Edging the Unknown

Katie Faulkner’s “Divining” . Photo by Robbie Sweeny

It was unexpectedly, as Katie Faulkner was sifting through old photographs last winter, that the contours of her new piece began to take form. The Bay Area choreographer came across the image of a man that her family had hired to be a water witcher for a property that they had bought. Water witching is a centuries-old technique in which practitioners locate groundwater by using divination methods and tools such as Y or L-shaped rods. The photograph was taken in North Carolina, where Faulkner grew up. Faulkner didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later, when the image and the word divining popped into her head: “Divining and dowsing are very similar. Both feel like apt metaphors for choreographing. The practice of tuning your body as an instrument to facilitate discovery feels meaningful to me,” she shared in a conversation last week.

Faulkner started doing research about the many divining rituals and practices recorded through history and around the world. “Whether it’s dowsing, rod sticks, pendulums, tea leaves, patterns in the clouds, bird migratory patterns or even pig’s blood, human beings throughout history have used all manner of materials in order to make meaning of their current circumstances, try to interpret the future and have some sense of what’s coming. It just struck me that the universality of that practice illuminates this very basic human need for coping with not just the unknown but the truly unknowable. I have always found that precipice -how we deal with things we just can’t know- to be very inspiring.”

In the studio, Faulkner began to work with four dancers (Alex Carrington, Chinchin Hsu, Tara McArthur, Suzette Sagisi) on the piece which is currently titled Divining. Coincidently, Salt Lake City-based choreographer Molly Heller and Bay Area dance artist Arletta Anderson had asked Faulkner to create a duet on them and so it happens that she started to think about the duet and the quartet as part of a similar thematic fabric, a diptych of sorts. “The nature of the material between the two groups is quite different and is offering an interesting tension,” Faulkner commented. “I almost think of [the duet] as this kind of fanatical, evangelical presence, up against the comparatively more pagan, earthly group. The quartet feels more oriented in the present, located in the labor of contemplation and ritual. By comparison, the duet feels like it’s addressing something to do with certainty and the ways in which believing one has answers can both comfort and harden us.”

Faulkner is also intent on adding another contextual layer by grounding the piece in the feelings that she experienced while growing up in the American South: “One of the things I’ve always felt is that there are ways in which living in the South can feel very secretive to me. There is what is and then there’s the sense that there’s a lot more behind the veil, both historically and culturally, but also in terms of the landscape. Everything is thick, dense, overgrown and lush. It’s not like here where you can look out across the landscape and see for miles and miles. The trees come right up to the road and there’s often this sense that you don’t fully know what is inside them. That feeling is deep in my bones and really stirring. I love the South and its particular beauty very deeply, but its shadows are very dark. It’s hard, at any given moment, to get a complete, clear-eyed picture of its full truth. Something about that opacity and how it inhabits me supports the feeling I am after in this work: the seeking, the uncovering, the making sense, and the humility that it requires.”

Because Faulkner’s initial inspiration came through the form of a photograph and her work is imbued with a feeling from the South, I couldn’t help thinking of another Southerner as we talked. The photographer Sally Mann, who spent her life documenting her family’s life and the landscape of her native Virginia, writes in Hold Still — A Memoir with Photographs that “the mysteries and revelations of [the South] have been the begetter and breathing animus of my artistic soul.” Her work captures the opaque complexity and depth that Faulkner alluded to when talking about her experience of growing up in the South. With divining, the choreographer is allowing that experience to permeate her work more prominently, notably through the soundscore. Composed by Ben Juodvalkis, it includes prerecorded tracks from the Alabama Sacred Heart singers and sounds of jaw’s harp, conjuring sounds traditionally recorded in the South. The piece won’t premiere until the beginning of 2019, yet Faulkner is offering a window into her process this coming Thursday, August 2, at ODC Theater Unplugged.

When she came across the long-forgotten photograph, Faulkner remembered thinking that the practice in which the man was engaged was the kind of intuitive ritual that women have been vilified for for centuries. If she deliberately chose to work with an all-female cast and acknowledges that there is something kind of witchy about the material that is being generated, Faulkner is yet trying to move beyond gender. “It’s true that I chose to work with an all female-identified cast for this work, but more specifically, I chose to work with these women. I chose these dancers because I feel an affinity with their sensitivity, the language they use to describe their experiences in the world, the fluidity with which they access their emotional intelligence, and the seriousness they bring to their relationships. These are qualities that, for me, facilitate a probing and robust creative process. The work we are making is born out of what may be considered a kind of female rigor that I deeply value. So while I am not working to make a gendered comment on these topics, I am making a choice to address it in ways that reflect my female experience of the world.”