Invited by Ballet Austin to create an original libretto, Trenton Doyle Hancock is translating his visual art to the stage. In collaboration with Stephen Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin, and the composer Graham Reynolds, who will be creating an original score, Hancock is reworking his ongoing narrative, a mythological saga pitting the good, meat-eating Mounds against the evil, underground and color-blind Vegans.
In Cult of Color: Call to Color, the minister and patriarch of the skeletal Vegans, Sesom (Moses spelled backwards), discovers the libratory joy of color through the aid of Painter, the motherly and fairy-like spirit who embodies the essence of color. Painter introduces Sesom to Mound #1 and the fleshy, hallucinatory mound-meat. Enlightened, Sesom returns to the Vegan community, intent on sharing the hued salvation offered by his Cult of Color. Sesom’s efforts to convert his fellow Vegans to the realm of color, its mutinous consequences and rebellious outcome form the narrative of the libretto.
The ballet’s storyline grows out of two previous gallery exhibitions – St. Sesom and the Cult of Color (2005) and In The Blestian Room (2006). Hancock brought these two episodes together in the traveling exhibition The Wayward Thinker (2007) at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh and Museum Boijmans, Rotterdam.
Together with Ballet Austin, Hancock has been creating set designs, props and costumes for Cult of Color: Call to Color. The performance will premiere on April 3, 2008 in Ballet Austin’s new black box AustinVentures StudioTheater, and will run for eight performances over two weekends.
On December 8, 2007 Elliott Zooey Martin sat down with the Texas-based Hancock to discuss this venture:
Elliott Zooey Martin: If we could begin by talking about how the Ballet Austin project grew, about how this opportunity presented itself. Did Ballet Austin approach you?
Trenton Doyle Hancock: I was approached 3 years ago by Stephen Mills, who’s the choreographer and Artistic Director at the Ballet. He wanted to do a brand new piece where he would collaborate with a visual artist, who would come up with the whole concept of a ballet. I came up with a narrative and a visual concept for a piece. Stephen was interested in taking the ballet out of its traditional theater place and placing it in a more experimental zone. I was interested in taking my narratives and my paintings and putting them in a more experimental place too. So it was a perfect match.
EZM: But that format is more linear than you usually work in, right?
TDH: Sure, the narration was presented in a linear form, but the actual construction of the ballet happened in an order that I hadn’t anticipated. The choreography, the visuals and the music each developed separately, but in a fashion that is aware of the other two disciplines. In the end, it all fit together like a puzzle.
EZM: And Ballet Austin composed the music?
TDH: The music was composed by Graham Reynolds, who has worked in film and theater. He has an experimental jazz trio. He has directed choirs, done film scores (like Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly), and scores for theater pieces. He’s also based in Austin. Stephen knew what he was capable of and that he would be a good fit for this piece. I was excited about what I heard and we moved forward.
EZM: What type of dance will the piece consist of?
TDH: I suppose it would be classified as modern dance.
EZM: And dialogue?
TDH: We were flirting with the idea of having some spoken word, but not a lot. We’ve since nixed that idea and now it’s all music.
EZM: In your gallery installations you always include a lot of text on the walls. Are you incorporating that into the ballet?
TDH: There will be areas of the piece where text is incorporated. There’s one passage where the characters are actually painting text on the wall. And then yet another where words will be projected, but it won’t be the way I use text in my gallery shows, where it’s more all-encompassing and it acts as a field. In this piece it’s more like accents.
EZM: In terms of translating the mound meat – the salutary pink meat that oozes from the mounds and offers the Vegans the possibility of scopophilic redemption – to the stage, how did you go about representing it? I know you’ve used Pepto-Bismol to signify mound meat in the galleries before.
TDH: We thought about incorporating Pepto-Bismol but I thought it would get too messy. We solved this problem by printing the mound meat patterns on bolts of stretchy material.
EZM: So it will be fabric?
TDH: Yes. That way it will be possible for the dancers to run around with bolts of this very light fabric. They can twirl it around, use it as streamers, or whatever they need to. They can bunch it up where it has more volume to it and throw it around. We want to get a lot of mileage of this printed material.
EZM: What are the costumes?
TDH: I start with my original drawings of the Cult of Color characters and then I send them to the designer, Susan Branch, and she interprets them. I’m not versed in the practical needs of dancers; therefore I’m just creating something that I think looks cool. Afterwards, Susan comes up with another design that is more in line with the dancers’ needs.
The Sesom costume was the first to be made, and it’s going to be approached more in a theatrical Lion King kind of way, where the dancer’s face is completely free to emote, then they will wear more of a headdress to have the character’s head be up above the dancer’s head. There’s always an issue of ventilation. It was a problem with the original costume design, which is in the photo shoot that we did; it was exactly like the character, but the dancer couldn’t breathe in it. It was perfect for just the photo shoot, but it’s not practical.
EZM: I know the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia have contributed to the making of Cult of Color; how did this relationship work out?
TDH: It’s been great working with them and they’re extremely amazing at what they do. I had wanted to do a project with them for a long time and they had been talking to me about participating in their residency. I had already initiated discussion with the Ballet, so I decided to ask the Fabric Workshop if they’d like to join in and contribute.
It worked out because they’ve done some of the props – like the mound meat fabric and one of the main backdrops, a very intense colorful forest scene, which ended up being 60 feet long and 17 feet tall.
