Dean Seal and Philip Bither: A Conversation About Performance and Spirit

Dean Seal, founder of a number of avant garde theatrical traditions in this city,speaks to Philip Bither, the remarkable curator of performing arts at the Walker Art Center.

philip Bither
Dean Seal

Seal: Our conversation started with a comment of yours, as I remember it, about talent from outside the United States, talking about how their spirituality was a big resource of inspiration and influence. And now your artists, American artists, are talking about politicizing their work more, if they can.

Bither: That’s right.

Seal: And I see them as tied together in terms of content issues, because I think in the past there’s been a lot of focus on form (which I haven’t been that interested in – it’s kind of nice, but why should I have to go through this?). If you’re going to put on a show that’s a categorical imperative, I want meaning.

The Spiritual Fringe its first year had nine shows, and a couple of them were bombs — but the good ones were really good. One of them was a Jewish show – four Jews talking about Israel from completely different viewpoints – like the Buddhist/Liberal/Jewish secular view, and the Settlement view – saying, “This was the land God gave us,” and the liberal points in between.

Bither: Just out of curiosity, was that one more about geo-politics than about spirituality? Did it come from a Jewish point of view…

Seal: Wholly in that. “This thing here comes out of our tradition, Oh, but this comes out of the Bible.      But this comes out of our statehood and our nationhood. And this comes out of our effort to make a democracy” All these clashing viewpoints…it’s like a what Jack Rueler (at Mixed Blood) talks about, “It’s not one person proving another person wrong, it’s about both sides are right; now what do you do?     That’s what makes for a very interesting drama.
     So, anyway, I just saw this great resource of inspiration coming out of traditional and non-traditional approaches to spirituality, which sounded like what you were talking about.

Bither: You know, our mission statement at the Walker has been rewritten around having much more of a global orientation. There was a particular year at the end of a four-year series called “How Latitudes Become Forms: Behind the Global Age.” That was the concluding exhibition, but for four years the Bush Foundation supported us getting to some parts of the world that we normally would not get to, and meeting artists, inviting them here, and doing a spectrum of programs. And I noticed during those years that contemporary artists coming from outside the U.S. seem to have much less difficulty in addressing issues of spirituality, or making spirituality in art in a way that wasn’t fearful– they weren’t anxious about the fact of how their work would be read; they were embracing the questions of spirituality in a very experimental sort of performance context.
    At the same moment we had artists like Liz Larriman and Ralph Lamanieven, who were very specifically and consciously talking about their spiritual practice, in the context of the making of “Indecencies: Dance Theater Works.“ And I was just thinking about it this morning – perhaps there is [in the contemporary art world] more readiness; or sort of acceptance, ironically enough, of spiritual questions and issues, when they exist outside of Judeo-Christian, or maybe just Christian, frameworks. Artists are talking about questions of spirituality from a non-Western point of view; perhaps there’s much more openness, on the part of theater audiences or programmers, to be curious and embrace those questions. Maybe there’s less concern in terms of creative freedom. Religious practice, sometimes, implies constriction in creativity and art.

Seal: Especially Chris Gamadie, where the headlines are about the repression, and not about the benefits of openness…

Bither: And increasingly I see these questions around Muslim practice, and real interest on the part of funders and programmers and others to really try to explore what are the broader questions in the Muslim world and the Islamic world, I think there is concern around the narrowing – I guess you can find parallels in Christian practice; there are questions as well…The narrowing of the perception of those religious practices into a very narrow, fundamental sort of perspective of what those religions stand for.

Seal: Fundamentalism is a problem in every religion. Hindu people burning Muslims on their trains, for example, and Jews, Muslims, Christians—and, from what I’ve read, that’s a reaction against modernity – they’re going back into a fundamentalist viewpoint of belief; because it is simpler and easier to understand in the context of a world that’s more complex and impossible to understand.

Bither: And there’s been a lot of discussion in the press about the politicism (of religion) and moderate Muslims, attempting to re-balance the discussion in some way. But I do think that there is a generation of American artists – these are, again, the realm that I work in, experimental and contemporary artists – who are coming of age in a time when they feel they want to explore those questions, regardless of the perceived restrictions some think that might place on them. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve reached their 40s and 50s, or that they have children, or that they’re wondering about how their creative practice relates to their spirituality, or spirituality in general.

