Remember To Write!

Shannon Kurashige in Liss Fain’s “I Don’t Know and Never Will” Photo Credit: RJ Muna

It was out of necessity that Bay Area choreographer Liss Fain started to create the dance installations that have become a staple of her work in recent years. In 2010, after her company’s season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, she realized that she was not interested in presenting her dances on proscenium stages anymore but she did not know yet what format her work would take. That same summer, she was commissioned to do a piece at an art gallery in Düsseldorf, Germany. The space was large and open, and Fain thought she would take her company to Düsseldorf and set the piece she had in mind to the space. “No big deal,” the choreographer recalled when we talked last week. That was without taking into account a last-minute change of location and the performance space now spreading to three separate buildings, forcing Fain to reenvision her piece and to adapt it to disconnected spaces.

The experience in Düsseldorf was a blessing in disguise, one that opened the door to new creative explorations. Following the advice of longtime collaborator and designer Matthew Antaky, Fain decided to continue investigating installations for her next production of The False and True Are One, slated to appear at Z Space a few months later. “It was interesting to divide up the piece with sections that could happen concomitantly, to give people the chance to get up and move to a different place and to open up the possibilities of observation.”

With her new piece I Don’t Know and Never Will, presented at ODC Theater this week, Fain continues to reinvent spatial possibilities. The piece unfolds in three separate ‘rooms’ marked by see-through divisions conceived by Antaky. Yet, for this work, Fain decided to make the installation sparer in order to mirror the central theme of the piece, which stems from the solitary act of writing letters.

After her last piece, Known Once, which was built from testimonies from middle school students and seniors about their lives, Fain wanted to keep going in the vein of personal stories. A friend suggested that she uses letters that she had saved from the time when people wrote letters to each other. Fain, who had never reread them, was taken by the letters of a former boyfriend, which she found particularly interesting and moving, and decided to use them as material for her new work. “I thought about the kind of connections you make with people when you are writing letters. The piece started out being about the solitary space you have to be in to write a letter and the deep connection you create through that solitude and how different it is from having a conversation with another person via the computer, where there is a back and forth,” Fain commented.

During the creative process, Fain introduced movement phrases to the dancers and asked them to manipulate them. “I wrote a letter to this boyfriend telling him that I was doing this project and telling him a bit about myself. It was very strange writing to that person because I hadn’t spoken to him in decades. So one of the prompts [to the dancers] was ‘strange letter’.” After working on the piece for a while, Fain realized, along with the dancers, that the piece was going in the same trajectory so two of the dancers suggested that she writes the end task, which ended up making the work more personal in a way that no previous work had. But to convey a sense of universality and to actualize the piece, Fain decided to source written material from the community, by inviting people to write a letter or a postcard to someone and describe an experience that impacted them greatly or something they wish they had done and did not do. In one section of the dance and within improvisational structures that Fain built, the dancers will perform to different letters chosen randomly each night of the show. “I felt I wanted people to understand how radical it is to write a letter, it is more work than writing an email but it is really gratifying. It is really about how the written language connects people.”