My first real memory of Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs is from a wedding we all attended in the ranchlands of Petaluma. Guests gathered for lemonade in the shadow of the ranch house before hiking deeper into the hills for the ceremony. At the gate, Sonya stood with her arms full of hats, what seemed like hundreds of hats, falling about her. She sent the guests off into the blazing sun, crowning each one with a hat of their own. Many hours and many drinks later, in the middle of a blurry dance circle that would eventually send a man through the floor of the barn we were in, I stepped in to make my move and turned around to find a kindred Layla, dancing with me.
Many years later, on a gray Sunday evening, Layla Childs bounds down the stairs of an old building in Brooklyn to open the door and let me in. She is sweaty and breathing hard. She ushers me into the studio space where Sonya Robbins is on the floor, and without hesitation, the two choreographers resume their rehearsal. The space is large and rectangular, with polished wooden floors and mirrors lining one wall, facing windows on the other.
Small piles of colored clothes have been discarded at different points around the room, as if marking out a map of where these two have already been. There is white, aqua, magenta and at this moment, Robbins and Childs are wearing royal blue. Layla continues where she left off, “So. Okay. I don’t know about you but I feel like Blue should be longer.” Both of them are out of breath, “Maybe we need to have something more like…” Her voice stops and her meaning moves into her arms. She makes a circle around her head as she stands in the middle of the room: it is a gesture as clear as a word and her motion suddenly makes this space into a theater. As she does it, both women realize simultaneously that they have been skipping a section of the choreography—and that they have been skipping it together. “…We both just did it seamlessly…” Childs says and Robbins agrees, incredulous, “I know, it’s kinda weird.”
They decide to do the Blue section again and as they move into one corner of the room, Robbins says, “Okay. Ready?” and they begin. They sweep diagonally into the center of the space, in unison but flexibly, fluidly. I hear the sound of their feet and of their breathing but otherwise, the room is silent. They move like this, together, until many minutes later when Childs says quietly, “Last one” and Robbins hums assuredly: yes.
Although the exchange is only a second long, it makes an incision into their experience that opens up a space I had not been able to see before. While I watch their bodies move across this room, I understand for the first time that I am seeing the smallest sliver of what they are doing inside. Together and in silence, I realize they are talking the whole time: breathing, counting, watching—a kind of muscle movement and memory that engages them entirely and that makes no noise. This kind of intimacy renders collaboration a radical act: boundaries of identity do not dissolve as much as they fall away, unimportant. Later, in a section they call Aqua, they stand leaning into each other, their heads touching, pushing slowly at each other’s legs, arms, making small indentations with their fingers in skin. They look like a human mountain as they move and Robbins later explains to me that this section is left purposefully unwritten. She touches my arm and squeezes by way of explaining that their movements are motivated by what feels like a series of questions they ask each other with their bodies. Robbins describes it to me, kneading my arm, “what does this feel like? what about this?”
The piece they are rehearsing, which debuts on December 5th at PS122, marks an expansion for robbinschilds that has been over two years in the making. During the summer of 2005, the artists embarked on a series of adventures with two of their most essential collaborators: a photographer/videographer named A.L. Steiner, and A.J. Blandford who creates their performance environments. Together, the four took off on road trips across the United States to explore both the natural and man-made worlds, investigating the particularities of where the two intermingled. Their intention was to bring the same curiosity and wonder to each environment they moved through, including the one they experienced inside their own bodies.
That trip generated hundreds of hours of video footage and an equally large number of images. While they were “out there,” as they describe it, they listened almost exclusively to a single tape. Earlier in the year, Blandford had been in a bar in Los Angeles and picked up the recording of a band she had happened to see give an electrifying performance. The band was called Kinski. The series of robbinschilds installation pieces and performances that has come to be called Color Location Ultimate Experience (C.L.U.E.) materialized initially out of the rough edits from the video footage generated by those trips. And it did not take long for the choreographers to decide that the music was an essential component. They courted Kinski slowly at first but after they saw the musicians live and after the musicians watched a copy of the C.L.U.E. video, what Childs describes as an “instant kinship;” Robbins confirms, saying of Kinski that, “They saw it too.”
