LAVA Puts Atlas on The Map

LAVA, the all female acro-dance troop is back with their final performance of the year, Atlas. This show explores navigation; how bodies physically navigate and perceive space.

LAVA, the all female acro-dance troop is back with their final performance of the year, Atlas. This show explores navigation; how bodies physically navigate and perceive space. As with all LAVA performances, artistic dirictor Sarah East Johnson, collaborates with a host of queer musicians. One of the contributors to Atlas is DJ Tikka Masala who has become one of the hottest DJs in New York.

I talked to Sarah and DJ Tikka about the show, and their creative process. Our conversation was a great insight into this interdisciplinary art form:

(Performances run through Sunday, your last chance to see it is now)

Sarah, what was the inspiration for Atlas, and how hard (or easy) was it to turn around two shows this year? It seemed to me this show was a lot about flying and Navigation. Was that your concept?
I was really excited to have two shows in one year. We had done our ten-year anniversary show and revived a lot of older works in 2010 so it had been 2 years since we made anything brand new and we had a stockpile of ideas and inspirations. Also, I believe and have experienced that the more you do something the better you get at it so we got into a groove with making and performing work together this year and I think it was really good for all of us and allowed us to grow as artists.

all photos Angela Jimenez.
In Atlas, we were interested in looking at how we know where we are—ideas of location and orientation—that keep us connected to our physical bodies, our senses, our environment, and our relationships.

Navigation was in there as well, looking at how clouds, wind, waves, stars, smell, sand, and rocks can orient, or disorient, us. We are excited about the real-time physical connections that can occur through working together as an ensemble in physically based work that we then share with audiences who are actually in the same place and time with us. It is something special that live dance performances can offer.

How did you both start working together?
Sarah: I had been enjoying DJ Tikka’s dj’ing for a while. The music she plays at clubs and events is always extremely inspiring to move to and shows an understanding of the complexity and variety of our bodies’ movement potentials. So I approached her to make music for our last show, encyclopedia, and she agreed. The music she made had all of the rhythmic and textural charge of her club mixes but also had a deep structure and form to it that intertwined with the patterns and structures in the choreography and the content of the piece.

DJ Tikka: I had attended quite a few LAVA performances prior to collaborating with them, and I knew some company members were party attendees at That’s My Jam or Ms. Thang (both Brooklyn local  queer events). We have common friends and end up at a lot of the same events. Our studios are on parallel blocks, just a walk away from Crown Heights to Prospect Heights. It just made sense to work together. I have so much to learn from LAVA, and feel really lucky to be allowed to be part of their process.

Tikka, how do you decide what sounds/samples and music you will build into a piece. What is the process, do you start with a beat, and image, a melody?
DJ Tikka: The process of putting a track together with LAVA, so far, has begun with a conversation about research, themes, connections to specific ideas around geology, art, philosophy, cosmology. I think we to free associate as much as possible and bounce back a bunch of ideas until a body of common ideas emerges. Then on my side I try to observe and listen with priority toward these themes, gathering samples and organizing them together on a timeline or in a sequencer.

I share the audio bits and pieces I’m using online, the piece adapts, a structure emerges in the choreography, then I put a rhythmic structure in place. Watching the dancers’ tempo, movements, and expressions gives me musical ideas, so I keep track of those and use them when I’m arranging samples.

Can you both describe your creative process; i.e. how do you approach collaboration and still bring in your own signature style?
Sarah: I really enjoy working with artists who have their own vision and aesthetic that is deep and rooted but who can also look at the concept and ideas that we are exploring and create their own expression or interpretation or manifestation of the idea. I try to stay away from the more traditional collaborative approaches where one form is subservient to another, initially because of that approach’s mirroring of sexism and misogyny, and also as informed by the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, but then further because I think it makes for more interesting work. So the dance is not illustrating the music, nor is the music illustrating the dance. Both the dance and the movement take similar inspirational sources and then work off each other to co-exist and intertwine and compliment. Kind of like the ideal we strive for in our relationships where we can be ourselves fully but can also be moved and inspired by the other.

DJ Tikka: LAVA is intrinsically collaborative and adaptive in it’s philosophy, which is something I really look up to. They listen and respond with their whole bodies, while my work happens primarily between a keyboard, guitar, a sequencer, tons of notepads, articles, a computer and some headphones. We are definitely operating in different perceptive layers (i’m in your ears, they are in your eyes), and I think that has given us room to work separately and in sync. One thing I have noticed though, is that our processes are weaving together more tightly from one collaboration to the next, and it feels like that actually expands everyone’s expressive confidence and trust in the final outcome.

What was the most challenging and gratifying part about this show for both of you?
Sarah: It’s always really scary and daunting to put brand new work out in front of people. You really never know what they will see and feel and think about it. The anticipation and intimidation of our first couple of shows was really challenging for me. The most gratifying part by far are the responses that we are getting from people when they feel moved and inspired by the piece and we can feel that coming from them as we perform.

DJ Tikka: most challenging; trying something different with confidence, making a thorough piece of work, trusting the final outcome. Most rewarding; feeling the energy in the room when everyone’s attention is focused on the work.

Atlas – Tickets and showtimes
at Dixon Place 161A Chrystie Street
Btwn Rivington & Delancey
New York, NY 10002
F to 2nd Ave, J to Delancey, B/D to Grand, 6 to Spring