EZM: And that’s appliquéd?
TDH: Yes, it’s all appliqué. It’s all hand-sewn.
EZM: Do you know if the Fabric Workshop had ever done a theatrical collaboration like this?
TDH: They had done several in the past. I don’t know the exact history of how the Workshop had dealt with dance, but I know they’ve done things involving different theaters. It wasn’t exactly brand new territory for them. But there was a lot of learning on both of our ends because we had to invent these solutions as we went along. It was pretty exciting and great to work with them because I learned a whole lot about their process.
EZM: That seems to be their thing: to facilitate artists into new media, in terms of using textiles.
TDH: Yes, that’s their whole thing. To take someone who traditionally hasn’t used textiles and…
EZM: Although you traditionally have with your use of felt.
TDH: Yes, I have used felt, but I had done it in a more slap-dash glued-together kind of way, and they do it in this daintier, traditional sewing way. So I was seeing my art through this other filter which became very exciting.
EZM: Speaking of the use of fabric to represent mound meat, what other creative solutions did you have to come up with?
TDH: Well the mound meat is a repeat pattern and they can print bolt after bolt of it.
EZM: Do you think you’ll use it again?
TDH: That’s a good question. I don’t know. First, I just need to see how we’re going to use it this time. In terms of figuring out solutions for the large backdrop, there were the limitations of the space in which they have to make this 60-foot thing. It’s a very small room that they have to work in. So we divided it into five panels.
EZM: So, five 12-foot panels?
TDH: Yes, there was just enough floor space in the Workshop’s basement area to lay one panel out and work on it. They would fold it up when we’d done enough on it and then put another one down. I guess coming up with the design of the thing was somewhat of a challenge in the sense that we couldn’t see the overall support as we worked.
EZM: Right. You’re going to first sketch it out in a manageable form. But once you blow it up that big, you’re losing…
TDH: When I work on a painting, I have room to step backwards. I can edit it in a direct fashion and make quick decisions. The backdrop was more of an indirect process, lots of taking photos, putting them in Photoshop, splicing it together to see what things look like at each step of the way, and editing it in that way.
EZM: But even then you’re missing all the texture that you’ll get in the final product.
TDH: Yes, but we had a good idea of what that texture was going to be, although there were surprises that we didn’t anticipate in terms of layering all of these trees on top of one another. The end result became a lot more painterly and there was a lot of color mixing going on.
EZM: From the fabric itself?
TDH: Yes. I didn’t really see that coming, which was a very nice surprise.
EZM: I would imagine that working with theater and lighting offers so many different opportunities.
TDH: Right, I’m going to have a meeting with the prop and stage people later this month to further discuss what those possibilities are and how we can disperse the responsibility of light and the form and just how we can compose on stage. Ultimately, that’s what we all have to do. I’m so used to thinking in terms of the canvas, and how space works that way. This is a completely new and completely exciting aspect of the collaboration. As a collaborative, our challenge was to figure out a way to scale up and reinterpret and distribute the energies that happen in my paintings. I compose on my own, in my studio, and on my own terms.
EZM: And with absolute control.
TDH: I had to relinquish some of that control and allow the other creators to have space to interpret.
EZM: And allow for technical requirements.
TDH: There are technical requirements and limitations of the stage. I’ve had to rely on the expertise of not just Stephen and Graham, but many others. Once everything plays out and I actually sit there at the debut, this will be the longest I’ve ever worked on a single project. In the end, I see the ballet as a moving painting.
EZM: That’s interesting, you talk about it in terms of a painting. But I was looking at the gallery shots where you have individual works installed in the galleries and then the text, which you’ve described as a field, and it comes together in a very cohesive way. I was thinking of it as a 360-degree space and then wondering if you were going to translate that to the stage, where it’s really a one-to-one relationship between the audience and the stage. I was wondering if you were going to break free from the stage and use the rest of the theater. But I take it you’re thinking of the stage in terms of a painting; as a flat surface.
TDH: Everything’s still in flux and we have had some ideas like maybe projecting things into the audience. At one point I wanted things to be passed out to the audience at the door that they could use at a certain point. They’d get a signal and they’d do something. So it would become this Brechtian idea of theatre.
EZM: Breaking the…
TDH: Yes, breaking that implied protective wall.
EZM: But I don’t know, maybe in theater speak that becomes gimmicky.
TDH: I don’t know all of the rules of the theater and therefore I don’t care. I’ll break them. I’m approaching this from a painter’s standpoint and not a theater standpoint. Stephen, on the other hand, may have reservations about that because he knows how his theater-savvy audience will react, but ultimately it’s several different audiences coming together. There are the people that may have followed my career; there are the people that have followed Stephen, as well as Graham. They’ll all be coming together with different expectations of what this thing will be. It’s exciting to squash those expectations.
EZM: Yeah, these transgressions of boundaries in terms of what discipline can do what –that’s really interesting.
TDH: There’s a great George Clinton Funkadelic tune: “Who says a jazz band can’t play dance music, who says a rock band can’t play funk, who says a funk band can’t play rock.” What he’s saying is, we can break those boundaries.
EZM: So what happens to the Cult of Color after Ballet Austin’s production?
Elliott Zooey Martin is the Curatorial Assistant for Contemporary Art & Special Projects at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.