Steps in the Dark
Bartosik takes audiences on a powerful journey of faith in her latest work, I hunger for you, on stage this winter at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago.
By Fred Cummings
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
From the Winter 2020 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Choreographer Kimberly Bartosik is accustomed to sending people to extreme places. Through the evolution of her work and rigorous dance language, she has explored a myriad of physical and metaphysical spaces for audiences to explore. This winter, she brings an extraordinary examination of the concept of faith to the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, an exploration that emerged from an organic process of discovery that sought to answer questions she herself has pondered for years.
Entitled I hunger for you, the work explores the concept of faith and its power to transform the physical body. Suspended in a stark, mesmerizing ethos, the choreography is a reflection of faith experienced as internalized forces pushing through dancers’ bodies, which undergo a relentless, tender and, at times, violent confrontation.
And confrontation is something to which Bartosik is no stranger. A 9-year Merce Cunningham Dance Company alum, Bartosik draws inspiration from her own experience exploring charismatic spiritually, ritual and desire, as well as the loss of one’s self-ecstasy, as she describes it. She comes from a very polarized family in North Carolina, where politically speaking, the group was “split right down the middle.” As such, she grew up with an inability to communicate with family members who voted for Donald Trump. She speaks of the experience as a deeply personal one living through this particular cultural moment in our country…and world.
For her, dance was a way of communicating beyond language, exploring the feelings of polarity the current political climate created for her within the confines of her family.
It has always been important for Bartosik to understand the concept of faith. Like many of us, she has often returned to the need to believe in something outside of herself. With the political schism she was experiencing in the most foundational relationships of her life, she was drawn toward the idea of faith as a common denominator. But let’s be clear, Bartosik’s journey in I hunger for you, is not about organized religion. “I’m not interested in religion,” she explained. “But in ideas about faith—what draws someone to look outside this material world.
“We are all human. How did we get so far apart? We all get one life—how can we make sure that we don’t let external forces determine how we spend this time connecting to one another on this Earth, while holding onto our own values?” These are questions that led Bartosik down the path that gave us her latest work, compassionate questions that reveal a search for values in all of us.
A year into its trajectory, I hunger for you, is a visceral, transformative experience that is far more than the dimensional architecture the production maps out on stage. The evolution of such a probing work is often impacted by those who inhabit it. So, for Bartosik, the evolution of I hunger for you became a “manifestation of the performers’ depth of commitment to the rigorous process of bringing the work to life,” she explained. “Which, I assure you, wasn’t easy on them! From the beginning, I refused to allow myself to make choices just to get the work done. Instead, because of the resources I was afforded, I could take the time to let things gestate and, with time, the work revealed itself. A lot of sweat accumulated in that waiting. But along with that sweat, a very deep bond developed between me and my performers and collaborators—a potent kind of trust that allowed us/the work to evolve at its own pace.”
As alluded to, also impacting the trajectory of I hunger for you was the support Bartosik received for this project, “much more than any other work,” of hers. The belief that funders and presenters had early on helped the choreographer approach the process with the confidence to make challenging choices and take risks she could stand behind has had an indelible impact on the work itself. “I was able to work on an entirely different scale and ask questions I hadn’t been able to afford to ask in prior works,” she explained.
“The origins of the work came from my initial research into my experiences of growing up in North Carolina with parents who converted to Born-Again Christianity and their embrace of Charismatic rituals. The power of faith in a force outside oneself, and the deep need to embrace that faith, and to be witnessed embodying it, held the early center of my creative questioning.
“Once we got into the messy, intense project of actually making the work, those questions about a specific religious practice more-or-less fell away, leaving only their remnants mixed with questions about how, as a culture, we had gotten to a place where we couldn’t speak to someone who didn’t share our values; where language could lead to war on a personal and universal level. From those questions, I dedicated myself to making a work that got beneath ideologies, that created a space for the body to communicate something about being alive—about believing in life itself—rather than in the weighty belief systems we carry in ourselves that can divide us from each other.”
Working in close collaboration with a rather extraordinary cast of dancers and designers, Bartosik explained, I hunger for you spilled out over the period of a year with incredible force. “We found ourselves enmeshed in sweaty, intense practices based in personal reflections on faith, violence, life force, and compassion," she told me. "Excavating a kind of pulse from the body, we have been asking, ‘Where does the desire for faith locate itself in the body?’”
In I hunger for you, Bartosik sources from what she calls “subterranean recesses” of the body to connect with each other, "with a divine force, with something outside and within ourselves." This, deeply human desire, Bartosik explains, causes us to “look, pull, take, give and feel hunger.”
