NY-based arts dancer Coco Karol had a few minutes to chat with me. Having recently seen an amazing and rather harrowing set of interpretive dances of hers at the Ear To Mind concert (Read a review of it here) at New York’s Symphony Space, I’m basically speechless, but outside of this, I’m very taken by the ever-present, yet all-too-neglected art-form of dancing that has existed probably as long as we have had music, but my love for dance has been nursed considerably, thanks to one of my other loves, Maya Deren, and how she’s woven her love of dance and body movement into her works.
Coco is a working dancer that not only freelances and does these fascinating projects with Ear To Mind, but is also a member of Misnomer Dance Theater, and got a gig with Bjork of all people (She’s the blue girl strapped to Bjork’s back in the “Wanderlust” video). She also teaches yoga. Yes, she’s just one of the crowd, but she is so much more than a face in it.
CM: Can I just say that what you do looks really uncomfortable? I mean, obviously you’re not doing this because it’s comfortable.
[Photo right courtesy of A. Mert Erdem] Coco: It doesn’t hurt, I can assure you! [laughs] But there is something you are tapping into about the nature of struggle or trying to process something. In a lot of my work, I love to create these physical problems, which demand physical solutions, and then the solution is, at the same time, the next problem, so when it feels like I’m getting stuck in something, it’s actually something that is creating the next problem, like if I were a mountain climber, you kind of go up, and you find the next ring, and that brings you up, but then it’s the next problem to solve.
CM: I think I know what you’re saying, obviously you like that it’s a challenge through and through. It’s also like writing music, especially when you want to make something original and not something you’ve heard a million times, trying to find a new path.
Coco: Sure, absolutely! Music and mountain climbing! [laughs]
CM: How did you get started and when did you get involved with the more artistic forms of dancing?
Coco: I was trained classically at first, at Boston Ballet, and I actually danced professionally with them as an apprentice–the bottom of the rung–when I was a student there. While I was there, I met someone I consider to be my mentor, Marcus Schulkind, and he would introduce me to modern dance, freed-up my movement, and gave me a lot to spiritually live off of as an artist. Then, because of him, I went to Juilliard for one of those pre-college Summer semester things, and then being in New York, going to Juilliard opened my eyes a lot! As someone who was already dancing for a ballet company and thought that I would stay in that sort of vein, I suddenly realized I could go to school for dance, so I went to Conservatory at Tisch, and I still did a lot of work with a professional point company (contemporary ballet), sort of like the way classical musicians do sort of contemporary things, but it’s still very classical. Then, I joined a company called Misnomer Dance Theater, which is very modern contemporary dance.
[Pictured right, Eve Bailey‘s installation titled “Intuit” at the DUMBO Arts Festival in 2011, featuring Coco and Nora Herting; photo courtesy of Mai Endo] With my own work, what’s really always interested me is installation work, and creating those physical problems I was talking about, with an installation of some kind, like I used cast-iron claw-foot bathtubs on a street in DUMBO, or I built a swing set in a loft in Brooklyn. I just recently finished a whole installation project with an architect in fabric (I’m negotiating through this fabric in a really crazy way).
I got into that, and then I started to get really influenced by butô, which is the Japanese transcendental dance, and that’s where the white body paint came in. But the body paint happened after the Björk music video, and for that I was spray-painted all in purple and I had a prosthetic on, and it did something to me, in terms of…I don’t know exactly what, but it gives you something. Right after that experience I went to do a piece with actors at Stella Adler–I decided I wanted body paint, and I went and did some digging, and came through this white body paint, and it’s really kind of a magical thing that happens. I’m also super-interested in visual arts–Painting and photography, and so, what I found with the white body paint is that to create more of like a painting, like with the streams coming out of the mouth, I think that there’s a way to affect space, not just with a flailing arm-movement, but actually with color, and color has its own time signature, if that makes sense.
CM: Does the white body paint also give you a sort of tunnel vision?
Coco: It’s more like it clearly defines a space. Like in a photograph. I did a piece with frames, and when you put your arm through a frame, your limb gets decontextualized, and I really like the decontextualization of body parts.
CM: With the body paint, it’s kind of like an extended art-form on top of the art-form you’re already doing.
Coco: I think for musicians, it’s harder to understand, maybe, maybe not, but in dance, there can be a lot of gratuitous movement that’s not really necessary, or movement that doesn’t have a purpose, and I think that when you put a note on a score, it becomes really defined. I’m really interested in that definition in movement, and getting rid of the gratuitous stuff, and just show that every movement means something, which is a lot of pressure, but it doesn’t have to be.
CM: Inhyun Kim‘s music in these Ear To Mind shows has been wonderful to see you work with. Can you talk about this process, and were you working with a click track?
Coco: We did use a click track, but what was more interesting was we actually sat down with the score and we colored it. We did all these visual things to the score, but at first when she gave me the click track, I didn’t really understand that a click doesn’t necessarily signify a note. [laughs] So I felt this extremely spasmodic, almost hip-hop break dancing thing, and she watched it and thought “That’s not the Coco I know!” [laughs] I didn’t really understand because she made it really clear that what she was really interested in is that my movement would be an embodiment of her music, and so, I thought I needed to embody every click on the track! After we sat down and colored it, it actually became a very interesting part of the process. Now I have the score for the piece we just did, and I look at it very differently!
CM: That was “This Is Just To Say” with Luke Gutsgell, Megan Schubert and Lisa Dowling?
CM: Is stream coil something you have used often in these pieces?
Coco: It’s something I’ve used a few times. The first time Inhyun saw me dance, I used it, and then when we talked about the last project we did, I didn’t think it was quite right, she didn’t think it was quite right, and I wanted to do something new, and I had an amazing carpenter build that box for me, and that used color, too, like the red that comes out at the end. Then when Inhyun said she was doing a concert with a vocal performer, I said “Ok, this is when I’d like to develop this!”, and when I was developing material, I was thinking about the initiation of where the voice comes from, and almost like my mediation was pulling a voice out of my body, even though it was completely silent, the visual sort of voice. I had just sort of experimented with it, but I hadn’t fully developed it until this piece.
CM: Can you talk about your experience working with Bjork?
Coco: It was a joy! The producer of the Bjork music video called me personally (I almost didn’t return the call… Life!) I was in residency on Martha’s vineyard with Misnomer Dance Theater at the time, and the producer, the director, and a prosthetic mask maker drove from new York to Boston, and took a ferry to Martha’s vineyard to spend less then 24 hours watching me and a beautiful dancer, Brynne Billingsley, whom the cast as the body double (also a member of misnomer at the time). They then made plaster casts of our faces and left! That’s how it happened
Bjork is amazing, every bit as smart and inpsired and magic as you would think. And Encyclopedia Pictura, the collective of directors who made it happen, changed my life!
Björk – Wanderlust (Official HD Music Video)
finding.coco (Coco’s official website)