"They then branch out with a fierce, wild energy, occasionally pausing prone on the ground, moving like boxers, backed by Spencer Moody’s three-piece garage band. They’re an ensemble: linked, visually and physically, but never touch." -Amy Mikel for Seattlest, review of stifle, June 2010
"And finally, Marissa Rae Niederhauser delivered a fierce piece with stifle. The rawness of Spencer Moody & co.'s dirty guitars and rock drums, which greeted the audience coming back in after intermission, was paired with an athletic and occasionally brutal-looking dance work, in which the company, moving fluidly in and out of sync with one another, dramatically bore witness to strife and struggle with their bodies." -Jeremy M. Barker for TheSunbreak, review of stifle, June 2010
"...a stark and emotional dance by Marissa Rae Niederhauser. The music and the choreographer seemed inspired by Steve Albini in a foul mood: Five dancers, two guitarists, and a drummer gave thundering but stark performances with slamming chords and tense, contorted bodies..." - Brendan Kiley for The Stranger, review of stifle, June 2010
"After the intermission was Josephine’s Echopraxia’s stifle. An ensemble movement piece set to a discordant and gritty score. It had a music-video sheen that never diminished the drama of the piece." -Joe Von Appen for On the Boards Blog, Review of stifle, June 2010
"The piece begins with rather angry looking dancers bracing for battle. As they fade upstage, S.O.S is being thumped into their chests setting the tone that this is fully a performance of emergency.
Like a huge blast, the dancers throw their pelvises at the audience and it is on. Live musicians grind away at electric guitars and live drums bang out a Black Snake Moan southern gothic that creates the dust devil of movement that Marissa evokes from her dancers. The dancers are flailing and crawling and seemingly breaking themselves in half in unison. There is so much to see and it is all happening so fast. From earlier interviews, I know that this piece is about an onstage choking experience that Marissa has had and so I know the urgency and life threatening choreography are very visceral to her. I have seen Marissa communicate and direct her dancers and can see that she has imbued them with this same energy. Suffice it to say that it is powerful and caused me to sweat.
A special nod is in order for the live musicians. Spencer Moody from Murder City Devils, Cameron Elliott from Battle Hymns and Mongrel Blood and Ryan Crase bring a throbbing music that provides an urgent structure that pushes the choreography forward.
This piece proves that Marissa is a solid maturing force in dance and if allowed the right resources can deliver a breathtaking and meaningful spectacle."
-Shango Los for the On the Boards Blog, Review of stifle, June 2010
"Also, wordlessly, Melissa [sic] Rae Niederhauser dances a violent idea more articulately than any spoken language could convey." -Margaret Friedman for The Seattle Weekly, review of Suppress April 2008
Marissa Rae Niederhauser's stifle At the NW New Works Festival
"It wasn't a full-blown near-death experience," dancer and choreographer Marissa Rae Niederhauser said in a recent telephone interview, "where I left my body and saw the light at the end of the tunnel and met God. It wasn't that type of near-death experience. But it was one of those, waking-up-to-your-own-frail-mortality moments."
She was referring to an event that happened a couple years ago, when, while performing onstage, she began choking on food. While she admits she was only unable to breathe for a matter of seconds (she didn't fully pass out, and completed the performance effectively without interruption), the experience was a transformational one.
"No one—for whatever reason—was able to come to my rescue," she continued. "I saw some people in the audience look very concerned. And some people were laughing. And some people looked angry. But nobody got up to aid me, even though I was in front of all those people. And I understand. I don't know if I'd do something different. Eventually what happened was that my diaphragm went into intense, painful spasms. I coughed it up and finished the dance in this strange, sort of euphoric state of being."
While terrifying, the experience proved artistically fruitful for Niederhauser, who has been exploring it in a series of pieces since, leading up to this weekend, when her company, Josephine's Echopraxia, presents stifle at the Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards (Sat. & Sun., 8 p.m.; tickets $14). It's Niederhauser's most ambitious stage project to date, having previously produced a pair of dance films (Holding This For You (2008), and Tracings (post-production)), in addition to performing with companies like Maureen Whiting and Degenerate Art Ensemble, while presenting her own work in mixed repertory evenings at events throughout the Northwest.
The genesis of the work lies not so much in the terror of dying, or even the relief at being alive, as it does in Niederhauser's experience of her own body's response to the life-threatening event.
"Afterward...I don't know if I strained my diaphragm," she explained, "but my diaphragm area was burning and hurting for about a week and a half. So I had an awareness of how that part of my body worked that I'd never felt before, and I'm sort of eternally curious with how the body functions. I had to explore it more, and put it in the work."
