Vol. 2 | Infinite Work: A Selection of Writings by Biba Bell | Matthew Piper

Infinite Work: A Selection of Writings by Biba Bell

Matthew Piper

I’m glad, in retrospect, that my first encounter with Biba Bell’s dancing happened (almost) by chance. It was 2009. She was in Detroit with MGM Grand, the collaborative touring trio she’d co-founded four years earlier, performing a site-specific dance called Royce. I’d found out about it simply by being, as the saying goes, in the right place at the right time: in a cafe, writing. I’ve forgotten now exactly what they said, but certain words in the conversation of the couple next to me caught my ear: “dance,” almost certainly; “Modern Garage Movement,” maybe? “Really intimate?” “Really weird?” It was enough, anyway, to give me what I needed to perform a search, find the details, and show up that evening at the 555 Gallery’s then-home in a 7,000 square foot warehouse in southwest Detroit — ready, perhaps, for anything, and certain of very little.


I say “almost” by chance, because I should confess to a vivid if armchair enthusiasm for dance, a curious condition here in this working class town (I credit the transformative experience of being dragged to a late-career Merce Cunningham concert by a canny college friend), without which those now-forgotten words would likely have gone unheard, or at least unconsummated.


So yes, I’ll say it was a potent admixture of accident and intention that led me up a creaking staircase and into an expansive, well-worn room, where I joined a handful of other audience members and three unassuming dancers who disarmed us with friendly banter as they prepared to perform their beautiful, terrible dance. (Imagine a work of elegance, discomfort, whimsy, filth and fury, all set to the sounds of increasingly labored breathing and the unforgiving impact of bodies on wood floors.) Appropriate, I think, because while the work of Biba Bell is profoundly intentional, conceived with great purpose and meticulously choreographed, it nevertheless depends on the incidental, the unexpected — on the fruitful intervention of chaos into order.


The work of contemporary dance, according to Laurence Louppe in her Poetics of Contemporary Dance, is, in part, to reveal the “limitless textuality” of the body.1Cf. Laurence Louppe, Poetics of Contemporary Dance (Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books , 2010). In the presence of Biba Bell dancing, with her self-described inclination toward “disorganized and awkward body states,” we glimpse what Louppe calls the “eruption of the unseen from out of its corporeal limbo.” As I learned that night at the 555 Gallery, and from the eight or nine dances I’ve seen her perform in Detroit since, Bell’s sometimes ferocious but always carefully controlled physical eloquence is at once immediate and reverberative; multitudinous, contradictory impressions and associations are unlocked for the observer by a gesture, a look, a step, a cry. I have also learned that the textual and expressive richness of Bell’s dancing is amplified by that crucial but less controllable dimension of her work: the unusual places in which it transpires. Her performances are frequently staged outside of traditional venues, “in the world,” as she puts it in the Fall/Winter 2009 – 2010 issue of Under the Influence, “in contaminated spaces that are not roped off and are without marley floors.”

But Bell’s eloquence, as we can see, is neither limited to her body nor the curious spaces it inhabits. As choreographer, scholar, director, and curator, she does not suffer from “the dancer’s distaste for language” that Jacqueline Lesschaeve invokes in her book-length interview with Merce Cunningham.2Cf. Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (London and New York: Marion Boyars, …

Bell is, in fact, voluble, as at home in language as she is in her body.

As a writer and interlocutor, she is engaged in a spirited, ongoing conversation that illuminates the evolving terms of her practice, the contours of her research, and the many fertile nodes at which the two intersect. I consider myself fortunate, in the years since my revelatory encounter with Royce, to have participated in the discourse surrounding Bell’s work as a writer, enthusiast, dialogist, and friend, and it is with great pleasure that I present the selection of essays and interviews collected here. In them, we trace the artist’s path from northern California to New York to Detroit, and we watch as her professional concerns – among them, dance’s “promiscuity” and “labor,” its relationship to domesticity, and the effects of time and place on performance, and of performance on time and place – are elucidated.

The first selection is one of the most recent. “Notes on Dancing in Detroit,” originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Movement Research Journal, finds the native Californian deep into her choreographic engagement with the city of Detroit, preparing for It Never Really Happened, the dance she would later perform in her mid-century Mies van der Rohe apartment here. Punctuated by quotations from some of her key scholarly influences, this brief work is marked by an elliptical style – “A system of extreme introversion, this is also a new type of labor. I started buying wigs” – in which the political and social slide into the subjective. By way of her astute, concisely rendered insights into Detroit, where “the houses are resting and the trees are growing,” we are also introduced to two of Bell’s most pressing recent concerns: the relationship of performance to time (“This is a city haunted by speed”) and work (“Labor unions had all but vacated and dancers were few”).

The next selection, “Curating a Collision,” is an excerpt from a curatorial statement published in conjunction with the 2008 Mission Creek Music Festival in San Francisco. It introduces Bell’s inclination toward conceptual collision and “disjunction,” toward the orchestration of experimental ventures that, in crossing disciplinary boundaries, “undo the autonomy of one piece, idea, form or event,” as she puts it. We begin to see clearly her desire to advance the medium of dance by de-familiarizing it via interdisciplinary engagement and play, a (dis)-organizing tendency that clearly influences much of her work (including her curatorial efforts here in Detroit Research). “As the recognizable transgresses its discrete medium,” she writes, “it collides with other forms, genres, and even bodies in an escapade that expands its limits and opens up the preordained boundaries of the field.”