Seal: Or they know somebody who’s died. Or they think about that for the first time. In our extended adolescence, with a longer lifespan, we don’t really have to encounter that in our 20s and 30s, like people used to.

Bither: Certainly, you think of an artist like Bill T. Jones – he spent his whole life grappling with the friction that exists between his very faith-based Baptist, African-American upbringing, that he draws a lot of power from, and his own life as a gay man, involved in a very life-changing relationship with a Jewish, white guy, and the kind of homophobia that they experienced, both in the black community and the culture at large. He’s had an incredible relationship with his mother, who was very much about an old-school, Baptist religion. Then the loss of his partner through HIV/AIDS…he’s always exploring these questions about where does this power in his life come from, and he’s gone from questioning — on-stage, real-time – religious leaders, about how can they find/justify religions that say anyone who’s homosexual is going to go to Hell, and a sense of compassion – those are some of the most electric moments I’ve ever experienced in a theater.
    When there’s a whole life in this performance…it’s huge, this theatrical dance work stops, and this minister comes out; or a person of faith, and Bill T. Jones sits and says, “Let me ask you this; how can we…” and he was truly trying to get at these questions.

Seal: That’s an issue in every denomination. There’s going to be a huge fracture. Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Catholics – are all struggling with gay ministry. I’m in a church that’s in favor of gay ministry; studied it and made a huge case on it, and they say Jesus never talked about homosexuality.
    My big inspiration is Dr. King, and his work of taking that spirituality and saying, “Let’s live up to our highest standards, as Christians and as Americans. Let’s read the Constitution and apply it!”
    Dr. King never talked about women in the ministry; he never talked about homosexuality. But it’s about reconciliation with outsiders…that’s what Jesus’ ministry was about.
    So that’s a huge, spiritual belief. It’s a move into a spiritual realm of practice that almost everybody I know is uncomfortable with: “You mean…make friends with my enemies? Love the racist? The homophobe?” So, the work that I’m interested in is the stuff that challenges us; pushing us past our comfort level, not in terms of winning or losing and who’s the bad guy. Because if people on the left sound as unfriendly as Pat Robertson, we’re no improvement on Pat Robertson.
    And that brings us back into the politics aspect.

Bither: Well, I also think that in our contemporary time, there’s one last note on it. I think that the role that artists play, especially at this moment in time, is to offer people a sense of what creative freedom is; that art can somehow – not just instill community and instill inspiration, but also can be a form of democracy, in life. And you read about, (in my world) of modernism and post-modernism and experimental art; people coming here because they were so inspired by the freedom that American artists show. My daughter just did a project for her history day on Peter Schumann and the puppet theater. In part because for ten years, she’s heard me talk about how he’s one of my heroes, and he says artists today will connect political beliefs and incredibly beautiful, spectacularly moving artwork into a practice, and not make one or the other subservient (or in deference) to the other.

    When Pete was in Germany, he saw Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and I don’t think of Cunningham and Cage and Schumann necessarily sharing the same universe at all, but Cunningham’s and Cage’s radical freedom made him think, “I’ve got to go to America. If they can allow that to happen, and just break the boundaries and the structures that exist of ‘What is Western music? What is dance supposed to be?’ I’ve got to be there.” And he found his own complete voice here.
    But I guess part of what we hope – in our most idealistic moments – is that the kind of work the Walker shows will inspire another generation – or anyone – “Wow, who thought of that?” — and what kind of freedom does that represent? And what can that mean in my life? What can that do for me? How can I exercise that same kind of freedom? Not to be so patriotic, but, as an American, as a country that allows people to express themselves in sometimes radical, provocative ways…how can that be an inspiration?

Seal: That’s what I like about your Joe Chvala show (Fire and Ice, Flying Foot Forum); he had the freedom to be a modern, crazy, choreographer-on-acid, but stick into it the resources of thousand-year-old mythology and sculptural visuals, and throw Ruth MacEnzie’s ancient singing into it, and you’ve got a very special and powerful means to communicate.
    And then meld it with a band – so all the freedom was there from the go, wherever he wanted to take it. And he was like, nailing it down here and exploding it over there.

