The next Artist Interview Project installment features Jeff and Rick Kuperman from the Kuperman Brothers directing and choreographing team. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview transcript.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
For philosopher Leo Tolstoy, the ability to communicate through art distinguishes human from animal life. In his essay, “What is Art?,” he writes: “If people lacked this capacity to receive the thoughts conceived by the men who preceded them and to pass on to others their own thoughts, men would be like wild beasts…And therefore the activity of art is a most important one.” For Tolstoy, art is defined by its ability to transmit emotion to its audience. Consider René Magritte’s 1964 painting, Son of Man. Does it tell a story? Do you wonder who this anonymous man is? What is his life like? Does it make you feel something, even if for one short moment? It should. As Tolstoy explains, “A real work of art should destroy, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist – not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art.”
Interviewing Jeff and Rick Kuperman– the innovative directing and choreographing team behind the Kuperman Brothers– helped me gain a better understanding of Tolstoy’s philosophical perspectives on art. In our interview, the Kuperman Brothers expanded Tolstoy’s definition of art; a good story necessarily provokes a response in its audience. For the Kuperman Brothers, their performances do not just communicate; they tell stories. As dancers, martial artists, choreographers, and directors, these two love the art of storytelling. When directing dancers, for example, they tailor their instructions to the specific task being performed as part of a larger narrative. The Kuperman Brothers, describing the response they seek to elicit in their audience, explain:
We’ll take a page out of an actor’s notebook here and double down on the ideas of story and objective. What do the humans on stage (or screen) want? What’s stopping them? How are they going to overcome these obstacles? When we see humans try, really try, to get what they want, emotions come naturally. In other words, we don’t try for ‘sad,’ or ‘happy,’ or ‘angry.’ In the context of the Phish [Petrichor] performance, we say to the dancers, ‘that woman took her mask off and is spitting in the face of everything we know about society, so don’t let her get away with it.’ The dancers’ task is now to punish transgression, not to ‘be angry.’
When the story takes priority, the emotion, which is essential for Tolstoy, naturally follows.
This infection of emotion, even if temporary, allows us to take ourselves out of what philosopher John Drabinksi calls the “one-dimensional world” (32) of everyday modern life, “a form of life dominated by crushing uniformity, familiarity, and repetition, all of which impair our ability to think about community” (27). In “The Everyday Miracle of the Occasional Community,” Drabinski sheds light on how our everyday lives are confined by social rules, competition, and conformity that “alienate us from one another” (31).
The Kuperman Brothers very successfully portrayed the dangers of this constricting, one-dimensional lifestyle in their Petrichor performance during Phish’s 12/31/16 New Year’s Eve concert at Madison Square Garden. They explain that creative director, David Gallo:
was struck by the idea of how sometimes, during the business of daily life, small problems can pile up and seem like unconquerable obstacles – and that it can be difficult to find a haven from it all… in this fast-paced, often one-tracked life, perhaps a way to find ‘home’ is to see through the illusion of the one-track-only or conventional path through life. So, in a large way, the individual’s struggle to avoid getting sucked back into a systematic and rigid mindset is a part of the message.
Recall Magritte’s Son of Man. The story told in the Petrichor NYE performance was inspired by the “faceless Everyman” depicted in this painting. The Kuperman Brothers explain:
While brainstorming, we all gravitated towards Magritte’s famous Son of Man painting, which features a business man with an apple in front of his face, holding an umbrella. A faceless businessman, a cog in the machine, going through life trying to find some shelter. Suddenly, we had our protagonist – this faceless Everyman.
We are all susceptible to the “systematic and rigid mindset” described by both Drabinski and the Kuperman Brothers. Drabinski’s essay, like the Petrichor performance, challenges us to ask “are our lives really pitted against one another? Is life really a competition? Or, more directly, is community dead in American life?” (31). It certainly does seem so sometimes; all of us, at times, can relate to the “faceless Everyman” depicted in the Petrichor choreography. However, the power of dance and “music heals and enlivens us, restoring us to healthier attitudes by reviving the sense of participation in the larger world” (Higgins, 127). How does art do this?
Music can be experienced in so many different contexts: at a concert, bumping through the stereo of a car, or blasting through your headphones. Music can even liven up some of life’s most mundane tasks like doing household chores, going for a run, sitting through a long car ride. Some of these experiences may take place while being alone, but they are nonetheless social activities. Even if you are listening to music on your own, you become infected by the emotions communicated by the artist, making the experience a social one. This is because we respond to music emotionally, mentally, and physically. As philosopher Jeanette Bicknell explains in her book Why Music Moves Us, “A sympathetic response occurs when we come to share another’s joy, anger, and so on, without feeling it for ourselves” (130); art is characterized by the transmission of an emotion. With this in mind, we can better understand the role that art and music have in alleviating competition and alienation from one another so we can enter a world of unity.