An excerpt from “MGM,” an interview with Bell by Leanne Rae Wierzba from the “Detroit issue” of Under the Influence, finds her in the midst of the MGM Grand residency that brought Royce to Detroit. In it, she articulates her concern with taking dance outside of traditional performance venues and moving it into the wider world (“I worry that dance is inaccessible”), and speaks with early sensitivity and insight about Detroit, the hulking but graceful partner whose peculiar gravity has begun to exert a powerful influence on her thinking and work.

Bell is revealed to be an artful critic, an insightful explicator of others’ work, and a writer with a keen descriptive ability in the next piece, an excerpt from “Slow Work: Dance’s temporal effect in the visual sphere,” originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Performance Research Journal. In it, she uses an evocative description of her performance in Maria Hassabi’s The Ladies, first performed in 2011, as a springboard to pose questions about time, labor, and economics in dance as it “expands or moves out or alongside its proper institutional contexts.” In asking these questions, Bell is laying the foundation for her own theory about dance’s role in “object-based economies,” and its so-called “domestic temporalities,” which, she notes, “are most notably expressed through its fleeting acts of disappearance and resistance to the archive.”

I had the opportunity to talk to Bell in more detail about dance and the domestic in the final selection, “‘How It Happened’ Revisited,” an interview that we adapted from a longer piece originally published in the Detroit web journal Infinite Mile. The occasion for our talk was It Never Really Happened, the 2015 dance she performed for six nights in her mid-century apartment here. (A video of this work is available on the website of Detroit Research.) Over the course of our conversation, she discusses this remarkable piece and its place within her practice in some depth, exploring varieties of modernism and women’s labor & representation therein, the performativity of domesticity, and the (de)-familiarizing, democratizing quality of the “social” that continues to occupy such a central position in her work.

* * *

“To be a dancer,” Laurence Louppe writes, “is to choose the body and its movement as one’s relational field, as one’s instrument of knowledge, thought and expression . [But] the corporal material, ‘the carcass’ as Jerome Andrews called it, is complex, difficult to know and to integrate into a global awareness of the self. Dance requires infinite work in order to move forward in this awareness.” I wrote before that Detroit is a working town. Little wonder, then, that Biba Bell, a self-described laborer in the field of performance, has chosen it as her adopted home. It is clear from this small collection of her writings and interviews that Bell is engaged in an ambitious, singular, and wide-ranging effort to know and express the world through the body, moving in space(s), and that her own infinite work continues to unfold, both in body and in print, with surprise, grace, subtlety, and power.

Notes on Dancing in Detroit
Movement Research Journal, Spring 2014

“…unless she could step away from the assembly line of her own temporality and simply stop.”
-Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling3Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

After a decade in New York City I moved to Detroit. It was a change of pace. Temporality is an important element here; this is a city haunted by speed. When I first arrived in Detroit I sat for hours at the window of a deli in the Eastern Market drinking in the view of its farmers’ market sheds and parking lots, weather stained storefronts, speckles of cars and people on a weekday afternoon. Outside was a dusty palate, but not in a desert, Western kind of way. Rather, the flashback of sepia-toned 1970s film emerging across the face of the image, a patina of slow-moving seasons. My curious maneuver had brought me headlong into the arms of an urban scape that left its (historical) heart on its sleeve. Labor unions had all but vacated and dancers were few. I began a reflective movement considering my own artistic formation, my training, technique, and embodied discipline. In short, my many years spent upon dance’s own (factory) floor.

“I’m sorry. I don’t have a studio. I’m just a kitchen-table artist.”
-Felix Gonzales-Torres4Felix Gonzales-Torres quoted by David Reed, in The Studio Reader: On The Space of Artists, ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner (Chicago: …

This moment was also my entrance into the domestic. It included buying a house, not for the Detroit dream of $500 but close, for the price of a car. Slowly, precociously, my studio grew waywardly around me – piles of books line the walls, dog runs and late night disco and funk at the bar. Ambling vines grow up the glass dome walls of the brilliant flower conservatory on Belle Isle. I once walked in, felt the hum of the oxygen against my body and skin, and sealed the deal. It is a topic vision of what happens when one is left to one’s own devices. A system of extreme introversion, this is also a new type of labor. I started buying wigs. I wondered: Where does domesticity fit into a city populated by factory relics and the memories (and trauma) of modernity’s ferocity? Where does my studio practice fall within this economy? I rented a loft-like room in an old auto-body manufacturing plant after falling madly in love with a hulking theater-cum-parking garage downtown. The coupling seemed natural: dancing and driving (parking?). The romance momentarily fell apart so I tried another route. My studio became the 5th floor apartment of a Mies van der Rohe high rise. Sepia tones transition into elegant greige. The living room, as Benjamin says, “is a box in the theater of the world.” Walls of glass frame the room within which my well developed sense of placing my body on display wakes up each morning, less than groggy, to warm up with a cup of coffee.

“The exception is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a member and cannot be a member of the whole in which it is always already included.” 

