An Echo Score: Finding Structure for Artmaking After HPI

By Sarah Marks Mininsohn (HPI '17)

In my West Philly attic that smells of wood and roasted vegetables wafting from the kitchen below, twelve or so bodies sit in a circle. It is the first of two “Call for Collaborators” workshops that Shreshth Khilani and I would hold for the next iteration of Cabbage Head, a project that began at HPI this past fall. After sharing names and artistic interests, I introduce a version of a score I had learned over the summer, a score that would help us become familiar with the space and with one another in this new process.

We begin around the periphery of the attic. When drawn to do so, one person enters the space, and positions their body into a shape of their choosing, in this case, standing upright with hands on their shoulders, elbows sticking out. Gradually, others enter the space and imitate that shape, in relation to the original. The second person to enter stands close enough to touch elbows with the first, amplifying the shape in close proximity. A third person enters and imitates the shape on the far end of the space, drawing our awareness to the depth of the attic. Eventually, someone adds another shape, which might remain still, like the first, or move in a repeatable pattern. With this contrasting shape, we may choose between the two existing ideas. As the score continues, these two ideas pass through the filters of different bodies, like a game of telephone. Each idea changes the space. The original task of imitation soon unravels into interpretation. We may translate shapes into traveling pathways, or flip them upside down. We may introduce rhythms; feet thumping on wooden floorboards or elbows swimming in circles. As I lead the score to a close, the final image does not visibly include the original still shape. However, it echoes in the space, laying the foundation for what has developed.

When I graduated from college last May, I feared that I would no longer make dances without a school structure to support my creativity. My artmaking had thrived in college, a setting that provided performance dates and challenging assignments, and offered talented collaborators and abundant rehearsal space. Entering into HPI, I hoped to continue developing my choreographic practice. In this school-like setting, I would prepare for the impending cliff jump into life as an artist with no school at all.

HPI did impose structure. It provided me with deadlines, space, assignments, and collaborators. But HPI did not imitate college. It introduced performance practices I had never considered, as well as peers with very different interests and experiences from my own. So, the choreographic plan took unexpected turns, as it tangled with others’ ideas of how to use the resources offered by HPI. Shreshth Khilani and I began our hybrid dance/theatre/radio collaboration called Cabbage Head, combining our tools for choreography and directing. While the choreographic tools I had learned previously were foundational to Cabbage Head, this new process took me away from what I knew, into the realm of character work and narrative. Our combined process could no longer fit into the category of dance, nor could quite define it as theater. It became something unknown, unstable, and chaotic. By the final HPI showing of Cabbage Head and into showings of the piece in January, it culminated into some sort of cozy podcast listening party combined with movement, an experience with fragmented stories of memory, loss, and healing. I was energized to do more with this process we had at once worked rigorously to create and stumbled upon by accident.

After HPI and a few more showings of the piece, Shreshth and I continued to explore this process by applying it to new themes and stories. I no longer had the structure of college or HPI, but I held onto the echoes of those structures, and I had momentum. We were curious about involving more artists in the continuation of our work, animating my West Philly attic with many moving bodies. I also predicted that working with a large group would hold me accountable to thoroughly planning rehearsals. We held multiple movement and text workshops, enlivened by each guest artist who felt moved to wander into the space. These workshops became calls for committed collaborators, which became a group of nine people dedicated to regular rehearsals and the next iteration of the process, extrapolating from what Shreshth and I had developed during HPI.

Nobody has carved a path for me to follow, or written me directions, or given me a deadline, or done exactly what Shreshth and I are doing. This is hard for me because I take comfort in structure, organization, and accountability. Considering this new openness, I am thinking about how I transition from imitation to interpretation. How can I embrace new shapes, flip them upside down, and perform a chaotic unraveling of what I know how to do, as I build my own structures and processes? Throughout the next few months, I plan to gather stories of how HPI alum have found and created structures for their artmaking. If you’d like to talk to me about your experiences as I continue this blog, reach out!