“It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently.” This quote is not from a philosopher or multilingual poet, though certainly either might know it to be true. Instead it is a quote from Lera Boroditsky, a linguistic and cognitive science researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who has run a variety of experiments over the years to explore exactly how language shapes our ideas about the world. Sitting in the rehearsal room with choreographer Daria Faïn and poet and architect Robert Kocik for their new Commons Choir performance, I couldn’t help thinking about Boroditsky’s research.
Faïn and Kocik, who are a couple, began the Commons Choir in 2008. It is a project that builds on what they term “prosody” or “research [that] explores language as a vibratory medium that interrelates art, health, and social change.” How that has manifested over the years is a series of performances with an ever-evolving cast, presenting choreographed works that incorporate movement, text, and sound. Focused on questions of social justice, these works are often accompanied by lectures, potlucks, and/or exhibitions that contextualize the questions the artists are exploring.
In the newest iteration of the project, BRIC has commissioned Faïn and Kocik to create a new work titled BROOKLYN REZOUND that will premiere in its completed form in the fall of 2017, with a fraction of the work-in-progress shown there this week. It focuses on displacement as well as the multiplicity of peoples and languages spoken in the borough. Earlier this year the couple added Darius Jones to the project, incorporating his original compositions into the piece.
Even as the piece is still taking shape, the ways in which the project is grappling with and exploring difference were clear and engaging to watch. Dancers moving through the rehearsal studio spoke a number of different languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Ewe, Japanese, Hebrew, Yaqui, and Haitian Creole. They heaved and stuttered syllables and incomplete words, not struggling so much as dissecting, looking for something beneath, to the side, or at the root of the words. And though the dancers sometimes moved in unison, they generally articulated their own gestures and moved to their own rhythm, manifesting their differences in space and time — something Faïn noted was intentional in my conversation with her: “I choreograph through the energetics of the performer. It has to come from a real observation; they give the cue of what I can give them.”
Here, Brooklyn is not a utopian harmony, but polyphony and dissonance, with occasional bright and surprising resonance.
There have been so many performances, exhibitions, and think pieces about gentrification and displacement over the past few years, as it continues to have a very real and lasting impact on people who are living or used to live in the borough. What’s particularly unique about this show, is the choice to examine the issue through language. Much of the conversation around gentrification can be totalizing, pitting people against each other based on things like race and class, and not always addressing the ways that government and capital markets are driving much of the shockingly rapid change we’re seeing at the moment. By focusing on language, BROOKLYN REZOUND complicates racial plot lines and demands far greater specificity in a city and country populated almost entirely by immigrants and displaced people — the vast majority of whom have relatives, or who themselves did not speak English when taking their first steps on this land, regardless of the color of their skin.
And for Faïn and Kocik it’s a very personal subject. Not only do they call Brooklyn home (after a years-long legal fight to stay in Greenpoint they now live in Bedford Stuyvesant), Daria is not a native English speaker, having grown up in France, and Robert is the child of immigrants to the US who were not English speakers. Most of the cast members are also multilingual and/or children of immigrants who did not grow up speaking English.
As Kocik noted of the company, “We are a microcosm in our society in the choir. The big question is: Can we understand each other?” The performance doesn’t offer solutions, but explores the question of how to coexist across difference and build a common vernacular. From Faïn: “The solution is really unknown, I can only be in the presence of the situation and try to do my best.”
Seeing the work as it comes together is a unique experience, because the process — the interplay of the multi-ethnic and multilingual cast —presents its own challenges. In order to make the show itself, artists had to find ways to build trust and ways of relating and communicating with one another. In a very fundamental way, the show is a microcosm.
While the goals of BROOKLYN REZOUND could become quite lofty, Faïn was circumspect about them, describing her core desire as wanting to create “a space of contemplation” and a new angle on a problem for which many people are seeking solutions.
The work-in-progress showings of the Commons Choir’s BROOKLYN REZOUND will take place at BRIC House Artist Studio (647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) on November 10 and 11.