-Agamben5Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 24-25.

I have always loved dancing an adagio, I don’t know why. I tell my students that its goal is to slow down time. Though sometimes at home there is a different kind of manic energy. Dancing it out means laughing, sobbing, fucking, cooking, talking, thinking, cleaning…spending time together. Drive around and you immediately see, the houses are resting and the trees are growing — a state of emergency? Detroit confronts me with the paradox of membership, where the relation between inside and outside, or strangeness and intimacy, is complicated. It shuffles the didactic potential of (a) work. Every year a new version of “the hustle” is born. At this point, I can dance four.

Marianne Brass and Biba Bell, The Bells, choreography Biba Bell, 2011.
Photo: Michelle Andonian. Image courtesy of the artist.

Curating a Collision 

Dancers Group, 7/1/08

“It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determine the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.” 

— Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics6Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rochill (London: Continuum, 2004).

What are the terms of art making? What are the terms of its presentation, performance and reception? What are the terms of space as a frame? What is at stake in the alteration or manipulation of any one of these components? The terms of in/visibility in the field of dance have interested me for some time now. Traversing through the roles of performer, dance-maker, scholar, curator and general beholder, I have been filled with experiences, concerns and questions surrounding the centrality of genre in the arts. And I can’t help but wonder what in fact are the terms of the definitions of these roles. Curatorial practice requires the organizing tendencies wherein artistic work is brought into multiple contexts and exposures. How does this also determine its potential scope of experience? What happens when a form begins to move outside of its familiar terrain? What happens when a dancer refuses to move, a musician to make sound, a painter to determine his/her stroke?

* * *

It seems that I’ve been contemplating the terms of collision for sometime: of dances, genres, bodies, descriptors, spaces, etc. Collision as an instance of simultaneous transmission or, more specifically in MCMF [Mission Creek Music Festival], a platform for performance which could bring forth alternate genres. A possible opening for dance to be brought into an expanded field by means of its interaction, encounter or impact within the structure of the larger music festival event.

My questions trace out the limits of curatorial process and are certainly not new — the traditions of the avant-garde offer representative answers — though these questions may (must?) still be asked by artists, curators, critics and even the average (if one could exist) audience member. The quote [in the epigraph above] from Jacques Rancière’s book The Politics of Aesthetics has continued to echo through my mind, exposing the effects of the curatorial process, which in itself harkens to another level of collision, often one that remains partially hidden. Rancière articulates the political front of art as industry which is perpetually intertwining with practices of social engagement and sensorial experience. Collision has been an opportunity for me to consider curatorial process and my own engagement with/in this role. For the curator moves as a liaison between performers and audiences, works and their effects, straddling interests, markets, trends and personal affinities. Rancière states the components that organize artistic work in its larger field of circulation and reception, and in this project I’ve focused on the term “collision” itself as an equally present characteristic in this process of delimitation. Collision operates as a metaphor and indicates the performative dimensions of aesthetic experience. This collision is one that acts as a nexus of circuits moving between dance, performance, relationality, community and experience.

The role of the curator varies in sway and substantiality depending on the field (visual, performing and media arts, music, etc.). His/hers may be a prominent position signifying the tastes of a particular institution/organization or be an artist creating a show of friend/colleague’s work. Though these decisions may reflect who does and who does not get funded, presented or produced, they often happen behind closed doors. The curator operates in a nexus point between art and access, expression and the languages which form to it, surround it or pass right on through. The curator molds, modulates or tempers flows of artistic work, culls at potentials for artistic movements, moments or trends. He/she places together disparate work and creates connections, frictions, dialogues or comparisons that must always be negotiated as a collision of sorts, undoing the autonomy of any one piece, idea, form or event. To consider such indeterminate measures is a significant responsibility of curatorial choice, one that does not simply entail degrees of similarity or difference, form or content.

Collision is a curatorial venture that may fray in its center or edges, through both disjunction and alignment, whose pieces extend past, yet are brought together in one particular site, on one particular weekend. Collision provides an exciting opportunity to explore the exchanges that might generate from its impacts and invite artists to engage with the space, time and contextual constraints differing from the norms of the proscenium. It deals with potentials which range within and beyond the discretion of singular works, and lets pieces synchronize or create friction in their processes of mutual contextualization. As the recognizable transgresses its discrete medium it collides with other forms, genres, and even bodies, in an escapade that expands its limits and opens up the preordained boundaries of the field. Interdisciplinary is an equanimous word that reconciles the aggressive potential of such a confrontational scheme, but how might one dwell within or observe the interstice prior to categorization? Is there a certain rawness to the force of a collision? What might dance look like if it doesn’t yet look like dance? These are all questions I returned to repeatedly while working to curate Collision.


Biba Bell, Royce, choreography: Biba Bell, MGM Grand, Detroit, 2009.
Photo by Garrett MacLean courtesy of the artist


Passages from Leanne Rae Wierzba, “MGM,” Under the Influence: The Detroit Issue, Fall/Winter 2009 – 2010

“…Garages are dirty, industrial feeling, smelly. It is uncomfortable to leave the studio for such a gnarly place, but the lure of dancing in the midst of the grit is very tempting – the oil slicks to the skin, hair mops up dust and debris, and its crevices hold arresting scents which momentarily eclipse choreographic recollection. Our bodies, breath, sweat, flesh and movement phrases visually contrast with the actions normally performed in this space.”

