Ghost line is the collaborative effort of dancer/choreographer Cori Olinghouse and experimental filmmaker Shona Masarin. Together, they've crafted an experimental dance film that evokes silent era clown movies and classic Vaudeville theater through interpretative movement and a variety of vintage film techniques (like frame-by-frame animation). The result is a haunting, dreamlike narrative that spooks equally as it enchants. Goosebumps still fresh on our arms, we couldn't resist dropping Shona and Cori a line to chat about dancing, haunted houses, and the afterlife.
So, I did a bit of investigating about your project, and discovered some backstory about a ghost town in Nevada that shares the Olinghouse name, and how that was inspirational to the creation of this piece. So neat! Can you tell me more about that? How did this piece evolve into being?
Cori Olinghouse: I began working on the concept for Ghost line, first as a freestyle movement practice, attempting to develop a singular character that would use a practice of conjuring to contact a series of memories, images, and fantasies from my past. I had recently premiered The Animal Suite: Experiments in Vaudeville and Shapeshifting at Danspace Project, as part of their Body Madness Platform in February 2011. I was joined by legendary performers: Bill Irwin, Butoh-artist Kota Yamazaki, and voguers Archie Burnett and Javier Ninja from the House of Ninja. The evening looked at artists who use shapeshifting as a way to communicate through movement - shapeshifting of body, form, gender, identity. The most powerful aspect of this performance was witnessing the sheer wizardry and ability of these performers to riff, catch, and play off aspects of each other's performances. Coming from wildly different cultures, these performers could instantaneously communicate to each other through a shared sense of wit, humour, virtuosity, and uncanny artistry. Watching them for years, I have seen their ability to take their own identities into any context and remain completely full of integrity, power, and a developed, singular sense of voice, created through a lifetime of living their own art.
After this experience, I was beyond humbled, moved, and amazed. I needed to retreat and go back into myself to uncover my own sense of vernacular. I wanted to create a language inside myself that I could take into any context. I first began allowing whatever unconscious impulses for movement bubbled up inside of me — making movement sketches in the space. Through movement, a kind of non-sequitur free-writing, riffing, drawing emerged. I was flooded by a series of images and memories coming through my body. I began to experience the possibility to act as a kind of conduit or medium, allowing these experiences to drift through me, take form, and dissolve again. I kept seeing a dusty Buster Keaton washed up from the dust bowl, the Olinghouse ghost town in Nevada, and a wish to contact my Father who passed in the high deserts of California in 2007. I was thinking of barren landscapes out west, pioneers, and a sense of abandonment, loss, and decay. I began to see a confluence of timing surrounding the Great Depression, the end of Vaudeville, Silent Clown movies, the emergence of industry, the talkies, an technologies that would make these old timey forms obsolete. Using an archival impulse to capture these cultural memories in my own body, I wanted to ghost this era through a practice of imagining and connect it a contemporary moment of depression.
You mention envisioning this piece as one that can be constantly reimagined according to space/place/circumstance — why was that important to you? And does putting it to film effect that concept?
CO: I was looking a new ways to cultivate sustainability. I didn't want to burn all my resources to produce an evening of dance that would have a life span of a maximum of three nights. I wanted to look at the nature of ephemeral forms and structure in (rather than ignore) the idea of decay in the work. Live happenings that appear and disappear. Images that remain on celluloid, that slowly decay. I wanted the media used and the ghost character I've created to mirror this practice of ghosting. I've also wanted to reach new audiences and new contexts — offering more sustainable and affordable means to experience art.
On that note, how was translating this dance piece for film? Did knowing that Shona's would be altering the frames effect how you choose to perform? Or did you just dance and Shona worked around that movement, retroactively?
CO: Shona and I haven't translated the dance in any direct way. Instead, we both use an improvisational approach to capture and manipulate the timing, physicality, and rhythms of the ghost character. We don't storyboard our shooting sessions or plan ahead. Shona plays with the timing of the shots, in-camera editing, and other approaches we are still discovering as a way to sync to my timing and play the elasticity of the character. I don't work from choreography. The character is a freestyle character. We create the language live as we shoot. Shona's treatment of the film is tactile and physical. She works the film strip into a kind of dance, bringing the ghosted nature of the movement to the surface. She mines the material for its substance, life, and breath — treating the film as a kind of living organism.
