INTERVIEW WITH CYNTHIA OLIVER

This coming fall, the Bride will be presenting dancer/choreographer Cynthia Oliver’s Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso, October 8-10, 2009. The Bride is proud to be hosting the world premiere of Oliver’s evening-length multidisciplinary dance theater project exploring the nature of calypso dancing as an agent of Afro-Anglo Caribbean identity across geographical, national, and aesthetic borders. The Bride is also the lead commissioner of this new dynamic work. In addition to three performances, Cynthia and her dancers will be at the Bride for two weeks prior to their performances participating in a wide array of residency and outreach activities to engage our constituencies in their creative process and to tap into the region’s diverse immigrant communities.

Cynthia Oliver creates performance collages that move from dance to word to sound and back again toward a postmodern nouveau dance theatre. A Bronx born, Virgin Island reared performer, she incorporates the textures of Caribbean performance with African, and American, aesthetic sensibilities. Cynthia’s also no stranger to the Bride and we recently reached out to her to get some insight regarding her creative process as she prepares to debut her newest creation.

What's the story of Rigidigidim?
I have been interested in Caribbean people across the diaspora. How they retain notions of home, make their home and connect with other Caribbeans in locations far from the islands of their "belonging." I noticed that we have signals for one another (as many national/ cultural groups do) and one of the main signals or practices is a love for calypso or soca music. It is a means by which we identify one another, celebrate our cultures, and find communion. I wanted to make a creative (in my case a dance theatre) work about this phenomenon.

While calypso music is the signifier of Caribbean identity to many across the globe it is also a practice that is vital on our respective islands, one that betrays one's class and social differences, one's sexual prowess, one's history and relation to your island and the region. Calypso tells the story of the Caribbean with its melding of African, European and multiple other influences. It is steeped in resistance and speaking back to empire or power. It is an important music for the people and I wanted to address many of those concerns while making a piece that folks could ponder, laugh and find relief in.

How long have you been working on this piece and what inspired you to develop Rigidigidim?
I have been in the studio off and on for a year and a half but the makings of the work began about four years ago when I started writing about it and looking for financial support to make the work. Growing up around calypso in the Caribbean was my initial inspiration.
Chatting regularly with family and friends about carnival and the way people would "go on" (behave) during carnival is what eventually inspired me to move forward with creating this work.

What's your choreographic process and have you remained true to this process in the creation of Rigidigidim?
My process is multi layered. Something inspires me. I think in this case, I heard a call to celebrate when I was at home (in St. Croix) one year. The call was so rhythmic (the "RIgidigidim!") it made me really happy. Along with observations and memories about my own experience with calypso I thought that I needed to make a work about it. One that betrayed more than the "jump up" nature of the music but offered something about the complexities of the people and their daily and historical negotiations. I often write first. In this case I wrote some material then I traveled and interviewed Caribbeans in London and Toronto, then came back and was further inspired to write. Then I move into the studio and improvised both with and without music. We then began to lay down a foundation of movement and text material and collectively discuss, alter, shape and contribute to what was being built.

I work collaboratively with the performers, with my creative team (most often musicians but this time a filmmaker as well) and keep layering until I get the desire effect - a complex work that can be enjoyed on multiple levels whether or not you are familiar with the material at hand.

Who are your collaborators for this project?

The performers are certainly collaborators on this. When I initially sent out a call to artists (I am an independent artist and cast each project according to its subject matter and aesthetic needs), I required that the performers be Caribbean. I needed that so that there would not have to be any kind of translation. I needed folks who understood this material and what I wanted from the inside out, who knew calypso and its complications, who could perform it and bring their own stories to the work. These six women are incredible and do just that. They are from the Bahamas, Liverpool (via St. Lucia), Toronto (via Jamaica and Trinidad), St. Croix, and New York (viaTrinidad): A'Keitha Carey, Ithalia Forel, Lisa Green, Nehassaiu DeGannes, Caryn Hodge, Rosamond King.

My sound designer/composer is Jason Finkelman. Jason and I have worked together for the past 18 years. Jason is a native Philadelphian. And his particular style of music and composition is sensitive to the work that I create and changes with the needs of each of my works. He has a keen ear and always creates sound design and music that sets a tone and supports the action in the space. In this piece he has a particular challenge of also dealing with recorded music. I think his innate sensitivity and ear allows him to use his other sound designs and composition in a complimentary way. His work is seamless.

My filmmaker/video-artist is Marcus Behrens. We met five years ago when he approached me about making a film of one of my stage performances for film to be screened on European arts channel Canal Arte. We enjoyed working together on that and when he heard about this new project he wanted to be a part of it. He has a great eye and his work beautiful.

My lighting designer is Amanda Ringger. Mandy is also from St. Croix and I knew she would have a calypso sensibility that I would not have to describe or translate in my desire to have a particular visual aesthetic to the work. We met in 2006 at Aaron Davis Hall when she created lights for me on my last show called "Closer Than Skin." She so impressed me with her abilities then and after discovering she was a "homie" I wanted to work with her on this. I am very excited about it.

What are some of the residency activities you're looking forward to bringing to Philadelphia and the Bride's audiences?
We look forward to sharing any one or two of the following: a spoken word/movement workshop with adults that can summon their stories and inspire movement; a "carib funk" dance class; and a creative Caribbean movement for children workshop. We also would welcome folks to an open rehearsal while we are in residence.

Can you share some of your thoughts about your history with the Bride?
The Bride is an important institution personally for me because it is where I met my husband and creative partner Jason Finkelman. I was here in 1991 with the Urban Bush Women (I was their company manager at the time - don't ask. Long story) and we were at the end of a year long tour. Jason was the box office manager at the time and since I had seen the show UBW was performing for the umpteenth time I stayed outside and chatted with him. I had no designs on him. We were just chatting. Or so I thought. Then he asked me out and from our first date at Olde (sp?) City Coffee, we have been together ever since. So I have family here and many friends that I love who have relocated here form New York (where I lived for 18 years). Even my college roommate is a Philadelphian. So the town means a lot to me. But also the Bride itself and its commitment to art and artists has been important on my map of this country. You all do very important work in that regard and are a jewel for the city. We were supposed to come here with another piece of mine in 2000, but when funding fell through it didn't happen. I am glad that we are finally coming now. And I think this piece is a nice introduction of my work to this area. I am looking forward to it.

This presentation of Cynthia Oliver Co. Dance Theatre (COCo) was made possible in part by the MetLife Community Connections Fund of the National Dance Project, a program administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts. Major support for the National Dance Project is also provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with additional support from the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. COCo is funded in part by the National Performance Network (NPN) Creation Fund, co-commissioned by the Painted Bride Arts Center in partnership with the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, the Dance Place, Danspace Project, and Bates Dance Festival. COCo is also funded by the following: the Multi-Arts Production Fund - a program of Creative Capital, which is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation; The Edwards Foundation Arts Fund; and the Dance Department at University of Illinois, The University of Illinois Research and Creative Research Boards. This tour of COCo is made possible by a grant from Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts Regional Touring Program. Additional tour support was received from the National Dance Project of the New England Foundation for the Arts.