* * *

“As an artist I’m driven to dance in the world, so to speak – in contaminated spaces that are not roped off and are without marley floors. This can be problematic and risky, yet it is mandatory to test these borders. I worry that dance is inaccessible. It is not contributing to artist and cultural discourses as much as it could. For me the most inaccessible thing about contemporary dance is its adherence to and dependence upon the proscenium. And if I could suggest an attractive trajectory forward it would be its growth outside of the black box.”

* * *

“We are dancers who have had extensive training in classical ballet and contemporary techniques, and spent many years of our lives in the studio and theater. Our dancing has been sculpted and informed by what these environments physically permit. To tour a choreography that could easily be produced for the theater in such contrasting, distinct, and unconventional places was exciting in that it pushed us to engage with our bodies, the dance, the audience, and the site in a highly improvisational manner. We became alert to the dance’s fluctuating form and were really affected by the land and cityscapes through which we were traveling.”

* * *

“I have spoken to a number of people who liken Detroit to a type of frontier. I think they mean that that city represents a kind of possibility, a beginning, and while it is true in certain ways — the properties are cheap, the industry has virtually disappeared, the city is entirely under-populated — this city is filled, brimming with absence and history. It is not empty, blank or a tabula rasa by any means. Spatially and visually the city is very layered, and it evokes a similar phenomenon on the temporal dimension. The histories, memories and events that comprise this place are still echoing particular resonances, changing frequencies through time and its new developments. It feels like there are objects, bodies and stories buried all over this place, abandoned cars, boats, clothes, appliances, letters, photographs, work gloves, flowers and graffiti that exhaustively dust its surfaces….There is a quiet listening process that Detroit requires. Its monuments are constantly threatening invisibility.”



The Ladies, choreography: Maria Hassabi, New York City, 2012. Photo by Francis Coy courtesy of the artist

Slow Work: Dance’s temporal effect in the visual sphere
Performance Research Journal, 7/4/14

In the autumn of 2011 I began working with New York-based choreographer Maria Hassabi on The Ladies, a series of ‘appearances’ that involved pairs of dancers taking to the streets of Manhattan to perform two-hour long intervals of varied choreographic scores that included walking, pausing, posing, looking and being looked at. The six-week span of public performances took place unannounced after a limited rehearsal period in Hassabi’s home studio. An education of stillness and slowness, we were briefed in the rigorous labour of composure, using movement to not only locate ourselves in space but in time, producing an extended temporal plane upon which our dancing would occur. The project truly was, in the words of post-studio artist Carl Andre, a movement out onto the streets,7Cf. Barbara Rose, “Carl Andre,” 2013, www.interviewmagazine.com. Accessed 18 June 2013. where its temporal consistency dynamically inserted it against the grain of urban hustle. A range of reactions from passers-by ensued: disinterest and inattentiveness, curiosity and enjoyment, interjection and suspicion (especially during two excursions entering the galleries of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York that threatened with the risk of expulsion), mockery and ridicule and even one case of assault.

Citing the figure of painting, sculpture, cinema and fashion, Hassabi’s work morphs the pose, attenuated to its historiographic spectacle. Engaging duration, proximity and distance, the technical elements of lighting (its objects, illumination and heat), costume and the architectural context of the theater or gallery, her work asserts the action of posing as a demanding, choreographic pursuit. Referencing famous and affective poses, she has spent years grafting them on to her own and dancer Hristoula Harakas’s bodies, developing an intensive performance quality at a signature “glacially slow” pace that eclipses its confounding effort.8Cf. Claire Bishop, “Now you see it,” Artforum (September 2013): 319. Bodily endurance, without becoming “endurance art,” initiates a strategy that makes visible the “effort of formation,” intervening against the composure of its image.9Cf. Scott Lyall, program notes for Maria Hassabi’s Premiere, 2013, at The Kitchen, New York City, New York. The work can be approached with curiosity or restlessness, intrigue or anxiety, and it is up to the audience to decide. The question of why (pose) collapses into how, anticipating a formal pursuit that is, as Paul Virilio suggests, “a technical pursuit of time.”10Paul Virilio, The Aesthetic Disappearance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 24.

