Kaia Gilje, Lorene Bouboushian, Photo by Laura Bartczak

{“BRACKETING OUT” - a term created by Esther Neff; see below: paragraph 9}

Lorene Bouboushian is one of the most engaging, raging, and wild artists in Brooklyn and NYC pushing the limits of the cross-breeding genre of dance and performance art. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that her group performances with Kaia Gilje, Paige Fredlund, and more recently Valerie Kuehne, are completely improvised because they are every second so visceral, original, and fascinating. For a recent show, transferpoint, this past October at Outpost in Ridgewood, NY with Lorene, Kaia, and Valerie performing together, the only preparation for the show was to tell each other in a meeting what they wanted to do during the performance. This included Lorene’s gaping mouth near a microphone with Nerds candies loudly popping and fizzing in her mouth, Kaia violently and vigorously scratching her teeth with a lollipop, and Valerie grabbing her car keys and getting audience members to come on a car ride with her, which they all did, plus many more unexpected and humorous actions, with dynamic timing and raw awareness of each other and the audience.


Unlike most of Lorene’s works, this performance was not rehearsed – closer to the paradigm of how most performance art is prepared. Though the show was endlessly percolating and alive, it was hard to believe for some that it wasn’t rehearsed because the coordination, flow, and spacing of all three people and their actions were so somehow balanced and in-tune. Instead of a series of dance steps, there was a series of actions. The performance situation protocol, of audience watching performers in the same room, is often broken in Lorene’s performances, and it happened that night too. Audience members are lured outside for a night-time drive, Kaia will rollerblade away and be gone for 30 minutes, and most recently on December 13th at Panoply Performance Laboratory with Lorene, Kaia, and Valerie again, each person’s actions took place simultaneously and very distractedly in various places of the surrounding architecture on a neighboring staircase, in a basement, and outside on the street beyond where one could see anymore.


Absurdity and unpredictability is the first layer of many multi-faceted layers to expect from Lorene’s performances. She lives in both worlds of solo material and group material and she says the work is often related. Interestingly and I wouldn’t have guessed if I had only seen her group work, but Lorene actually sets her solo work. It is so relieving to me to hear that and have that confirmed. Because I’ve been so incredibly obsessed, baffled, and fascinated with improvisatory performance lately that I’ve been devaluing my tendency to work with set material. But the more I think about it and research, I realize that there are many, many brilliant and fierce artists, who care about what they’re doing and are making huge, meaningful strides with their work, who actually set works – even group works - that are still very experimental and ground-breaking.


But I still have so many questions about improvised work. Some of them are: how much can you set without it feeling contrived? How much can you set while still giving one’s performers room to make new things in the present and to explore? If most dances are 7-15 minutes, how do you structure an improvisatory performance so that it develops, grows, and has different dynamics and contours? What role does a choreographer’s or director’s ego play in the making of a work? Is it necessary to have one’s “signature” in this kind of work, and if so how? How to make “dancing” steps genuine within the conceptual and literal context? How to translate a time structure without the dancers feeling forced to oblige by it? How to nurture your performers while still trying to communicate what you want or don’t want?


I just saw Lorene perform a solo in November at Panoply that Esther Neff, Ayana Evans, and Elizabeth Lamb, the leaders of The Social Health Performance Club (a large loose collective of artists), curated for the Empathy Play evening. This solo like all of hers was set and rehearsed. She chose to empathize with and embody her middle aged, ex-cop, ex-Army Trinidadian neighbor who is the complete opposite of who she is in many ways. With this solo, she jumped back and forth like a conversation between herself and her neighbor, with movement, mannerisms, and text. Her goal was “to physically feel how he felt” as much as possible through deeply tapping into his voice, gestures, and things he would say. At one point she intensely repeated, “I’m the only man in this household, I’m the only man in this household!” over and over while shaking her pointer finger and walking in furious circles. But at the end of the piece, she did a dance for him, that was herself dancing when she was younger, that was gracious, grounded, and reverent. Even though she admits, in a fruitful interview with her this past November, that her study and embodiment of her neighbor is a “fractured and limited view,” it comes from a place of fascination and a strong desire to understand human beings. She doesn’t want to punish people for being themselves, but tuning into their “pathetic and silly” sides helps her to see the humanity in all different kinds of people. In this solo, she was making a strong statement, digging through to humanity and social awareness, as well as dancing.


Usually in her solos, Lorene is interested in multiplicity flashing between many states and characters, quickly and drastically, to the point of confusing the audience but with the real intention of viscerally engaging the audience with her rawness and smooth yet unpredictable changeability. Lorene would rather the audience be baffled than watch complacently and distanced from what’s far away on stage. She quotes personalities like Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and a man she frequently has interactions with on the train, while dancing grand waltzes or making awkward arm gestures in her solo called, The White Lady guts flail gluttonous fail, that was commissioned by New York Live Arts through the Fresh Tracks Performance and Residency Program in 2011. Putting herself into peoples’ voices and movements is Lorene’s way of “recognizing other lives through a physical process.” She understands that Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder become something totally different on her body but it’s the vulnerability, despair, strength, fervor, and silliness that’s meaningful to her while she also makes fun of “the white lady” by talking about going to Whole Foods, thrift shops, and Urban Outfitters.