Drabinski argues that “we need a new ‘ethic’ to revive a sense of community, to reconnect across competitive alienation, and so to reopen the dimensionality of life” (32). The Kuperman Brothers do a stellar job at depicting this new ethos with the transformation of the “faceless Everyman” in their Petrichor performance. The masks of the performers are removed to display an array of different, individual faces. Just after midnight, as Phish segues from “Auld Lang Syne” into “Suzy Greenberg,” the dancers rip off their dreary, black business suits, to reveal bright yellow costumes. Instead of moving as an anonymous collective, they playfully dance, surrounded by cat and dog balloons.
In their choreography and directing, the Kuperman Brothers strive to understand the human condition. They explain:
We think a lot about the chaotic, random nature of the universe and mankind’s perpetual attempt to ascribe meaning to it all. We like stories that acknowledge the beauty of this randomness. How love and hatred, for example can be explained as a dance of neurochemicals. But are nonetheless deeply profound experiences. We also think about the human brain as the awe-inspiring thing that it is, and also how completely susceptible it is to biases, illusions, and manipulation.
Sometimes we need music, dance, and community to “reopen dimensionality of life” (Drabinksi). We are always trying to escape the one-dimensional world we live in, but “Nietzsche counters that paradise is here now. All we need is a song to remind us” (Higgins, 128). The Kuperman Brothers remind us that we also need a dance that tells a story.
How did you become choreographers? Why do you do it and what do you love about it?
More than we love choreography in particular, we love storytelling. Choreography is certainly a large part of our aesthetic, but we see it as a tool within a larger toolkit. Having trained from an early age as dancers and martial artists, and then as directors, our starting point is often to ask the question of how bodies in space – physically, corporeally, viscerally – work together to get at some narrative or thematic truth. We admire some brilliant choreographers who make “dance” in a focused and form-specific way. For us, while making dance sequences and “steps” is rewarding, our favorite choreography projects are those in which dance, or any type of organized movement, is inextricable from the heart and form of a larger, multidimensional work of art.
When you begin a new project, how do you determine your goals for the performance? Do you have any specific themes or stories that you try to convey?
Each project has its own distinct goals, and it depends on if we’re onboard to support someone’s vision, or if we’re originating a project. If we’re joining a team, the goal is always to figure out how our skillsets can best tell the story that the writer or director envisions. Just as often, when we have ideas for our own projects, we start by determining the best form for it. Is it a film? A stage piece? A virtual reality experience? As for themes or stories that we are drawn to, we think a lot about the chaotic, random nature of the universe and mankind’s perpetual attempt to ascribe meaning to it all. We like stories that acknowledge the beauty in this randomness. How love and hatred, for example, can be explained as a dance of neurochemicals. But are nonetheless deeply profound experiences. We also think a lot about the human brain as the awe-inspiring thing that it is, and also how completely susceptible it is to biases, illusions, and manipulation.
What was your inspiration for Phish’s most recent New Year’s Eve performance? The dancers appear to be narrating a message about the pressure for individuals to conform in a group. Was this your intention?
When visionary creative director David Gallo, the force behind the gag, brought us onto the project, Petrichor was still in process. So, we were mostly going off of demos and Trey’s descriptions of what the song meant to him. David was struck by the idea of how sometimes, during the business of daily life, small problems can pile up and seem like unconquerable obstacles — and that it can be difficult to find a haven from it all. Or, in other words, to find “home.”
Petrichor, of course, refers to the particular scent of the earth following a long-awaited rainfall, so there was this idea of passing through a storm to find one’s way back home. And so, David and we started off with images of rain, and of crashing water, and waves that would smash and recede, smash and recede (meant to coincide with some of the post-apocalyptic imagery Trey was singing about). While brainstorming, we all gravitated towards Magritte’s famous Son of Man painting, which features a business man with an apple in front of his face, holding an umbrella. A faceless businessman, a cog in the machine, going through life trying to find some shelter. Suddenly, we had our protagonist – this faceless Everyman. And in this fast-paced, often one-tracked life, perhaps a way to find “home” is to see through the illusion of the one-track-only or conventional path through life. So yes, in a large way, the individual’s struggle to avoid getting sucked back into a systematic and rigid mindset is a part of the message.
Are there any specific emotions that you try to convey through your choreography and performances? If so, how would you describe them?