The Ladies was my entre into Hassabi’s process as a performer and participant. Through my own labour within its technical demands, I was able to garner a sense of the corporeal capacity of dance to intervene within temporal regimes, accumulate and inflect their flow, and produce its own sense of time. The over-arching task of her choreographic structures for this project could be as simple as travelling two avenue blocks when, after one and a half hours, I would realize that only one-quarter of the distance had been covered. Each step, gesture or glance was isolated, metabolized and extended. A quickening of bodily systems emerged – circulatory, respiratory, muscular, the hum of the nervous system – recalling John Cage’s observations regarding silence within the sensory deprivation chamber, or Steve Paxton’s attention to stillness complicated by a bodily persistence to shift and waver in The Small Dance, The Stand. The energy required to maintain intensive deceleration in the midst of New York City’s busy, populated streets exaggerated interior calibrations of creaking joints, aching legs, trembling muscles, adjustments in weight and breath and pulse, and the waxing and waning of focus. My body’s capacity to filter surrounding stimuli – roaring vehicles, random pedestrians, even the procession of an Occupy Wall Street march – afforded incremental complexity to the spare, yet exhausting, choreography. I exert effort in order to locate my body in the momentary lapse of each pose. Intervals are produced. Hassabi’s piece offered a prolonged meditation on what we as dancers do while amplifying the urgency of my own questions within current discussions pertaining to the popularity of dance within visual art spheres: what is the work of dance (as it expands or moves out or alongside its proper institutional contexts)? Does performance practice expand or contract temporality as a primary intervention within object-based economies and institutional structures? How may dance perform this labour? Deceleration, set in relation to performance’s economy of ephemerality, draws attention to contemporary dance’s relationship to labour, production and (im)materiality. It affords questions about how economies are articulated on and against what I would argue are dance’s primary, domestic temporalities, which are most notably expressed through its fleeting acts of disappearance and resistance to the archive. As dance navigates modernism’s disciplinary and spatial distributions (between studio and street, labour and leisure, visual and performing arts) this practice of stilling slowness invests the temporal as a site of corporeal labor while also implementing time as a mode of both critique and traversal.

The rhythms of dance’s labour can be illuminated by Jean-François Lyotard’s discussion of the domus and domestication of time. In a 1987 conference paper, Lyotard delivered a critique of Martin Heidegger’s “philosophy of the soil,”11Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 270. focusing on the politics of forgetting and exposing “the potential violence that underwrites the domesticated household.”12Lyotard, The Inhuman, 270. Lyotard, The Inhuman, 270. Titled “Domus and the Megalopolis,” Lyotard discusses the domus as a site of domestication. It controls space and time through custom, rhythms of birth and death and communities of work and is maintained as a “mode of space, time and body under the regime (of) nature.”13Lyotard, The Inhuman, 191-192. The common work is the domus itself, in other words the community. It is the work of a repeated domestication. Custom domesticates time, including the time of incidents and accidents, and also space, even the border regions. Memory is inscribed not only in narratives, but in gestures, in the body’s mannerisms. And the narratives are like gestures, related to gestures, places, proper names.14Lyotard, The Inhuman, 193.Representing “[c]ommon time, common sense, common place,” the domus houses the body’s gestures, habits and customs as a keystone of its foundation.15Lyotard, The Inhuman, 191. “Common work” exposes ways in which temporal qualities of speed, duration, and rhythm contribute to the affective architecture of the domestic that binds body and site and maintains it as a space of (re)production. As the sanction and nurturer of bodies, it demarcates the rhythms of these bodies as they rise and fall, wake and sleep and move through the world. This is a bucolic site, where the function of labour and its temporality is naturalized, intersected by the fact that such domesticity is also a sign of inherent violence. The domus territorializes through forces of domestication, figuring the self-perpetuated, embodied force of its social choreographies.16Cf. Hewitt, Social Choreography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

The questions that Hassabi’s work ignited, pertaining to assumptions of dance’s inherent temporality and the embodied labour of slowness, were made all the more urgent after an encounter with Studio Olafur Eliasson’s video piece, Movement Microscope, 2011. It was late November 2011, and I was setting a piece at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris for the opening of Danser Sa Vie, a large-scale exhibition tracing relationships between dance and visual art in predominately North American and European contexts during the twentieth- and into the twenty-first century. All week I had been rehearsing in the museum’s outdoor courtyard with a group of sixty dancers for The Endless Pace, 2009, a collaborative project with visual artist Davide Balula. The dance is designed as a clock, each dancer performing the actions of the second and minute hands, keeping, representing, and producing time. The conceptual overtones of the dance connect with a spectacle that is reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s abstraction and serialism. My challenge and desire from the clutches of modernity’s embodied legacies of efficiency, Taylorism, or assembly-line mechanics, where each movement might be reduced to a “mere marking of time.”17Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimer Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963). This success settled on facilitating a pleasurable spaciousness within the strict relentlessness of the tick-tock, which I felt was especially critical considering that the cast was comprised solely of volunteer performers. I wanted the dancers to enjoy the physicality of ma(r)king time…. 

‘How it Happened’ Revisited

Matthew Piper: Because so much of your work is staged “in the world,” outside of traditional venues, each piece is informed, elaborated upon, or, as you say, complicated by the particular place in which it is performed, as much as the places are enlivened and complicated by the dancing. The site of your apartment dance, a mid-century high rise apartment designed by Mies van der Rohe in Detroit’s Lafayette Park neighborhood, suggests a threefold significance: its domestic character, its modernism, its Detroit-specificity. Can you take some time to unpack how these qualities of the site intersect with your research interests and discuss how they situate the piece within your practice?


It Never Really Happened, choreography: Biba Bell, Detroit, 2015. Video still by Christine Hucal


Biba Bell: Yes, It Never Really Happened has been developing through a somewhat extensive research period. A few years ago I was very interested in potential parallels between the body of the dancer and the laborer through the lens of modernity and specifically industry. In this sense, there were ways that the choreographic processes of industrialized labor, exemplary to Detroit in particular, could also be thought through histories of dance and its aestheticization of the body, and the relationship between the individual and ensemble. One of the first go to’s for such an analogy might be the spectacular configurations, canons, and abstractions of the dancer in Busby Berkeley films. Dance scholar Mark Franko also discusses at length this relationship between modern dance and labor in the early part of the 20th Century, citing the New Deal-funded dance groups and the mechanized chorus line represented by the Tiller Girls.