Very communicative and very down-to-earth, Lorene always says it how it is and flavors her conversations with a biting and unusual, wacky sense of humor.  Always wanting to understand diverse ideas, situations, and people, she likes digging and getting nitty-gritty into the meat of issues. She isn’t afraid of asking questions and taking her time to figure out what she wants to say, and is just plain in investigation-mode all of the time. Lorene is very interested in equality and is always questioning and concerned with how people of color would be treated in the same situations that she’s been in. Her father is Armenian from Beirut, Lebanon living in Corsicana, Texas where Lorene grew up, and he has been profiled in airports and the people in Texas automatically speak Spanish to him just because his skin is darker. But she’s aware it’s debatable whether he’s white or not even though he has actually lived the life of an immigrant. Lorene is sometimes considered a woman of color by some friends and colleagues, but she really doesn’t feel like she fits that identity because she knows she has enjoyed many privileges of being a white woman. She often and genuinely gets angered by race inequalities and issues, but her work is mostly fueled by class differences, with Lorene having felt the vast differences of living in a small town in Texas, going to a wealthy women’s college in NY, surviving in NY after college, and living in Ghana for one month. All of her diverse characters, awkwardness, confusion, social malaise, engaging with many formal and informal audiences, radical humor, wanting to reach out beyond race and class, and always empathizing are very heartfelt and admirable. Lorene sincerely wants to contribute and has, to conversations about both race and class through her work and in her daily life.


Like in a lot of performance art, Lorene likes to be candid, direct, frank, and close to the audience and also to challenge the audience to change their thinking or feelings even if it means that some people may be offended. Though not always thinking directly about the audience in her duet and trio improvisations with Kaia and Paige, she is well with the audience sharing realities and fascinations of social difficulties and embarrassments and why we are here, no matter whom the audience is. In her raw improvisations with Kaia and Paige, they’re responding to the constructed social situation that a performance is like the formalities of performing in a theater. Lorene says it’s the metaphysical questions that are the only part about improvisation that interests her. She believes “one needs to be somewhat engaged with the audience, otherwise it can be very self-indulgent.” How the audience is reacting is very interesting to Lorene. Daria Fain, one of Lorene’s mentors and many directors, has over time taught her the concept that “we all have bodies and we’re here.” For that reason, Lorene will never get bored of improvisation: responding to so many situations, and whether she’s including or not including the audience at a given moment, and how the audience is reacting.


As Lorene garners enchanted laughter from her eyes-glued audiences, this ardent and spastic humor is a huge element in her work and her personality as well. She says laughing at herself helps her to avoid self-obsession in her solos, which makes sense with her fascination with getting to the heart of so many characters she impersonates, which is something she’s been doing since she was a young kid with her family. In her improvised group work with Kaia and Paige, they delve into humor through awkwardness, beneath-the-skin honesty, grabbing, pulling, and slapping each other, doing shocking and absurd actions with relational commitment, singing, chanting, and exposing an intimacy with almost no boundaries between the performers. *As Esther Neff coined the term, they are “bracketing out,” which means creating a meta-stance on a situation through humor. Besides formal situations like at NYLA, Dixon Place, or Judson Church there are also ideas of nothingness in Nothingness: Performance, a duet with Kaia and Lorene from this year, or extreme abdominal pain and bodily fluids in utter darkness, which evolved into the duet with Paige called bloodsongs//saahhhliivaahh syynthessiiss traaansfoormattion also from this year.


Even though they aren’t doing perfectly polished steps or painstakingly coordinated dance movements, Lorene rehearses a lot with Kaia and Paige and builds a relationship with them that is sometimes like they are one alien divided into two aliens and then one again giving each other constant symbiotic feedback and oxygen. Even though there were more structured and set bubbles of exploration with Paige in saahhhliivaahh syynthessiiss, improvisation is a huge part of the rehearsals with Kaia and Paige. Usually at the end of rehearsal, Lorene will voice record Kaia and Paige’s stream-of-consciousness accounts of what just happened with the intention of retaining what they’ve done and what is or isn’t important or interesting to them. Lorene also writes a lot and very nonlinearly after rehearsals and performances. She likes that it’s a body-based practice and she’s able to observes how she might give attention to one word on a page or how words and phrases line up together, or how words that are missing in past accounts are important to her now in the future and why they were missing.


