Photo: Karen Mason Blair 2016 (This photo was taken at Karin’s Seattle childhood property that was destroyed by landslides due to record rain in 1996.)
In Harmony with the Tao, the sky is clear and spacious, the earth is solid and full, all creatures flourish together, content with the way they are, endlessly repeating themselves, endlessly renewed.
When man interferes with the Tao, the sky becomes filthy, the earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles, creatures become extinct.
-Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching #39 A New English Version, Stephen Mitchell
CityArts Magazine did a wonderful preview of this work. Below are responses from Karin to thoughtful questions that writer Kaitlyn McCarthy sent.
Kaitlyn McCarthy: Can you tell me more about how you developed movement relating to the five elements? Or relating to the human activity/invisible history you mention? Methodologies, etc? How is dance a good medium for this subject matter?
Omar and I were born and raised in Seattle, and share a deep love for this region. I seek to commune, converse and collaborate with thoughtful artists: Omar’s sage intelligence and deep heart for Seattle drew me in. I was inspired by the images from his 6-year photography project of the 400+ Seattle parks. When we began discussing the collaborative creation of this work, we discovered our shared interest in the Taoist Chinese 5 Elements Philosophy, and decided that this lens would provide a way of discussing and looking at the city.
The 5 Elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water – can also be translated as the 5 Movements. There are many action words describing the elements such as “thrusting” for wood, or “descending” for water.
“It is a fivefold conceptual scheme that many traditional Chinese fields used to explain a wide array of phenomena, from cosmic cycles to the interaction between internal organs, and from the succession of political regimes to the properties of medicinal drugs.” – Wikipedia
In addition to the action words, we explored the positive/health and negative/illness interactions between the elements and the emotional language attached to each – ex. Metal = bravery or grief – through movement and improvisation. Here is an explanation of the 5 Elements from Acupuncturist David A. Tucker, The Zen of Healing:
“…all which exists in the Universe is made up of the five elements…They represent five phases of a cycle that all energy flows through. In Nature, we see and feel the five-element cycle throughout the year as seasons – Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Each phase is unique, but also dependent on the others for vitality and balance.”
As a student of Thea Elijah, a master teacher of the 5 Elements, I have only just begun to develop my understanding of this beautiful wisdom of the ancient Taoist Philosophers and Sages.
The challenge for this work was to determine which specific elements and their relationships to focus on, as they relate to our pondering of the past, the present, and possibility for the future of our city. I spent extensive filmed improvisational sessions leading the dancers/movement artists through the various elements in both words and through my own movement. Unlike most of my past work, this dance is created from movement by all of us. From these improvisations we learned the filmed movement material and I began to shape the emerging work: structures for sections, relationships, meaning, and order revealed itself.
I read the books: Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place and Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, which helped me understand the massive transformation to the land and water that made the city we know today. One writer reviewing the second book described the human influence on the earth, lakes, rivers and tideflats as “environment depravity.” Although there is a brief appreciation for urban progress and human achievement in the dance, the dominant concern is revealed in how we have altered the harmonious balance of the natural world and its subsequent harmful effects on our relationships to each other.
There is inner meaning in outer things: when Earth element moves from a state of nourishment (in this case the past) into the reality of 75 million cubic yards sluiced and blasted away by men 100 years ago, not only is there metaphor, there is also the reality of those that were not supported, those that were pushed out, those that today are not comforted and given a sense of rootedness in ‘home’. When Earth cannot nourish Metal, Metal becomes overbearing in its highly organized mental and physical structures; it chops too much Wood energy –the rightful assertion of thriving in the world– and Wood energy becomes bitter, angry, and resentful, often without heart. Imagine ivy or grass thrusting through concrete walls and roads… there is an energy to thrust forth and thrive that we all have… who are the ones in our city where structure has not served well being? Where is there wood energy to self-determine that has lost heart; or in the case of our progressive activists today has heart or needs more heart in the face of current changes and challenges to our city and nation? In filling the Tideflats with detritus and eliminating the rhythm of the rise and descent of the rivers and tides what clues to the wisdom of the Water Element was lost? These are just a few examples of the layers of ideas contemplated in creating the dance.
As the work developed through looking at our regional history through the 5 Elements, some of my personal experience made it into the work: there is a nod to the late 1970s to early 2000s failed bussing system in the public schools and the inability for structural policy (a very metal imbalanced element without healthy fire and earth) to create true community (a earth balanced element.)
It would take many words to explain all of the work, but here is an example of some parts: The dominate theme that emerged for the present was the interaction between Metal and Wood, in an overbearing and imbalanced relationship without heart: a lengthy section containing multiple duets, and solos against the group acting as opposing forces of grid-structures and containment. Another example: The ancient past was heavily dominated by Wood, Water, and Earth in a state of harmonious generative balance before the arrival of the Denny party in the 1850s when earth and water elements were literally changed by the newcomers to this region; metaphorical imbalance and loss of these elements had an outcome of problems still felt today.
I believe dance connects us more deeply to ourselves, to each other and to the natural world. Taoist 5 Elements philosophy is the idea of the macrocosm (of the earth or universe) in the microcosm (of our bodies) and vice-versa. What better way to explore this idea of understanding our true place in the world, the destructive choices that have been made from the stance of dominance over nature, the repercussions we are facing, and the possibilities for transfiguring our relationship to the earth and each other, than to do it through dance?
KM: How is this work a departure for you or a new challenge? How is it different from your previous works or how is it similar?
Although every project has had its own set of unique challenges, risk, and diverse outcomes, this work certainly doesn’t depart from the KSD mission: Capturing the breadth of the moving human experience, the works strive for a beauty, sometimes humorous or turbulent, with richly textured patterns that embody the complex layers of our cultural spaces, time and relationship to nature.