As someone who works from the premise of space — as place, architecture, context, etc. — I was initially awed by the vast scale of Detroit’s factories and theaters. The assembly line project was in conversation with this. I mean, go to the Rouge Plant and walk the catwalk, there is a forced perspective that begins to emerge much like the conditions of theater, the lighting, the rhythms and sound, the movements of the beholder aligning with the progression of the moving floors and robots. The whole space begins to open up and the building itself participates in this choreographic world, contained within but at the same time energized by, its architecture.


On the other hand, my move to Detroit, and this is perhaps expressed in the “Notes on Dancing in Detroit” piece, really did mark a personal shift toward the domestic. After many years in New York City and San Francisco, I was involved in this desire to buy a home, plant a garden, and focus on domestic partnership. Within this context, I began to reconsider modernity from a purely industrial standpoint and wondered, what about the domestic sphere? What is the trajectory of the domestic within this context and how might it be mutually constructed (along with its embodied roles, affective economies, design aesthetics)? Beatriz Colomina writes at length about modernist architecture’s (and here we have Mies, the Eames couple, Le Corb, Johnson, even Bucky Fuller!) relationship to industrial and manufacturer economies but also its relationship to war. (In fact, It Never Really Happened was initially proposed to take place in Fuller’s Dymaxion Home in the Ford Museum.) The home as a “shockabsorber” antidote to atomic threat. We know Ford was involved in wartime ventures, and then, after all, Detroit is a city of homes.


In terms of the domestic, it is a space that cultivates the individual. It produces subjects as much as the public sphere. But it also is, within its modernism, highly gendered and the site of reproductive, affective economies. A kind of education takes place in the body, the psyche, the day to day rhythms of day and night, eating, sleeping, making love, etc. But this modernism, in an architectural sense, is also a space that (almost cinematically) frames the body — specifically, in the first iteration of my piece in the Mies apartment, the female body. This is also the dancer’s body, a figure at home in the theater of the world (to cite Walter Benjamin). I repeatedly return to the writings of Colomina throughout this process: “She controls the interior, yet she is trapped within it.”

It Never Really Happened, choreography: Biba Bell, Detroit, 2015. Photo by Christine Hucal

It Never Really Happened, choreography: Biba Bell, Detroit, 2015. Video still by Christine Hucal


For me, the domestic space is easily coupled with the space of the studio. I’ve written about the studio in the first issue of Detroit Research, in relationship to the conservatory on Belle Isle. I came up in classical ballet from a very young age and the growth and the development of my body and sense of self have been in relationship to a viewing public, positioned towards a gaze. In dance you often have a wall of mirrors in the studio as a reminder of the viewer, who not only resides as an absent yet incessant audience but also provides a second perspective for the dancer, trained to be simultaneously both in and outside of herself. This double perspective is a rigorous and particular training. It is about growing up with a highly particular relationship to the gaze. No wonder there are so many female dancers! When I first walked into the Mies apartment I was floored by the panoramic view (which includes both sunrise and sunset, Lafayette Park, Eastern Market and its steeples, and Ford Field) and, at the same time, its extreme level of exposure.


The apartment transposes the two spaces, the space of the home and the space of the studio or the stage, and that, ultimately, is one of the most beautiful things about it. The kind of modernism of it, the discussion or the discourse around that moment in architecture, where Le Corbusier becomes the vocalist in terms of his five tenets of architecture. Part of that is the home as “a machine for living,” the efficiency of movement, the modalities of pathways, of being able to get from point A to point B, that architecture (or dance) would necessarily include the seamlessness of point A to B. But that’s an old conversation, and we can have new conversations more along the lines of cross programming: Bernard Tschumi talking about a rotunda being turned into a swimming pool, for instance….


In Detroit, I think the pinnacle of such an example would be Henry Ford’s early workshop which was later the grounds upon which the Michigan Theatre was built, the largest theatre of its kind in 1925, and then all of its different incarnations, a music venue or the porn theatre, which was then being boxed up and turned into a parking garage! Oh my goodness, that’s quite a passage for a building and its function. And so that really interests me. And these movements, these transformations are also theatrical. The Corbusier notion of efficiency is a social construct, just as the notion that the theatre is a space to
perform things. Architecture is its own actor.


It’s a domesticated experience, of the senses, the bodies, the rhythms, all of that. I’ve discussed this phenomenon in relation to Jean-François Lyotard’s writing on the domus. The dancer’s relationship to choreography and technique often evolves through a highly developed experience of relentlessly repeating movements or processes. Complexities of the body are learned through the meticulous investigation of the body, its desires, possible pathways and trajectories. Dance erupts out of the familiarity of a habitual movement or routine—out of something practiced daily, like a walk through revolving door or the mounting of a flight of stairs. Dance disrupts the attention to the ordinary and brings it into the realm of the extraordinary.