Bither: And that balance is really great.

Seal: It was really cool. So that’s what, in my little world, that’s what I hope more people see as a resource, it’s not necessarily a Christian spirituality, but the root of your own spirituality. Theater connected it to me.
    One of great cultural flaws of European-Americans is that we try to sever our relationship with the old country when we come over to America. African Americans feel a great deal of emotional connection with the old country in ways that we Euro-Americans have gotten rid of. So to connect with pre-Christian mythology – I think that’s a fabulous way to go, to reclaim that.

Bither: You can also argue about other, non-European communities have attempted in some way to stay connected.

Seal: You mean like the refugee communities who come over intact – and preserve that culture. They Americanize – like they go sing karaoke –what they do for a party, but they still practice traditional stuff.

Bither: And you know, some Asian communities,like the Indian expatriate communities, into the second and third generation – there is still incredibly effective mechanisms of culture, like the Indian Music Association, that brings great Indian musicians, and is connected to these fabulous musical forms. We present Brazilian music; Afro-Brazilian – generations will come out within a 300-mile radius to see Katan Belloso. There’s still a real relationship there.

Seal: My experience with Ragamala, and Aparna Ramaswamy going back to India to study, and being more traditional than her mom Ranee who came here for that expressive freedom; And to see that tension pulls both of them in both directions really works, especially when they do something together.

Bither: They were drawing on myths – the Ramayana, which is one of the central texts to Hindu religion. It’s centuries old, and it’s like Bible stories in many ways – To us, they seem rather exotic…about monkey kings, and bringing the bride over the channel, and someone absconding with someone’s wife…but they’re all imbedded with values. The Ramayana story exists in all Hindu cultures, and so what Ranee wanted to do, and what I saw as fascinating, was she took a trip to Indonesia and saw the incredible, ritualistic, Balinese Monkey Chant – which is done as part of the telling; in an Indonesian, in a Balinese way – stories from the Ramayana, which she tells through Bharatanatyam dance.
    So she saw her own stories being told in a completely radical, different kind of wild way – true to the Indonesian approach to Hindu cultural expression. And so she wanted to marry those two; to have the Bharatanatyam approach to telling stories of the Ramayana, married with the Indonesian approach, and then combining the American, Minnesotan artists into those – learning the Monkey Chant as well. We got 30 Minnesotan men to participate, and learn the very complex, poly-rhythmic vocal tradition of that style of music, and then perform it together, and hopefully reveal – not only give people who live here of Indian descent, and other Hindu descent – to chance to celebrate their own, rich heritage, but also to open up those stories for a lot of Minnesotans who may not know anything about the Ramayana.

Seal: I wonder if that’s ever been done in either India or Indonesia.

Bither: It had only been done once – there was a big production out in L.A., as part of the L.A. Festival in the 80s, when Peter Sellers was running that festival – also attempting to marry those traditions of Indonesian and Hindu traditions. But Ranee is trying to get this down in Indonesia, I’m sure there must have been performances of Indian artists, without any Western producers trying to make it out as a way to work together.

Seal: In terms of a show or two that you have done here at the Walker, does any of that stuff jump out at you?

Bither: So many artists I talk to talk about music coming from somewhere else, and the spiritual relationship with music, and the number of jazz musicians who’ve said, “Hey, It’s not me – I’m just the vehicle; I’m channeling something that’s coming from someplace else.”

Seal: Mingus would always talk about getting ‘way above – watching himself play. He said every show’s an out-of-body experience, he could just watch himself.