It was a new challenge to create this 60+ minute work entirely without music. It was a magical synergy as I built the sections. Paul sent sample ideas and we navigated developing the sounds for the dance.
KM: Why this work now? What inspired you?
This is the most important work I could be doing. It is vital to our future. I became passionate about the 5 Elements (also translated as the 5 Movements) a few years ago through healing and personal development. It is essential that we engage our body-selves to develop our well-being and understanding of our place in and our relationship to the natural world. The devastation of ecosystems, hegemonic profit making, climate change, and political obfuscation is leading us further down a self-destructive path. We must overcome the patterns of movement that built a nation and our cities through environmental desecration, enslavement, genocide and racism.
Understanding ourselves on the local level helps us as a nation. To borrow an idea from Coll Thrush’s “Native Seattle”, the land is a palimpsest upon which a layered history contains the movements with and without heart that are still felt and in effect within the present. Looking through the lens of the 5 Elements at how the land and waters of Seattle were shaped and the city was settled: How has this shaped the movements of Seattleites over the last one hundred years? What are the effects that still play out today? What could the natural elements of the region, where indigenous people lived for 10 – 30 thousand years before White Europeans altered it, teach us about what we need to redeem for our future? I have answers to these questions that I found between moving and thinking in the creation of this work; I hope others will find some connections for themselves within the dance.
It is essential that we explore new movement patterns to restore a right relationship with the natural world and each other; to borrow words from Seattle 5 Elements Acupuncturist David Tucker, a relationship that is “interconnected, in perpetual change, and always moving toward harmony with its environment.”
KM: What kind of movement should KSD audiences expect to see? (Abstract, pedestrian, referencing an influence, etc.)
At the end of the day it is a dance. It is abstraction of all the ideas above in technically demanding movement uniquely stylized for the needs of this work that is categorized somewhere within the post-modern, contemporary dance language. I think of myself as more of an abstract painter in space or the composer of instrumental work. Although I freely share all the ideas and thinking behind all of my work, I never intend for the viewer to get or see as I do. It is layered; it is complex; it is dense with movement material, and never at one time is there a simple, straight-forward, one-answer meaning in the 60+ minute work: it is an ecosystem of artistic creation.
KM: What is the mood of the show? Moody, inspiring, emotionally evocative, etc.
It moves between contemplative, subtle and fierce intensity, with moments that engender human connections and emotions within the moving complexity.
KM: How many dancers in the work? How long has this set of dancers been working together or other interesting cast information? If applicable, what do specific performers bring to this work?
There are 8 movement artists in this work. Naphtali has been working with me since 2009; Philippa is in her 4th year; Anja is in her second year; Maia was my first dancer when I founded KSD in 2009 – she left for a few years to become a chiropractor, a path I highly recommend for dancers thinking through a future in this art form; Alexandra danced in a project in 2015; Noelle and Kelly are new; Tim has an incredible story: he was going to move here to dance with KSD in 2013, but was in a tragic car accident that left him partially paralyzed for many weeks. He recently moved here and asked to simply be in the room as we rehearsed. Within weeks it was clear to me that he was meant to be in this work.
I don’t always set out with a clear sense of what a work is EXACTLY about; it is never about what I WANT; and given the economic and dancer constraints, I can’t always dictate the dancers I think should be in each work. I remain open, as a spiritual practice, to serve the work and the dancers that are meant to be a part of each creation as it unfolds. What has emerged for this work goes beyond the relationship between the human and the environment, and gets at the heart of some history and hope in relationship between different bodies; in the literal case of this cast: white and black dancers, male and female, and a “differently-abled” dancer with “abled-bodied” dancers.
KM: What is hyper-photography?
Hyperphotography comes from Fred Ritchin’s book After Photography. It is a way of working with digital images so that they are no longer assumed to be “objective” recordings of a single point of view. Instead, each digital image is a layered document that connects to other layered documents. Quoting Ritchin:
“Rather than a single, inarguable reference point that is thought to be truer than human recollection, [the digital photograph] can serve as an element in a web of other supporting and contradictory imagery, sounds and texts, a menu of possible interpretations, a malleable dreamscape and memory magnet…”
KM: Can you provide more information about your collaboration with Omar Willey? How are the photographs influencing the work or vise versa. How does the dance interact with these projections?
Our collaboration was in conversation and ideas as much as it is about movement and photographic images coming together.
I meditated on Omar’s work and the work and ideas of others that have inspired him: Mary Randlett (Landscapes), Emmett Gowin (Changing the Earth), Freeman Patterson (Embracing Creation).
The images will stand alone between a few sections.
Some of Omar’s images inspired sections of the dance, but the unfolding of the dance had a significant impact on the selection of final images, including new images he is currently working on.
KM: Will the original music be performed live?
No. This is the first project without live music since 2012. The original music is by Seattle’s beloved Paul Rucker, a long time musician and visual artist in our area who now lives bicoastal, moving regularly between Seattle and Baltimore. I met Paul when he helped me get a Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture grant back when he was working there in 2010. The feature last year in City Arts Magazine about his latest work inspired me to reach out to him to collaborate and create the music for this new dance. The process working with him has been different than any process I have done in the past. I have created with existing music, I have created simultaneously together with a composer in the room, I have handed off a filmed dance in silence to a composer to score a new piece. For this work I created without music. I would share the ideas motivating each section with Paul, he would then send sample music ideas; we just crawled along from there over a 5 month process. The music for this 60+ minute work has a diverse range of sound!