei Takei and Washington's Maida Withers perform separate solo pieces that explore very different ideas. In "DIGG" Withers dives into issues of Russian identity during this moment of political confusion and conflict. Takei's "Light Part 47 (Rn) gets a bit more philosophical, tapping into the tension between intense focus and physical abandon. $25 to $30. dancepalce.org. Washingtonian Magazine
Artists and Collaborators
- Concept, Dancer, Choreographer
- Filmmaker; Projection Design
- Experimental Vocalist
- Experimental Vocalist
- Set Designer
- Shadow Figure / Invisible Force
- Shadow Figure / Invisible Force
- Lighting Designer
- Stage Manager
- Communications Director