We’ll take a page out of an actor’s notebook here and double down on the ideas of story and objective. What do the humans on stage (or screen) want? What’s stopping them? How are they going to overcome these obstacles? When we see humans try, really try, to get what they want, emotions come naturally. In other words, we don’t try for “sad,” or “happy,” or “angry.” In the context of the Phish performance, we say to the dancers, “that woman took her mask off and is spitting in the face of everything we know about society, so don’t let her get away with it.” The dancers’ task is now to punish transgression, not to “be angry.” Conversely, if the performers themselves are experiencing something more complicated than anger, audiences naturally have a richer experience of the performance. It’s easier to work this way when there’s a clear narrative through line, but even in more abstract pieces, we like to come up with micro narratives or objectives that let us choreograph in task-based ways instead of zeroing in on engendering an emotion. The emotional layer will come naturally!
Your choreographed performances require a lot of teamwork and passion. They are also very visually appealing. What do you hope your audience experiences with your choreography? Is there a certain response that you expect from your audience?
First off, thanks! Secondly, not to beat a dead horse, but we’re all about story. Regardless of how clear a narrative is for a particular project (say if we’re working on something tending towards the abstract), we remind ourselves that the performers are humans and not blank slates. That is, they’re not simply shape machines to be moved in interesting patterns, but rather, even in a neutral position, give off a unique, identifying quality. So, if the audience has a visceral reaction to the story that the humans on stage are telling through their human relationships, even if the audience can’t pinpoint what that story is, we’re happy. If the audience says, “I have no idea what was going on and I was bored,” that sucks. If an audience says, “I don’t know exactly what happened, but I feel like x, y, and z,” that’s cool.
What is your choreographic method for connecting the audience’s visual experience of dance with the auditory experience of the music?
We’ll talk in more detail about music in question #8, but music and choreography are, of course, often connected rhythmically, tonally, and thematically.
In the case of the Phish concert, there are clear demarcations between different sections of the music. The section of Petrichor where David first envisioned movement simmered down in intensity and tempo from the preceding section, so the choreography started out as subdued and naturalistic. Then, when the music really started to crash and jump into a staccato rhythm, we mirrored that with quick, robot-like movements. When there was a mini-climax at the end of an intense crescendo, we built a human structure with some sacrificial imagery to lean into the suspense and the sense of approaching finality. That intense crescendo gives way abruptly to a pretty funky section, so we undercut the tension by having the “victim” start to groove right from his compromised position. Meanwhile, the structure dissolves and we have a moment of relief from the frantic energy of earlier, just basking in the funk.
Phish’s performances emphasize improvising beyond the structure of a composed song. What is the role of improvisation in choreography? Are there sections of your New Year’s Eve performance with Phish that incorporated the dance equivalent of a “jam”?
Lots of choreographers incorporate improvisation into their pieces, and just like hearing a master jam band like Phish makes you marvel at how in synch they are, a great dance improviser or a group of improvisers can be mesmerizing to watch. You can see that especially in companies that have been dancing together forever – people know each other’s weight, how much counterbalance someone needs in a particular geometry, which improvisational modalities someone gravitates to, etc. In our New Year’s performance, we had a lot of improvisation during Suzie Greenberg because that song felt like it should be looser choreographically. And when the dancers were doing their own thing and suddenly snapped together for some choreography, those moments felt charged in a different way. During Petrichor, however, we worked with the band to identify the jam section and made sure the band had total freedom to do their thing. It’s interesting: if the band changed their tempo here and there during the choreography, our dancers would be versatile enough to roll with the punches and match the tempo. But as soon as David (the director) introduced the flying umbrellas, we all knew that everything had to be consistent (at least for that section). Humans can adapt, but the programming for umbrella winches was set and needed a constant tempo. The band obviously nailed it all.
How does music move and inspire you? Do you ever feel yourself getting lost in the music or feeling a sense of unity with either the other performers or even the audience?
Music is very important to our creative process. Some choreographers will craft movement and then set it to the music. Others will use the music as the guiding force. We’re largely in the latter camp.
For a performer, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into rehearsal, especially in the early stages of learning choreography. A lot of time is spent internalizing the rhythm of the music, building muscle memory, building stamina, etc. Eventually, the performance gets to a point where a performer has the movement and music so much in their body that they can focus less on execution and more on feeling or objective. The final ingredient is the audience. When something is properly rehearsed and the performers know the movement like second nature, a magical thing happens onstage: we enter a state of flow, where we ride the music and everything seems to click, for a lack of clearer explanation.
There is definitely a sense of unity, as if everyone is working together and everyone knows exactly what part to play (because they do)!
In terms of the communal experience, there’s nothing quite like a packed Madison Square Garden full of people ecstatic to be there.