The Mies apartment in Lafayette Park has been a great space to work in and to be in. It’s been a sanctuary for me. After years in New York, especially, where you spend so much time out on the street, and where people would say, “God, everybody’s living in these tiny places.” Not everybody does, but one of the things you realize when you go into someone’s apartment – which feels like a privilege because you’re almost always meeting out – you realize that it can be such a sanctuary. For me, that’s what this apartment ultimately is. And I think this would be testament to the success of this particular development, within Detroit and within this specific urban context. The park, the trees, rabbits, open sky – perhaps Detroit was able to truly manifest the utopic environment these modernists had hoped to dream up.

I’m happy to dance within this domestic environment, not to propagate an incessant bliss, but to really invest in the theatricality of these spaces.

MP: In “Slow Work,” you write that Maria Hassabi’s performances cite the “figure” that is more conventionally associated with painting, sculpture, cinema and fashion. I’m wondering if you can talk more about the idea of the figure in dance as distinct from the character or the movement-for-movement’s-sake abstraction. How did you incorporate the figure into your apartment dance? What or who is that figure? And how does it relate to your conception of the dancer/choreographer as visual artist?


BB: This notion of the female, domestic figure was very important for me in the development of It Never Really Happened. This figure is essential to modernism. This is the figure of a late 19th Century New Woman who integrates sport, fashion, and Taylorized efficiency into the domestic day to day. Colomina writes, “The house is installed before the site, not in the site. The house is a frame for a view. The window is a gigantic screen. But then the view enters the house, it is literally ‘inscribed’ in the lease.” I feel like there is a similar predicament at play with the figure. This is a figure that, as you mentioned, populates visual art, painting, fashion, etc. The apartment operates as a theatrical frame, and I feel it when I am in it. It is discursive. And, ultimately, my dancing figure is in conversation with these forms or disciplines. But this is also the figure of modern dance, who is also fervently invested in the aesthetics of modernism. She can be Martha [Graham], her dramatically stretched lengths of dark jersey, or maybe Isadora [Duncan], billowing and exalted, or Trisha [Brown], supple and fluid. This female figure is mapped throughout Detroit too…. I think of Diana [Ross], Aretha [Franklin], Grace Lee [Boggs]. These are not women who stayed at home. This is the figure as artist, a singular force, expressive and illuminating, within a culture of the many. The dancer might curiously stand in as a site exemplar who dances between the individual and the ensemble, disciplined and fine-tuned yet challenging and untamed. She is at home in the house, this is her house (“of the pelvic truth,” if we continue to work the Martha reference) yet she also pushes against its walls, cries from its balconies, frolics across its living room floors. Many years ago I made a piece that sourced from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, 1999, the argument scene between Tom and Nicole, when they’re in their underwear smoking a joint and Nicole confesses her desire for another man. For me, dance complicates assumptions of fidelity. It is always already escaping its house, theater, disciplinary regime, archive, etc. Dancing is perpetually engaged in an act of stepping out.


Back to the figure…within the apartment, Mies’ architecture produces the panoramic landscape as a picture, through the frame of the windows. I reference this possibility in the final section of It Never Really Happened, when I slowly walk around the perimeter of the room while tracing the horizon across its sweat-covered/steamy windows. The open, panoramic view has become opaque, and through this gesture the landscape transforms from the pictorial into the sculptural. I’m interested in how the figure is produced through a coalescence of body and architectural interface; this figure who is also already inflected by the gaze (art historical and theatrical).

MP: I’d like to talk about the cocktail party element of the performance. Your invitation clearly instructs the audience to be on time, but upon arriving, there are forty-five minutes or so of, you could say, no performance. The hostess [played by Nicola Kuperus] is making drinks, guests are chatting, and suddenly, for a while, it’s just a party and the dance performance recedes – you could almost forget that it’s going to happen. Later, I found myself reflecting on what an integral part of the performance the cocktail party was, and then considering the kind of domestic performativity that such an occasion gives rise to (I’m thinking, now, of the “affective architecture” of domesticity that you bring up in “Slow Work.”) There’s a lot to talk about here, but I’m wondering if you could start by relating the cocktail party to your earlier work with MGM Grand (I remember, for instance, in Royce, that the dance was briefly interrupted by an offering of potato chips and beer), and then discuss its role in the piece. What work is it performing?


BB: The social element was integral to MGM (Modern Garage Movement) and the tours. The development of MGM was very much about touring, leaving NYC, which has been widely considered the center for dance or performance in this country, and venturing our work into other places. We would perform anywhere, anytime. But also, when working in theaters specifically, we would try to make the theater experience explicit and slightly odd. This is hard to do. Everything has been done in the theater; everything has been accounted for. We would try to work with what was there, to really be inside of it. For the premiere of NUT at The Kitchen, a piece that we also performed at the MOCAD in Detroit, we focused on small interventions: talking to the audience in the lobby before the show, leaving our costume changes and bags of warm-up clothes in the aisles so everyone had to pass by and see this stuff, bringing people up on the stage for an “intermission” (where they, again, could eat Better Made chips and drink beer), and climbing over the risers and audience in pointe shoes. But the flux that we are used to encountering when dancing in more unconventional dance environments is an exciting element that we don’t think of as outside of the work, it is a part of it, and the theater makes this flux much more difficult to locate; maybe it is more micro. The space doesn’t shake us around, maybe it vibrates (especially with all the electricity of the lights), but it’s hard to feel it sometimes. The walls get hard, the floor feels stable, and the audience likes to settle into the familiarity of the space and the spectacle. They know how to be a good audience.