The series of performances at PS122 brings the music, the video and the dance elements of C.L.U.E. all together for the first time. robbinschilds has treated the dance as one element of three, and they have composed the work so that the elements interact with and respond to one another, without aiming to control the result. In a “map” they sent me of the composition, they have divided each color into a dance, video, and music section that traces out what happens in each element at any given time. But they are careful not to over-compose and are visibly excited by the quality of the unknown that is so central to this project. The collaboration with Kinski, for example, has been largely one of correspondence. In their notes, the music for the last section of the piece has a question mark and then, “Love for the ending of the piece to have the expansive sounds of the ending of Passed out on Yr. Lawn.”
robbinschilds has been deliberately working with chance and with the unforeseen. When I speak to them about what they value in performance, they agree that as performers, they hope their work will be transformative. Similarly for them as audience members, they gravitate towards work that leaves them changed. This is the nature of experience: of being with and living through something. The word comes from a Latin term that means to put to the test, to test out, or to try. In this sense, an experience is a way of learning through being, a way of coming to some kind of truth by living it. This kind of work calls on me to be present with far more than just my intellect, or my eyes: it is a feeling that is still unfamiliar and so I am always testing it out. This is the invitation that robbinschilds opens up for us, and it is as serious as it is playful: Color Location Ultimate Experience.
LITIA PERTA is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles and teaching at the University of California, Irvine. She is interested in transformation, and in collaborating with others to develop innovative ways (pedagogical, linguistic, theoretical, economic, spiritual, poetic) to support the transformations we came here to live through.
Body MemoryBy Emireth Herrera Valdés
FEB 2023 | ArtSeen
GHOSTMACHINEs inaugural group exhibition, Body Memory, features Bianca Abdi-Boragi, Nicki Cherry, Kyoko Hamaguchi, Calli Roche, and Yvonne Shortt. Their works range in medium, and address the concept of the body from different perspectives. They include examinations of trauma, gestures, values, and physical experiences.
Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of MemoryBy Nolan Kelly
APRIL 2021 | Books
This sense of bewilderment, of a past that is both accessible and impossible to decipher, is the real subject of Maria Stepanovas In Memory of Memory, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale. Its ostensible subject is her own genealogy, going back through four generations of Russian Jews, which is presented to the reader like a cadaver on a tableall parts intricately connected and covered in film, both sticky and slippery to the touch. Stepanova is less interested in holding these parts up to the light than she is in recording her horror at the death of her history, its inability to speak for itself, and the plethora of morbidities which could inform its cause of death.
Aaron Angello’s The Fact of Memory
MAY 2022 | Books
Aaron Angello’s new collection of lyric essays, The Fact of Memory, is the result of a daily practice stemming over some four months. It consists of one short meditation for every word in Shakespeare’s twenty-ninth sonnet (“When, in disgrace with fortune and mens eyes”), written every morning for 114 consecutive days. Alongside its emphasis on structure, Angello’s collection revels in the gap: the open space without a railing, the leap readers must make on their own, without the help of explication or transition.
from the she said dialogues: flesh memoryBy Akilah Oliver
FEB 2021 | Poetry
Akilah Oliver (1961–2011) was born in St. Louis and grew up in Los Angeles. She was the author of two books of poetry: A Toast in the House of Friends (2009) and the she said dialogues: flesh memory (1999), which received a PEN Beyond Margins award. Her chapbooks include A Collection of Objects (2010), a(A)ugust (2007), The Putterer’s Notebook (2006) and An Arriving Guard of Angels, Thusly Coming to Greet (2004). Oliver was an influential teacher and a notable performer. She collaborated with a range of artists and musicians and co-founded the experimental, feminist performance collective Sacred Naked Nature Girls in 1994. She was also a member of the Belladonna* feminist avant-garde collaborative and a graduate student in Philosophy, Art and Social Thought at the European Graduate School. Oliver lived for many years in Boulder, Colorado and taught at the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. In addition, she taught at Pratt Institute and at The New School in New York City, where she lived at the time of her death.