NCDF is excited to present Eric Mullis’s Phasings in our upcoming 26th season. Phasings, a minimalist, contemporary quartet by Eric Mullis, explores musical structures used by Steve Reich in his early compositions—accumulation, erasure, and phasing.
Mullis has studied with Jesse Zarritt and Ishmael-Houston Jones, gaga technique in Tel-Aviv, Tai chi and Chinese martial arts in the United States, Beijing and Taiwan, and is currently enrolled in the Dance MFA program at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He regularly accompanies dance classes at American Dance Festival and at the Charlotte Ballet and is a Professor of Philosophy at Queens University of Charlotte. He has published essays on dance performance in Dance Research Journal, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the International Journal of Performing Arts and Digital Media.
Dance Project asked Eric a few questions about his work.
Could you tell us a little bit about your process? How has your process been supported or challenged in “Phasings”?
I generally use a collaborative process in order to develop choreography. The dancers and I begin with some basic phrase work which they contribute to by helping refine it and by contributing new ideas that fit the vocabulary. Over the last two years or so I have become interested in multiple iterations of a single work. Part of this is because dancers come and go and because the concepts that I’m interested in need to explored from different angles.
Phasings has been an interesting challenge because Reich’s approach to music is quite rigorous. I tend to create work that moves back and forth between clear choreographic form and improvisation but Phasings has been rigorous in every iteration. Another unique aspect of the work has been experimentation with dancer relationships. Since it is about compositional technique, it is inappropriate to develop overtly personal relationships among the dancers. Like Reich’s performing musicians, the dancers are related first and foremost to the formal principles that the work manifests. But audiences naturally want to see personal relationships develop which has led me to experiment with different methods aimed at undermining the association of us with specific personalities involved in particular relational dynamics. The dancers are not portraying anyone but are simply themselves focused on the dancing and this has shaped the aesthetics of the piece.
Since the piece is rigorous and rather depersonalized, some friends have pointed out that it feels something like a Cunningham piece, though it does not use Cunningham technique per se. At the outset I wouldn’t have ever thought that Phasings would end up presenting that kind of aesthetic, but what a joy it has been to see it develop that way in the rehearsal process.
“Phasings” works with exploring musical structures. What has that process been like?
The music for Phasings has changed over time. The piece investigates Steve Reich’s unique compositional strategies (including accumulation, subtraction, and replacement) and originally some of his early compositions accompanied the dance, whether live musicians or audio track. This way, there were points of convergence between, say, using accumulation to introduce a new musical phrase and accumulating gestures. I was doing something similar to Anna De Keersmaker’s Fase (1982) but using more dancers and emphasizing different Reichian compositional techniques.
In another iteration, I took clips from a popular hip-hop song and interlaced them with clips of Reich in a way that defamiliarized both. The hip-hop song is written in 4/4 but the track that I built is in 3/4 and the dreamy Reich clips are juxtaposed with grittier sounds and vocals. The two kinds of clips are interlaced by using Reich’s compositional strategies which the choreography draws those strategies as well. This simultaneously pushes Reich’s methods beyond his framework (it’s hard to imagine that he likes hip-hop) and beyond De Keersmaker’s approach which relates quite literally to Reich’s scores. In time, as the choreography developed, I didn’t feel the need to have Reich’s music accompany it. Sections of the work now manifest his compositional methods in silence.
Phasings will be seen on the NCDF Festival tour in Raleigh September 10th, Boone October 28th-29th, and Greensboro November 12th. For more information about Eric, visit his website.