Writing about the Philadelphia Matter by Amalia Colón-Nava

June 2021

The rehearsal process was this: I received a mostly open-ended assignment to learn the material as closely as possible and film myself doing it.  That was it.  That was the whole process.  An email would come in from “mailboxADMIN”.  I was never really sure who it was from or how to respond since I had never met David Gordon or any other members of the production team.  But I pushed forward, in the middle of a pandemic, when almost all other dancers/performers I knew were out of work.  It was freeing to have such a clear and relatively simple assignment, but there were challenges.  Where to learn the material?  In my small studio apartment in West Philadelphia?  How to get a camera angle that would get my entire body?  What is ten hours of rehearsal when it’s just me, by myself, learning choreography off a computer in a small room that is my bedroom, dining room, living room, home office and now studio, simultaneously?

In March 2020, I lost the job that provided my primary source of income, as did many people in my community.  I asked my friend, Evelyn, if I could make our previously agreed upon commitment to help her with harvest day (once a week) at Dirtbaby Farm into a full-time commitment.  I’m sure I was not the only one who leaned on the solace of their garden during our period of quarantine last year.  As the days got warmer my desire to be outside was greater.  I no longer wanted to be learning choreography indoors off of a computer, or to pretend to be present on zoom calls while I was really thinking about how I could be re-arranging my closet.  So dancing outside became the best option.  It was hard.  Hard to find the motivation to go out to practice by myself.  Hard to find a place where I could also have access to a bathroom, but this project was one thing that gave me a reason to keep dancing.  Simultaneously, finding time to squeeze in rehearsal, when I was biking eleven miles each way to help on a farm for thirty to forty hours a week became a challenge.  I got used to carrying two meals and maybe some extra clothes in my backpack for the long days out and as the summer went on I became very comfortable with practicing everything outdoors.

Learning the chair solo was a quick turn around.  We were asked to learn “Chair” in five days with roughly twelve hours of rehearsal.  When I received the assignment Evelyn and I had already planned a trip to visit a farm in western Massachusetts for three days, an ambitious trip given we had our own farm in Philadelphia to take care of.  I learned half of “Chair” on a wide ramp leading up to a barn, very similar to a raked stage, at Fox Trot Farm.  I had planned out my week so that I could learn the second half of the solo on a Tuesday and record it the very next day, which was also our deadline.  On Wednesday, I went out to practice in the closest school yard near my house, which had been closed due to covid and became a spot that people in the neighborhood used for working out.  It was forecasted to rain all day on Wednesday.  Desperate to finish learning the choreography before it started to rain I went out early, but it was no use.  I got soaked.

Drenched, I remember thinking, “It’s now or never, my shoes are entirely soaked through and they are the only black shoes I have.”  I had put on my costume earlier on in the day thinking it would be good to practice in costume, since different fabrics had different levels of friction with the chair.  I went home to get my camera and tried to change but I realized my clothing was already stuck to my body and changing at this point was more of a hassle then it was worth.  I waited for the rain to ease up and went out again but as soon as I started dancing, it started to pour again, and harder this time.  Knowing it would have to be the last take I continued to dance, laughing at myself, at my luck, and at the risk of being totally soaked stepping over and falling off of a wet slippery chair.  (This job doesn’t include workers comp, does it?)  In many ways the summer of COVID and working on the farm trained me for this moment.  Doing the harvest rain or shine, because families were relying on us for food, and a long bike ride to work in the sun for 6-8 hours and then bike home.  It was training to stay sane, to stay active, to be aware of my body, and to make sense of the world as it changed on a daily basis.

This experience influenced every aspect of my role in The Philadelphia Matter.  Song and Dance was recorded in and adapted to the aisles between my garden beds.  Close-up was recorded with my best friend and farm partner Evelyn Langley, who I spent almost every day with that summer.

Through the entire process I wondered how everyone else was dealing with this experience and how the piece would come together.  Because there was so little interaction with the other dancers and production team I was really excited to see the final product and everyone’s faces for the first time.  As someone who has produced work for film and been in a wide variety of film projects I was curious about how Jorge, the editor of The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020, would be able to edit together landscape and portrait home videos into an hour-long production.  I was blown away by the editing; how it played with David Gordon’s themes of cut and paste whilst still creating moments of connection between dancers who may have never even met.  The editing was able to highlight the creativity of the dancer’s choices and highlight the surprising landscapes people chose to film in.  Throughout the process but especially in watching the piece and reflecting on the experience I feel incredibly lucky to have had access to a good camera and computer.  To be able-bodied and to have had enough experience with learning choreography from video recordings to be able to learn the choreography fairly easily.  I see my privilege in being able to practice in the rain, to dance on concrete, and to feel comfortable and safe practicing outside.  I wondered throughout this process if it was a missed opportunity to connect more with the cast, to share resources and to coordinate time to help each other learn the choreography.

The Philadelphia Matter is a gold mine of archival footage of contemporary American modern dance.  It is also an undeniable representation of who had the privilege of access to recording equipment and funding in 1970’s contemporary art.  Access to all the elements that go into archiving rehearsal footage is something that is still difficult for younger, and poor artists in this day and age, even though the technology and equipment is abundant for those that have the resources.  Good footage of one’s work directly correlates to a performance artists’ ability to receive future funding. While technology has created opportunities for new art that is accessible and exciting to a wider audience.  I continue to question accessibility as the elements of virtual art- making that have served us in the last year and a half continue into the future.

Major support for The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020 has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.