But MGM was always more interested in a venue that has no backstage; we’re just there. So, ultimately, it’s an event that people are gathering for that we can turn into an evening. Even for the first few tours, a big part of our show was having a speech that would introduce the event, to signify the performance was beginning and shift the context from the party or the gathering. “Hi, we’re MGM, this is what we’re doing, this is how many performances we’ve done, this is where we’ve been, now go over there,” that sort of thing. We always folded an audience directive within the structure of the work. As dancers, we also wanted to be guides.


Within the context of It Never Really Happened, the cocktail party is crucial. For some reason dance performances are quite punctual; it’s a different urgency or sense of beginning than music shows or art openings, where there is always this idea that things might start late or you can come or go or whatever. I really wanted to alleviate the audience of this sense of expectation, but I also wanted to accommodate folks that are not used to being punctual for dance-specific events. I wanted there to be a way that the public almost forgot why they were gathered, that they became immersed in the cocktail party dimension – talking and drinking, enjoying the view, allowing their day to recede, opening up into the groove of the evening. I wanted them to begin to feel at home in someone’s home. Easy and open. Once people began to relax and talk to each other, then the dance would begin unannounced. Everyone had a different sense of this “beginning.”


This was Nicola’s role in the apartment piece, to help the audience, to guide them into the space, to make them feel comfortable, sit them down, organize them, help them feel that they’re in the right place. And, whether the audience who showed up had any relation to dance or not, Nicola (as a recognized, established member of Detroit’s art and music communities) is already slightly familiar. Whether she was a friend or not, she is her own iconic figure and offers the public a mode of reference. Without a huge amount of experimental dance work here, it is so necessary to offer a way into the work. It’s not a conventional performance situation. This was something that I really came to believe with MGM… we very much wanted the audience to feel that they were appreciated and involved. We immediately wanted to be gracious hosts; we wanted them to feel at home.


A Sketch of It Never Really Happened
(Part One)

Matthew Piper, Infinite Mile, No. 16, April 2015

Upon arriving to the fifth floor corner apartment, audience members are greeted warmly by the hostess, who welcomes us, takes our coats and immediately gets to work making cocktails in the galley kitchen. We enter, chatting with the hostess or getting our bearings in the living room, which has two window walls (facing north and east) and two interior walls lined with benches. Underneath the benches on the south wall are stacks and stacks of books. There is a small, hemispherical fire pit atop the heating & cooling box at the north window wall, flames flickering inside, and near it, a single black Wassily chair. Along the east window wall are speakers and a small stereo, as well as a collection of seashells on the short ledge.

We chat, drink, take our seats and enjoy the view for half an hour or forty-five minutes as more guests arrive: getting to know each other or catching up, talking about the performance or other things. The hostess enters the living room and turns on the stereo: the music alternates between sly and creeping, driving and portentous, and it mostly quiets the room.

In sneaks Biba, in fragments, a hand on the wall that divides the living room from the kitchen, turns her head in a long arc as she gazes out the windows. She’s wearing a grey, mushroom-cut wig and a stretchy, mocha colored tube dress.

The sun is setting and the light is reddening. The movement is slow, graceful, architectural. She approaches a column in the corner of the room and arches her body against it, making a curve to a straight line. The music is tender and slow; three tones descend and repeat against a soundscape backdrop. Now the movement is floor-bound: she expands (makes lines, planes) and contracts (makes a ball); she binds, contorts, and slow-motion flips. On her knees, torso perpendicular to the floor, arms erect, she makes a kind of Tetris shape, all planes, and then slaps her hands hard against the floor. Frantic rubbing of the carpet, faster, making circles, then she’s on her knees, ascending as her breath quickens. She makes more lines, planes, this time upright, only again to descend, lying in unlikely repose on the corner of the east wall’s heating & cooling box.

Rising again, she stays in place, crouching and making circles with her arms (her bones and the bones of the building both creak), leading to virtuosa moments of leaping, pirouetting velocity as the music quickens. But when it turns unsettling, disturbing, a slow splits returns her to the floor, then a sense of collapse, of horror, and when she stands again she makes a sobbing gesture, hands over face, which becomes a rapid nasal breath, a panic, as she stalks through the room. Then a 1960s pop song starts and everything breaks.

She flees; the sound of water being turned on, left gushing in the bath. She and the hostess wheel in a fern and turn on a stage light that illuminates the fern, the ceiling, the north wall. There is no music as Biba seems to move the hostess about the room by dancing around her, close. The water keeps running and the windows fog as the hostess is led to the heating & cooling box, upon which she sits, staring at the floor. Biba, manic, rhythmic, traverses the length of the kitchen while the hostess sits, stares, sighs. Rolling piano music as Biba enters the living room again, serene, and begins the final gesture: a long, slow tracing along the room’s four walls with her fingers: stepping carefully, coming very close to us, arm outstretched, making lines in wide, steamy windows and just above our heads.