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Saturday, April 18, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Sarah Chien

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody

Sarah Chien

Sarah Chien up on the roof
(photo: Zachary Schulman)

Sarah‌ ‌Chien‌ ‌is‌ ‌a‌ ‌Brooklyn-based‌ ‌dancer,‌ ‌teacher,‌ ‌and‌ ‌producer‌ ‌who‌ ‌creates‌ ‌improvised‌ works‌ ‌with‌ ‌collaborators‌ ‌from‌ ‌dance,‌ ‌music,‌ ‌circus‌ ‌and‌ ‌theater.‌ ‌She‌ ‌has‌ ‌performed‌ ‌her‌ ‌own‌ and‌ ‌collaborative‌ ‌projects‌ ‌in‌ ‌Greece,‌ ‌Slovakia,‌ ‌Spain‌ ‌and‌ ‌Italy.‌ ‌In‌ ‌New‌ ‌York,‌ ‌her‌ ‌work‌ ‌has‌ been‌ ‌shown‌ ‌at‌ ‌Joe's‌ ‌Pub,‌ ‌University‌ ‌Settlement,‌ ‌Brooklyn‌ ‌Studios‌ ‌for‌ ‌Dance,‌ ‌Triskelion‌ ‌Arts,‌ ‌The‌ ‌Kraine,‌ ‌Arts‌ ‌on‌ ‌Site,‌ ‌The‌ ‌Brick,‌ ‌Eden’s‌ ‌Expressway‌ ‌and‌ ‌Chez‌ ‌Bushwick.‌ ‌ ‌
She‌ ‌approaches‌ ‌performance‌ ‌as‌ ‌a‌ ‌way‌ ‌of‌ ‌revealing‌ ‌more‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌self,‌ ‌and‌ ‌uses‌ ‌the‌ ‌language‌ of‌ improvisation‌ ‌as‌ ‌a‌ ‌way‌ ‌to‌ ‌foster‌ ‌dialogue‌ ‌across‌ ‌artistic‌ ‌disciplines.‌ ‌Her‌ ‌current‌ ‌performance‌ ‌projects‌ ‌include‌ ‌∞therside‌ ‌collective,‌ ‌an‌ ‌international‌ ‌improvisation‌ ‌collective‌ ‌of‌ ‌which‌ ‌she‌ ‌is‌ ‌a‌ ‌founding‌ ‌member;‌ ‌¡Spontaneous‌ ‌Combustion!,‌ ‌an‌ ‌all-improvised‌ ‌performance‌ ‌party‌ ‌series‌ ‌on‌ ‌her‌ ‌homemade‌ ‌rooftop‌ ‌dance‌ ‌floor,‌ ‌and‌ ‌Songs‌ ‌Stuck‌ ‌in‌ ‌My‌ ‌Body,‌ ‌her‌ ‌touring‌ ‌dance-theater‌ ‌solo‌ ‌show.‌ ‌
She‌ ‌has‌ ‌studied‌ ‌extensively‌ ‌with‌ ‌David‌ ‌Zambrano,‌ ‌whose‌ ‌work‌ ‌greatly‌ ‌influences‌ ‌her‌ ‌teaching‌ ‌and‌ ‌approach‌ ‌to‌ ‌performance.‌ ‌When‌ ‌not‌ ‌dancing,‌ ‌she‌ ‌works‌ ‌as‌ ‌a‌ ‌‌User‌ ‌Experience‌ ‌Researcher,‌‌ ‌applying‌ ‌ethnographic‌ ‌research‌ ‌techniques‌ ‌to‌ ‌software‌ ‌development.‌ ‌
instagram:‌ ‌‌@dancepostcard‌

Chien performing with ∞therside collective
in Thessaloniki, Greece
(photo: Ernesto Koukos)

Chien in Songs Stuck in My Body
(photo: Andy Ribner)

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

March and April were set to be germination months for me. I had several new projects in seed state that were cancelled right away: a residency at Silo to explore shared training and exchange with some amazing peers from NYC and Philly (Lily Kind, Arianna Dunmire, Chelsea Murphy), a salon performance in Boston for a new collaboration with percussionist Caitlin Cawley, and a new community teaching relationship with Liberated Movement.

One of the things that was very profound for me when the pandemic hit, was the moratorium on planning. I’m a planner and a worrier, but as soon as the quarantine began, I saw that planning was the last thing that made sense. I’m really trying to embrace that and redirect my energy away from something I cannot change. To-do lists on pause. There’s a relief in that, and also an unsettling uncertainty. Should I be pushing onward?