Building this experience for an audience requires a fair amount of stagecraft, melded with some very visceral choreography. In crafting the combination of forces at work along with keeping proportions—all in context with an extensive and rigorous dance language—Bartosik relied heavily on her support system for this project. Collaborating with long-time lighting designer, Roderick Murray (also her husband), afforded the ability to experiment with the impact of light and sound on the work itself, adding a level of refinement otherwise not possible.
What resulted was an ethereal hue cast from stage-level—avoiding the heaviness that side or top lights might add to the work—offering a rather uplifting milieu for the abstract work.
Additionally, the pair sought ways to incorporate the audience into the work. Ensuring that they become witness to, rather than just observers watching from the dark, the same light is cast over the performance space’s seating. “In all my work, I want the audience to feel as much as they see, Bartosik explained. “To become aware of their own bodies as they witness the transformation of the performers’ bodies.”
Bartosik approached the placement of sound in much the same way, placing speakers behind the audience to urge their bodies into the space and dance work. “We also have some major subwoofer action, which definitely helps with the notion of getting the sound into the audience bodies,” she noted. “When your body is vibrating you definitely have a different experience with the work.”
As the work evolves (mostly the result of extensive touring), Bartosik has noticed a deepening at the core of its meaning. As she explains, discovery, rather than resolution is at the true heart of what she has created in I hunger for you. “It’s a huge gift to be able to tour—to perform a piece multiple times in different circumstances. We made the work specifically for the Fisher Theater, a black box theater at Brooklyn Academy of Music/BAM, but we’ve performed it in a huge variety of spaces, including a proscenium stage and a renovated church. Only through the experience of sharing a work with a variety of audiences and spaces can you discover what a piece really is—what is the core of the work which doesn’t dissolve no matter the circumstance.
At the end of the day, I hunger for you is more about recognizing the need more than satiation of the same. “I think the work is really about the hunger to connect, and the emotion of the desire to fulfill that hunger, rather than its satiation. So I’m not sure there’s any resolution except the recognition that this hunger is what makes us feel our lives in deep and meaningful ways.
"Sometimes when I watch the work after a period of being away from it, I recognize a kind of deep sadness in it, aligned with an urgency and persistence that we need to keep going in order to rise above that space of sadness/existential loneliness that we all grapple with at some point in our lives. I think coming to terms with one’s place in the world, with the immediacy of being alive in this moment—of really living and feeling this moment can make the crisis of the hunger okay.”
The concept of faith is a mysterious one. So it’s no surprise this work rests in so much mystery and void. Ultimately, faith is about taking steps in dark places. And fittingly enough, in exploring the development of this work, Bartosik took some major steps in the dark to bring it to light. The biggest such step, she tells me, is allowing herself to create a work that is significantly more “dramatic” than anything else she has ever made. “Before I began I hunger for you, I asked, ‘Does the world really need another abstract dance?' 'What can I create that feels essential in some way?' In the quest to dig into bodies and create a space beneath and beyond ideologies, I had to allow for a certain stripped down drama to be present. I did this through physical bodies—in other words, the drama coming from the places the body was going through rather than an interior personal narrative.”
Bartosik told me that she also took a considerable leap of faith in trusting sound and music as a choreographic support. In giving artistic license to composer Sivan Jacobovitz (a new collaborator for her), she was partnering with an artist in a medium that broadened the scope of the choreography of I hunger for you. “I gave (Sivan) the task of creating sound that seemed to emanate from the body of the performers rather than making music for the dance. At one point he encouraged me to use a track, which has a beat to it. Coming from so many years of dancing for Merce Cunningham, I’ve had to fight my own self-censorship and judgements about how music can make you feel. I resisted Sivan for a long time, but once I gave in, we created a section that is the ecstatic, energetic core of the work.”
The effect for Bartosik has been sauce for the goose in her journey of discovery. And if her audiences have been any indication, taking steps in the dark for her has paid off. “I run the sound live from the back of the house, and it’s beautiful for me to watch audience members get infected by the rhythm of the music and absorb its pulse and beat along with the pulse of the performers,” she told me. “This whole process has been a humbling reminder that if we allow ourselves to listen to someone—to really listen and consider what they are saying—our world might turn in an entirely new direction we hadn’t even known we needed.”
Thus, yielding a fruitful exploration, a process that yields true understanding. Whether that understanding is the knowledge of a need as expressed by I hunger for you, or a resolution of that need, the whole process renders growth, and perhaps that's what Bartosik was looking to share with her audience all along.
That growth will inspire audiences when dance collective DAELA and Kimberley Bartosik bring I hunger for you to the Dance Center this winter.
Kimberly Bartosik/DAELA will present I hunger for you at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago January 30 – February 1, 2020.
Dylan and Joanna in I hunger for you by Kimberly Bartosik (photo by Ian Douglas).