A lot of choreographers can get commissioned to set their work on companies or on students in Universities, or even with new dancers such as in the xyz festival for example. But Lorene’s work is so much Kaia and Paige that that wouldn’t translate and make sense for Lorene I think. Her collaboration with Kaia and Paige is so humanistic, personal, unique to what Kaia and Paige contribute, and almost equal in terms of creating ideas and paths. Lorene completely trusts Kaia and Paige because of their deep connection from the beginning, and their extreme genuine enthusiasm, and their innate ability “to make smart choices that aren’t for show but are investigating important things that matter” to Lorene. Sometimes Lorene has images or ideas in her head of what she wants to happen, but then Kaia and Paige throw curveballs that are completely unexpected or even scary, and Lorene thrives off of it. When the three of them have performed together, their decisions are so diverse adding a lot of dimensionality to the work. There’s a different intensity in all of them, which makes them good collaborators. They all navigate together, Lorene says, even though the navigating may be difficult. When Lorene is scared by their choices, she still trusts them because “it’s coming from a place of interrogating, being imaginative, and really trying to engage. It’s never going to be apathetic or wishy-washy…A whole other world can open up if you’re generous, willing, and giving into impulses.” Lorene says that the power of her solo material is “the intensity…it’s very full, the way it's structured.” With group work, Lorene realizes that there’s always a chance that ideas could not work out but even when something happens that she doesn’t want to happen, it’s usually really strong and nothing Lorene could ever have imagined.

Lorene Bouboushian, Kaia Gilje, Photo by Laura Bartczak

Below are some highlights of my introduction to performance art in the past few years since I returned to NY from London and from the MFA program at Hollins University/American Dance Festival:


Non-Grata at Grace Exhibition Space Fall 2012: whimsically but bitingly serving tea made from coins attached to mini international flags, cutting and burning pieces of their plastic costumes and handing them in flames to the viewers, organizing a fight between a black dildo and a white dildo commenting on the U.S. 2012 presidential elections. Shawn Chua Ming Ren in a 2-hour durational performance at Panoply Performance Laboratory December 2013, showing the slow and gradual process of creating bread using the heat of his own body in a vat of flour and water, and the communal, agreeable, and intimate kneading of the dough around his naked body by the audience, while he intermittently and philosophically commented about an ideal economy. Geraldo Mercado at Grace and Panoply in 2013 and 2014 tormented by religion and obligingly tortured by the audience and himself: pouring hot wax onto his face with open eyes, getting the audience to whip him as many times and with as much aggression as they wish, making out with a lipstick kiss on the wall and furiously yet hilariously saying, “don’t tempt me!” 


Humorous, interactive, poignant, strong and original images, socially conscious, global topics, and perhaps but I could be wrong, not very rehearsed describe the above and some more shows of performance art that I’ve seen. Of course, not all performance art is everything above and yet a lot of dance takes on all or some of these qualities too. With the exception that most dance performances are a culmination of many if not hundreds of hours of rehearsal, shaping, and planning. As Lorene says, one of the paradigms of performance art is performing a lot which is what she has been doing a lot of the past two years. But she does rehearse many hours on her own and with Kaia and Paige, which is different than the typical performance artist who has a clear idea of what they will do in advance and essentially has what they call “brain rehearsals.” (Apologies for generalizing because of course not all performance artists operate this way.) Lorene does want to step back though and take more time with writing and developing what she’s doing, but at the same time she doesn’t want to limit herself towards a polished show at The Kitchen because it would also be pertinent to her to show her work in offbeat places like the Williamsburg Bridge.


Lorene doesn’t appeal to “noodling” or moving around in a pretty way. It doesn’t make any sense to her and it doesn’t mean anything. She cares about content and intention rather than entertaining the audience. If the lights have to be so dark that movement cannot be detected, such as in the first two and a half minutes of saahhhliivaahh syynthessiiss, then it goes that way because it satisfies Lorene’s and Paige’s intent. Lorene’s work is also a response to the advent of technology having changed us so much socially. According to Lorene, Esther recently said that growing up you wouldn't expect how important the work we're doing would be - seeing things live that aren't contrived, and actually a huge question for Lorene is what's contrived and what's not. But being present in a raw way and making improvised decisions based on the now-states of the performers and being very aware of the people in the room watching or engaging – all of this is proactively pushing technology away even if not directly intended by Lorene.


So what’s next for Lorene? She likes having these two identities as a solo artist and group artist but she’s thinking that soon she might step out of her group work and observe and see more from outside of it. She thinks it's important to not do the same thing over and over. “It's a capitalistic way of being an artist to keep on doing something because it's getting a following. You need to challenge what you're doing as an artist.” She says she has dreamt and thought about setting things in a group – will she or will she not if she removes herself and watches her performers? How else will her rehearsals and performances change if she works like that? The future is exciting and it’s astounding the variety of work that Lorene and her performers make. Lorene and her collaborators are true activators and pioneers of our times in dance and performance art and they are never afraid to go where no one has gone before. And isn’t that captivating!


Lorene performs with Valerie Kuehne at Dixon Place, January 12.

Lorene is teaching a dance/performance art class in collaboration with musician Matthew Gantt, at CLASSCLASSCLASS at The New Museum, Thursday February 5, 11am-1:30pm.


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