The violent, diaphragmatic spasming that ultimately saved her life has become part of the vocabulary of stifle, in which Niederhauser and four other dancers (Meredith Horiuchi, Meredith Sallee, Rosa Vissers, and her frequent collaborator Allison Hankins) imitate the action, based in part on Niederhauser's own experience and in part on Yogic breathing exercises. The result is a striking, visceral image in which the dancers' abdomens seem to empty, the stomachs going concave (which is the reason for the midriff-baring costumes).
"If you exhale all your breath, and then pull your diaphragm up, you kind of scoop your organs up under your ribs as well, so it hollows out," Niederhauser said. "Yogis practice this kind of thing, and there's some other body-techniques that practice this kind of thing."
Thematically, stifle was constructed from this very basic idea of the body's struggle to survive trauma and expanded to address the broader cultural context in which Niederhauser is working.
"It was around the same time that the economy was collapsing, and everyone kind of kissed their dreams goodbye and felt like slaves for a while," she told me. "The limiting forces on your life, within yourself and without yourself. And at the same time we're at war, and so we're struggling at that level."
Earlier related works addressed one or another of these components, such as Stop Loss (about the war) or The Low-Jack (the title of which suggests American culture's gullibility in adding to the current financial crisis). But add to those big themes some personal losses in her life, and stifle becomes a richly emotional palette of experience in which Niederhauser—whose choreographic vision tends towards the raw and emotional rather than studious formalism—and her company open up deep emotional and psychological wounds onstage, within a sort of protective and even healing environment reinforced by the essential image of the body's ability to protect itself from death. (Stop Loss, for instance, expressly referenced the idea of health or protection, being performed inside a circle of salt onstage.)
"Replicating that experience has become a really emotional thing for me. I'm having nightmares about it!" she told me. "But I really like that feeling, of confronting intense fear."
A final component of stifle is that marks a further collaboration between Niederhauser and Spencer Moody, the lead-singer of the Murder City Devils (among others) and the owner of the Anne Bonny. Moody, along with musicians Cameron Elliott and Ryan Crase, provides a live accompaniment of guitars, piano, and drums. Asked about why it was artistically important to have live music, Niederhauser explained that the interplay between the live music and movement, in which she freely admits something can (and occasionally does) go wrong, adds an important element to stifle.
"Since the piece was so much about the fight for life and the fight for survival, it was important not to have anything too distant or too perfect in the piece."
Marissa Niederhauser's Film About Keys & Conquest
About five minutes into her dance film Holding This For You, Marissa Rae Niederhauser throws herself against the wall, slides to the floor, and begins trying to untie a key knotted to the front of her dress. But Ben Kasulke's camera stays trained to her face; she squints a little as she works, purses her lips before biting the lower one, and only when she's mostly worked her way through the knot and closed her eyes does the camera trail down to her breast as she pulls the key off the ribbon. She holds it tightly in her hand for a long moment, her face, turned from the camera, slightly out of focus, and then drops it.
"Different stories work better onstage, and different stories work better on film," explained Niederhauser last week at Smith, near her home on Capitol Hill. "And I'm particularly drawn to small facial gestures and physical details. Onstage, dance is great to have these big, sweeping spacial patterns and geometric forms, kind of like a kaleidoscope. But this was kind of more a psychological drama, so I feel like it's more important to be able to focus the eye and show people what you want to show them instead of this big, watercolor wash of the entire stage."
In person, Niederhauser, a 2002 Cornish College graduate with blonde hair, straight-cut bangs, and a puckish smile, doesn't bear much resemblance to the tortured character in her debut film. Shot in 2006 in a Georgetown warehouse that was being renovated into artist lofts, Holding This For You, her first film, has shown at several festivals internationally since its debut at Northwest Film Forum's Local Sightings Festival last year, and is returning to Seattle for a showing this Monday at Bumbershoot, as part of a double-bill called "Dreamscapes" at 9 p.m. in the SIFF Cinema.
Niederhauser has danced for a number of Seattle's most respected choreographers over the last few years, including Maureen Whiting, Zoe Scofield, and Dayna Hanson, and produces her own work, both for film and the stage, under the company name Josephine's Echopraxia.
Her film work grew out of her struggle to find direction after graduating college. "I guess there was a while after school where I thought that you waited for somebody to recognize how great you were," she said. "And then when that didn't happen realized you have to it into your own hands to show people that you're worth bothering with."
