Alyssa Mitchel Gets Philosophical with Regard
July 22, 2023—When talking about her work, choreographer Alyssa Mitchel becomes animated, conveying her thoughts with rapid gestures and facial expressions. So, it may seem surprising that her latest work is based on heady philosophical constructs instead of her usual themes of personal experience, but it exemplifies how she expresses her thoughts through physical action.
Alyssa's upcoming premiere of Regard at The Contemporary Jewish Museum was inspired by the ideas of 20th Century philosopher Martin Buber, the author of "I and Thou". Buber argued for being receptive to opposing views instead of relating to others as representatives of categories, which Alyssa sees as a timely message in our present, divided society.
"I started this process by reflecting on a piece I created in 2016, "she explains, "one of my first residencies in San Francisco, titled Close, Far, and Somewhere in Between." The work is a duet about a close friendship "that kind of disintegrates." She thought about how friends can drift apart over the years and the complexities of friendships and relationships. Now that she has reached her 30th birthday, she wants to continue exploring this theme. Her mother, a former dancer, introduced her to Buber's book I and Thou, which is receiving a lot of attention this year, the 100th anniversary of its publication.
Alyssa explains how Buber was abandoned by his mother at an early age, and later embraced Hasidism, a Jewish religious group that believes in, "freedom in terms of thinking, and arts, and dancing, and less conservative ways," she explains. Buber became interested relationships between people and being available to them, instead of the "I—it" relationship of using someone, which is "a monologue, not a dialogue," she says.
After researching Martin Buber, Alyssa went on to research the painter R. B. Kitaj, an American artist who she drew inspiration from because of his belief in the influence of critics on artists. Regard explores the relationship between artists and critics, drawing from Alyssa's personal experiences as well as those of the dancers. The piece has evolved to include six dancers, guitarist Steven Lin, cellist David Goldblatt (whose wife, coincidentally, danced alongside Alyssa's mother at SF Ballet), the original work of Bay Area muralist Liv Losee-Unger, and a few prerecorded works. "It's a really great mixture of music," she says. As this was the first time the musicians have worked with dancers, they had to learn how to take movement cues from the dancers. "And the dancers have to be super clear and consistent with what they're doing," she adds.
One of the scores Alyssa has applied to Regards is by composer Durwynne Hsieh, a piece used in the section titled Trust. Inspired by Martin Buber, she describes the score as very intense and dramatic, and contrasted with another section that is soft and gentle. "I like the contrast," she says.
But how does one express Martin Buber's philosophical constructs in dance? "When we're looking at I—it," she explains, "I'm having one of the dancers be very controlling. The others are being dragged on the floor, pushed down to the floor, and there's a lot of puppeteering where one dancer is really in control." The work transitions into the second section, "Where," she says, "this is where I have all this yarn." She laughs and pulls yards of thick, red yarn from a black bag. The yarn was suggested by some of her mentors when she was doing a residency at Studio 210 in San Francisco. "Everyone is lifted up by the yarn," she says, "connected as a community of people who can support each other." The yarn also appears in some of the murals.
Painted by muralist Liv Losee-Unger, a series of connected panels depicts birds connected by yarn. "It's cool," she says, "that the yarn reflects the dancing and the panels, that are part of the piece, part of the choreography, too." The dance takes advantage of the spaces in The Contemporary Jewish Museum, such as cubbyhole windows.
In our previous conversations, Alyssa has said she liked to create dances based on personal experiences because audiences can relate to them. How does Regard relate on a personal level? An earlier work, Close, Far, and In Between, was inspired by a friendship. She wanted to explore how friends go their own ways over time. The Inner Critic section of Regard reflects her own experiences working with mentors in residencies. "I realize," she reflects, "that I am my hardest critic. I think a lot of choreographers can relate to that. Sometimes you hear feedback from others, and you look at your work and you're really down on yourself. But then you can see that it's part of the process." Conversations with her dancers have also contributed from their experiences. There are sections on Anger, Denial, Loneliness, and Grief. "Everyone's lost someone along their journeys," she says, "and can relate."
The finale brings everyone together, beginning with a duet between dancers Juan Magacho and Juan Ruiz. "They get to really wheel all the panels around. Being an artist is hard, but we do it because we have this passion for it. We love it. We could never not do it. It's our calling. It's what we crave. It's what we need. As a math tutor, the panels are very mathematical. People always ask me, how are math and choreography related. The dancers have to actually memorize the order of the panels because they switch this way and this way..." she explains, motioning back and forth. "And finally the panels end up in a diagonal, but we have to retrace our steps to figure out the exact order. Each panel is a different color. Each dancer has a bold color. There's a purple. There's a bright red. There's a mustard yellow. The panels kind of go along with that." The dancers have to retrace and memorize where and when each panel belongs. After the duet, the piece ends with the cast joining in a "celebration of art and friendship."
Following the performances on Friday and Saturday will be a live Q&A session with choreographer Alyssa Mitchel, cellist David Goldblatt, guitarist Steven Lin, and several of the performing artists. Regard runs on August August 4-6 and 11-13 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.