Shona Masarin: My films are often comprised of short fragments and seemingly unrelated images strung together to create a kind of quasi-narrative structure. The structure is unplanned, mostly based on an improvisational impulse. This is very similar to the way Cori constructs her lines of movement. I break down Cori's movement into frames, 24 frames-per-second, and from there we play with the illusion of movement, the same way we both play with the illusion of a narrative.
What do you hope viewers will take away from your piece?
CO: By using the practice of ghosting to contact our own imaginations, we hope to bring new life to these culturally fading forms: film, silent movies, and Vaudeville. We hope to bring a physical, rhythmic, and tactile impulse to the imagining of these forms. We also hope to create our own visual language as a merging of our collaborative process, and to take this piece into many new contexts. We hope to show that experimental, abstract approaches don't have to remain so separate from the impulse to entertain, create story, and explore identity. We hope Ghost line can offer new possibilities for our disciplines.
SM: I hope to create the feeling of something very familiar, yet mysterious — like the remnants of a dream. I hope Cori's image will stay with the viewer long after the film has finished in a haunting yet heartwarming way.
What's the experience of using Kickstarter been like so far?
CO: We've been astonished to witness the immense support from the Kickstarter community. So far we have over 140 backers and our project has been supported way beyond our original goal. We have received very thoughtful feedback, film lists, and recommendations for continuing our project. We have also had the opportunity to find new audiences that will assist in the global exhibition of the work. People as far as Australia have contacted us to inquire about potential screenings. Kickstarter is a wonderful solution to the funding crisis in the art community. It is a way to democratize funding and have access to new markets, audiences, and people that want creative projects to go forward.
SM: What has been most exciting is having a direct line to a community of people who are hungry to support the arts. The people who have been supporting us are just like myself; they aren't rich, but they want to see our project happen. Artists get so discouraged by the limitations of government & foundation funding. Kickstarter is the perfect alternative, and best of all, the people who support you are your audience. Whether they give $1 or $100, its the support and enthusiasm that really lifts us up.
Who are your all time favorite dancers/inspirations? Anybody we should be checking out right now?
CO: I have been moved immensely by the underground dance culture in NYC — witnessing the intensity, diversity, and sheer imagination of the artists. Javier Ninja, Archie Burnett, Benny Ninja — legendary voguers of the House of Ninja. If you haven't seen the comedic magic and pathos of Bill Irwin, find a way to see him perform. Watch beast tap artist, Michelle Dorrance for her inventive and virtuosic tap explorations and Ephrat Asherie for her unusually sensual and slowed down take on breaking. Colin Gee, performance artist from the corporeal mime tradition, is perplexing, thought provoking, unusual. Kai Kleinbard, for his freestyle Creature in the City series and strange wasteland of robot and machine inspired dances. If you haven't seen Kim Aviance, you must. See all the Buster Keaton silent pictures, Fred Astaire movies, and the early eccentric dancers from the 20's and 30's (Snake Hips Tucker, Max Wall, many others), Coles & Atkins for their understated soft shoe elegance, many others. See the early Dada cinema - Hans Richter, among others. Other experimental film artists: Bill Morrison...
SM: I have been lucky enough to be exposed to a wonderful, inclusive community of filmmakers here in NYC. I love the films of Kenneth Curwood, Bradley Eros, Joshua Lewis, and Stephanie Wuertz. Some of my all time favorite filmmakers include Stan Brakhage, Ed Emshwiller, Pat O'Neill, Chick Strand, Harry Smith, Lewis Klahr, Robert Breer, and Janie Geiser. I wouldn't have seen any of the films by these filmmakers, or met any of the people mentioned above if it weren't for the Millennium Film Workshop and Anthology Film Archives. Film lovers, please support these venerable institutions so that film may live on and on!