Bither: Musicians who are very much in the avant garde – you don’t think, you might be surprised that – they’re speaking in a very similar way to…say, a Gospel tradition – “This is about a greater being, and I am just a channel. I go someplace else, and something takes – not quite takes over”; even an artist as hard-edged and cynical at certain times as John Zorn – the other night…here is a guy who’s always been considered the epitome of rejection of what we think of religious practice or spirituality – he started the whole, radical Jewish art movement in the downtown New York scene when he turned 40 – and decided there’s something about being a Jew, and about those stories, and about that history that – his father died – it made him want to go back and explore; suddenly – then he and all the Jewish musicians were part of the avant garde, downtown music scene. They started looking at Jewish music in a whole range of styles, not just Klezmer – but different kinds of Jewish cultural expression, and turning it on its head. Now Zorn has made a Masada songbook, he is intent on doing 613 songs – that’s a number that comes from the Jewish religious tradition; 613 statements come out of this traditional Jewish text. He’s done two cycles of them, and a lot of them are beautiful, spiritual melodies.
    He was in an interview; I interviewed him on the stage the other night, and I happened to say (I pushed it a little too far), and he too said, “Once I get going, man, it’s not me! It’s coming from someplace else.” And I said, “John, it’s surprising to hear you say…so many jazz artists from other traditions have said about channeling from a greater thing, and he said, “Oohh, don’t take it that far.” He didn’t want to put too much into a kind of new age realm. He’s a prime example of somebody who has taken their own cultural and spiritual heritage, and made it modern – and drawing from the power of it – but doing it for the 21st century.

Seal: That is ringing a bell, because the thing in theology is, you go into the tradition, and you say, “OK – What’s valuable about it now?” And it’s in your practice, it’s in your service, but it’s also in the tradition to teaching your kid. I don’t have all day; I don’t have my kid’s attention that long – what can I give him that is valuable about this tradition? People think of religion as frozen in time…and they try to keep it there, and they will fail; because the world changes around them– and the more they try to keep it from changing, the less chance you have of making it meaningful.

Bither: Undoubtedly, Bill’s piece – many people think of it as one of his best works in a decade. This is all about fundamentalism, and how do we do live in a world where he talks about the corroding influence of the absolute, but again – as an artist growing up in a Southern Baptist family. I think he is exploring the questions of militarism and empire building that we have in our country, the triumph of fundamentalism. I haven’t seen the work live yet. But it’s been getting fantastic reviews everywhere.

Seal: We have artists drawing from the home country tradition. Any other shows come to mind?

Bither: You know, the group Benarawin, that comes from Somalia; their music is from electric guitars with very traditional, Somalian music, they performed in the refugee camps after the civil wars. No matter how radical they are they still an expression of the human spirit. You can’t ignore the fact that there’s a spiritual component – even the artist knows. It’s a spiritual experience, in a very abstract way.

Seal: Native American spirituality, a lot got left by the side of the road in their Diaspora, they’ve been clobbered here – and they’re re-discovering stuff. But that doesn’t mean that means something to the next generation. They have to discover their own thing. And this notion that we can take something that your father gave you, and hand it to your son intact, is a desperate misconception.

Bither: But don’t you find a lot of people in my church [Unitarian] struggle – I think it’s a very healthy struggle, but there’s always been a struggle – with being an open-minded and fluid church – and the people’s need to have absolutes?

Seal: The Unitarians are in a very special place. They are absolutely open-minded, and they are always learning. But the problem with their system is that they have trouble passing that on to the next generation, People come to the Unitarian Church as adults. It’s hard to hang your hat on a peg, when there’s no peg in the wall.

Bither: The peg can be confused potentially with societal values – we are an open congregation and we believe in full acceptance in an embrace of diversity. But I think some people can get that from political work, or working on democracy issues. You don’t have to go to church.

Seal: Religion comes from the word, “to come together.” So that’s where you bring your spirituality into the company of other people, and decide that you’re going to do stuff together as a ceremony, or whatever. The distinction about being spiritual without being religious, is to me a very valid distinction. You can have that spirituality all by yourself – but when you start to bring it together and bring it into conversation with other people, you have to have some idea of what that conversation is about. My church is Presbyterian – and that centers on a Jesus tradition, but it’s very much an ecumenical experience with outreach for the Jews, Hindus, Catholics, and everybody else – it’s “What can we work on together?”

    Now, for me, I just need some focus. I’m not smart enough to be a Unitarian; that’s just too wide open. So I come to a Jesus tradition through Dr. King – which is: Love Your Enemy. That sounds impossible, but he did; and he changed the way business is done in this country, and he did it by applying this Judeo-Christian tradition of morality in our context of reality. And that to me means you’re still open to learning from every other (wisdom) tradition that’s out there.
    So it’s away from the exclusive, absolute viewpoint of the Christian practice that my father grew up with. But that doesn’t work anymore. We know more; we’re exposed to more. We’re not so fearful of other ways of thinking.