Tommy Noonan & Cie. Marie Lenfant: Fake It Till You Make It
Saturday, Oct. 15, 8 p.m. & Sunday, Oct. 16, 5 p.m., $15
Living Arts Collective, Durham
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who is saying what in my conversation with Tommy Noonan and Murielle Elizéon of Saxapahaw’s Culture Mill
and three members of France’s Compagnie Marie Lenfant
. A reply might begin in English and then gradually transform into French as it travels around the table, only to be translated back for me by someone other than the original speaker. Ideas and roles dissolve into a fluid welter.
That’s much the way that both companies work, too, threading between individual genres and job titles to produce works that skirt dance, theater, and performance art. This will be on display Saturday and Sunday when they present a pair of solos at the Living Arts Collective
in Durham, as a part of the DIDA
season and Cie. Marie Lenfant’s residency at Culture Mill, banded together under the title Fake It Till You Make It
. (You might also catch some excerpts at The Carrack’s Muse Masquerade
at 21c Museum Hotel tonight.)
For the French company, it’s a chance to collaborate with a like-minded organization and show its work to a new audience. For Culture Mill, it’s part of an ongoing experiential study of art systems from different parts of the world, with the goal of learning what works and implementing it here. This aspect of the nonprofit's mission, which is intricately linked to its residencies and performances, just received a boost from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation
, which supplied a grant for an ambitious new conference, Articulating Value.
The members of Cie. Marie Lenfant gathered at Johnny’s Gone Fishing in Carrboro include its namesake dancer and choreographer—who prefers not to be called anything so formal as a “director”—musician and sound designer Paul Peterson, and Rity Mabon, who will perform “(SUR)FACES” in Durham. “Dinosaur,” Lenfant says with a chuckle when asked about the history of her company, which has created some twenty-five pieces since it formed in 1990. Lenfant uses public funds to aid artists in a way that Culture Mill’s founders keep calling “generous,” one of many shared values.
“When there are artists in residency, Marie has been moving out of her house and giving it to the artists, and that’s what we did for the first year and a half for Culture Mill,” Elizéon says, laughing.
“The way that Marie works is kind of taking power back from the institution that funds the arts and giving the power back to the performers,” Peterson explains. “It’s not a rebellion; it’s a statement against cultural celebrity. It’s putting work where its going to be listened to, where it’s going to be seen, or maybe felt.”
“It’s important for us to be here to propose our work to Americans,” Mabon adds. “To share it, to change, to meet people, that’s what we love.” In this election season, it might be important for Americans, too. Both solos are at least indirectly inspired by politicians on the stump. “(SUR)FACES,” which was partly developed during Cie. Marie Lenfant’s first Culture Mill residency last year before it debuted in Morocco, features a masked performer who models the deceptive gestures of those who hold or seek power. And Noonan’s new solo, “John,” might as well have been titled “Donald.”
“I feel that he is my biggest muse for this piece,” Noonan says. “All the cultural tendencies that I explore in ‘John’ are things that have found their ultimate end in the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, in many ways.”
I begin to wonder aloud about French politicians and American politicians, but before I finish, exclamations in French break out around the table.
“We are living exactly the same moment as you are living right now,” Mabon says. “It’s global. [The piece] is talking about appearances in the power quest, our politicians lying to us. You know what I mean—‘Come on boy, trust me.’ A man has a mask because we hold a mask when we are lying. A lot of things are happening during the performance, changing faces, but in fact it is the same guy behind the mask. Or is it? Who is he?” Mabon laughs.
Noonan, whose dance theater pieces tend to blend violence, tenderness, humor, and pathos, has been researching and writing “John” since he finished his last piece in 2013. After this long gestation, he took "John" into the studio and completed it in about six weeks—galvanized, in part, by the chance to contrast it with “(SUR)FACES." Though the works developed independently, there was enough common ground to suggest the shared title of Fake It Till You Make It
, since they both deal with surfaces and deceptions.
“The character John is a manifestation of some deeper cultural tendencies about being a winner and getting ahead, putting your best foot forward and staying positive, but taken to a disgusting logical extreme,” Noonan says. “The aesthetics are very saccharine somehow, like gorging yourself on candy. My experience of ‘(SUR)FACES’ is that it has a much darker feeling, and works through a lot of physicality and sound, while mine works through text.”
Elizéon and Noonan, who moved to Saxapahaw from Europe and started Culture Mill about two years ago, began a relationship with Cie. Lenfant in Le Mans, where it has a studio that hosts residencies and performances.
“We were pretty inspired by what they were doing,” Noonan says, “and when we started Culture Mill, in some ways it was based on how they were operating in France—an official supported structure that also operates in a really informal way around the structure.”
The difference is that Cie. Marie Lenfant receives public funds, as do many European artists, while Culture Mill relies on private funds, as do many American artists. Its founders' European perspective influences not just their bookings, but also their ideas about how the arts can and should work. In a way, they are trying to adapt a European model for the southeastern U.S., relying on charitable grants rather than the government.
In June, we reported on Culture Mill's receipt of a grant from the Kenan Charitable Trust
, which allowed Noonan and Elizéon to become paid staffers. Now, the new Mary Duke Biddle Foundation grant allows them to accelerate their research on creating a sustainable model for regional artists, who are often expected to work for little to nothing, and then take a step toward putting that research into practice.
Articulating Value (disclosure: INDY
contributor Chris Vitiello helped conceive the project, along with Ginger Wagg) will begin in January as a series of conversations among people in the art world, building toward a larger conference at the Haw River Ballroom next spring or summer. The conversations and conclusions will also be documented in a limited-edition book and a website of the same name.
“It’s essentially about artists trying to find a common discussion of their value—the value of their work and time, in economic, social, and political terms,” says Noonan, who grew up in Durham before moving to Germany to perform. “The whole project started with us perceiving a lack of that here.”
“I have been doing so much research on which grant, which foundation,” says Elizéon, who is from France. “I’m here for two years, but often, when I talk to other artists, they’re like, ‘There’s a grant? As artists and as directors of Culture Mill, we have been confronted with the question ‘What do we stand for?’ I am coming from Europe, confronting another reality, and I want to understand it and make a stand.”
Some of Articulating Value's goals are concrete. “What should freelancers be paid for artistic projects?” Noonan says, posing an example. “In Berlin, there’s an official reference point. That doesn’t exist so much here, and in my experience, a lot of artists don’t have a clear enough concept of the value of their labor to make arguments to institutions—to articulate value, eventually, toward policy decisions.”
Beyond being a sort of artist-driven lobby group, Articulating Value will also make its case to the most important part of the artistic ecosystem: the audience. If it succeeds, it will produce a consensus among regional artists about what they're worth and then present it to the public at the conference next year. As goals go, this seems at once reasonable and lofty. The value of artists, who perhaps resist consensus by nature, can feel fated to always remain an open-ended question in the U.S. But positive change might just as well spring from the questions as the answers.
“The nature of the discussion isn’t, 'How do we solve these ten problems?" Noonan says. "It’s, 'What can we dream about?'"