Summer has been my busy season in recent years. So, as this pandemic drags on, there are several projects close to my heart that seem more precarious each day. I was in the middle of building out a midwestern summer tour for my one-woman solo show, Songs Stuck in My Body, that I created with Lauren Hlubny.

Most immediately in danger is a residency for the month of June with ∞therside collective. We are an international improvisation collective of five dancers, and several musicians, each located in a different country. We only meet once a year for an annual two- to three-week residency hosted in the hometown of one of our members, and our 2020 location is Ferrara, in northern Italy. We were already having regular planning meetings, and after the pandemic hit, we realized there was nothing to plan, so we quickly re-purposed our Skype planning to Zoom rehearsing. This group has actually been the silver lining for me. We’re now meeting one to two times per week for Zoom rehearsals and sending each other solo improvisation prompts to record asynchronously.

And there’s also my rooftop summer series, ¡Spontaneous Combustion! Usually in the summer, I produce an all-improvised performance party on my Bushwick rooftop, a monthly event May to September. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with this. For now the homemade rooftop dance floor that inspired the event is simply my personal studio space, which is an incredible privilege in itself.

I was also trying to make a life transition, working towards quitting my part-time day job in tech to bring more focus to dance. That has been completely put on hold, as right now I’m just grateful for an income source not affected by the shutdown.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

I entered dance through one of those ballet/tap/jazz combo studios in Illinois and spent my childhood trying to become a professional ballerina. But my trajectory since leaving Illinois has been one of moving from codified to improvised, from ethereal forms to more grounded ones: I progressed from “classical” modern dance to acrobatic floorwork and then to improvisation. Moving to New York and then traveling outside of the US was a big part of that awakening. Full-bodied, full-self improvisation for performance--both as a solo practice and in large groups--has been my main focus. Personal practice is the foundation of my work--simply meeting myself in the studio whether for training, research or play. I love the self-reliance of personal practice. It's empowering.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning? How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

With the exception of ∞therside collective, I’m not envisioning any specific projects right now. Instead, both during studio time and in life, I’m following my interests, my impulses and my distractions. I’m trying not to make such a value judgement between “distraction” and “interest.” These days anything that holds my interest is something I’m grateful for. I’m doing a lot of asking myself what do you want to do now? So, that is cooking, video games, spending time with my partner, watching the city from my roof, being a plant mama.

When I set aside time for personal dance practice, I’m often coming in rather blank. I start moving and try to see where I want to go. Sometimes that is a long improvised warm-up of continuous movement, or playing with text while improvising, or practicing QiGong, or training strength/inversions, footwork and articulate hands. Some days, it's just one small thing. Some days, it's giving myself “class” from practices I’ve studied like Flying Low. But, most often, it's just getting creative performing for my iPhone. Yesterday, I started performing duets with the objects on my rooftop, partnering with my portable speaker!

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

I’ve revived a practice that I’ve long had, of composing live solo improvisation “performances” to the entirety of a single song, filmed on my iPhone. I’ve been journaling my personal practice for years on Instagram, and have doubled down on that recently.

I’m still working part-time and so I’ve gotten very defensive of my time. I find I need more unplanned time to be able to notice and then wander through my interests in a less time-boxed way. Asynchronous performance and asynchronous collaboration is really well-suited to this way of being. That’s where the Iphone/Instagram practice is great. I choose a song, sometimes from my iTunes, sometimes a unique composition from a musician friend. I set a camera frame that creates my “stage,” and then I perform. You could say I’m either performing for no audience or a future audience. I watch the videos, to direct and give feedback to myself, and I share some of them, always with no editing. It's an exercise in framing and perspective, in expressing where I’m at, and in being a live performer.

Two years ago, I built a small wooden dance floor on my roof. It’s my sanctuary. As happens every rooftop season, it reminds me to live in sync with the weather; it's a different timing. If I want to use my studio, I have to seize moments when there’s sun and warmth, and I can’t always predict or choose. Everything I do feels site-specific since the studio has no walls.

Briefly share one self-care tip that has special meaning to you now.

You only have to do the Zoom classes/meetups/social events that you feel drawn to.

Appreciate anything that holds your interest.

Embrace not-planning.

Dance with the sun.


DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.


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