The film centers on the idea of love as an act of control or oppression, she explains: "Sometimes when love is placed on a person, it's not a positive thing. It's more an act of colonization, and it can be kind of a trap. And it can also be given with the intent of changing a person, just like when you're colonizing a country."
Influenced by everything from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" to Patti Hearst's Stockholm Syndrome to the fairy tale of Rapunzel, the film follows the central character as she struggles with issues of control. Shot in a small, red room, it's claustrophobic and threatening, compounded by Niederhauser's occasionally violent movement and a few filmic bits inspired by horror films.
One of the central images are keys, as many as 1,500 of which are eventually used as props in the film. "That was a big one," Niederhauser admits, "the idea of keys entering or penetrating the body, both against the will of the character, and also when the character's unaware of it."
In one segment, Niederhauser collapses to the floor as though exhausted and asleep. Suddenly, keys start appearing all around her, crawling up her face and into her mouth. She awakes gagging and vomiting keys. It's simple stop-motion animation, but it's effective and demonstrates part of the appeal film has to dancers and choreographers.
Several years ago, Niederhauser began collaborating with Kasulke through opportunities at the NW Film Forum. Dance film has long been a major part of European experimental film, but in the US it's been a minor trend except in Seattle over the last decade, where it's commonplace. And almost every conversation about dance film here leads back to Kasulke, whose cinematography for Lynn Shelton's Humpday has earned him wide exposure in the last year.
"He really has a good eye for following movement, and a really good instinct as to where energy is going to travel in the body next," Niederhauser said. "So, a lot of camera people, when they follow dance, will kind of back up, to try to get the whole picture—which you totally need sometimes! But he's also really good at just being able to follow the energy line."
Niederhauser credits the Film Forum, along with 911 Media Arts, for most of the resurgence of dance film, as well as creating new opportunities for her as a dancer and choreographer.
"I think there's a really amazing film community here that is open about working in experimental forms, that is open to working with dancers, that's open to working with women," she said. "I think we're very lucky to have organizations like Northwest Film Forum and 911 Media Arts. I think it's kind of scary because I think they're both kind of struggling right now, everyone is. But one of the reasons there are so many dance films is there are these organizations that make it possible for people with little experience and not a huge budget to have the help and resources that they need."
Kasulke also filmed her newest work, still in post-production, called Tracings. As for Niederhauser, she can next be seen performing with Degenerate Art Ensemble in Sonic Tales next month at the Moore Theatre.
2010 stifle Northwest New Works at On the Boards, Seattle, WA
2009 stifle: Every Breath Is Victory MLK Move, Urban Grace, Tacoma, WA and Flight Deck Showing, Open Flight Studio, Seattle, WA
stop loss collaboration with Spencer Moody for Spin the Bottle, Annex Theater; Seattle WA.
economy of force collaboration with Spencer Moody for Artopia; Seattle WA.
Once a Thing is Set in Motion collaboration with Spencer Moody for 10 Tiny Dances, Annie Wright School, Tacoma WA.
2008 Suppress, solo for Monolodge6, Annex Theatre; Seattle WA.
Peloria Linnaria Vulgaris, solo for 12mm, On the Boards; Seattle, WA.
2006 Josephine Says “Hi”, solo for 12mm, On the Boards; Seattle,WA.
2006 Tough Bubble, 3 dancers/models in collaboration with hipposchemes, Urban Artworks; Seattle, WA and Ladyfest; Olmypia, WA.
2003 Universal vs. Unilateral, 8 dancers, Dance Blast: Curtis High School; University Place, WA.
2009 Tracings, choreographed, directed, performed, edited and produced.
2008 Treed, improvisation, screened at Northwest Film Forum Excquisite Corpse and Couchfest, Seattle, WA
2007 Holding This For You, choreographed, directed, performed, edited and produced. screened at: Napolidanza Italy, AAS Japan, One Reel at Bumbershoot Seattle, WA, Local Sightings Seattle, WA, Sao Carlos Videodance Festival Brazil, Festival Internacional de Videodanza de Chile, Festival International de Video Danse du Breuil, France.
2010 stifle Northwest New Works at On the Boards, Seattle, WA
2009 Here/Now improvisation at Open Flight Studio, Seattle, WA
2009 Sonic Tales with Degenerate Art Ensemble, Moore Theater, Seattle, WA.
2008 Myth of Me and You, choreographed by Maureen Whiting, ACT Theatre Seattle, WA
2008 Myth of Us, choreographed by Maureen Whiting, The Lee Center, Seattle,
2007 The Daylight (re-staged in 2009), choreographed by Alex Martin, Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park; Kent, WA.
2006 We Never Like Talking About the End, choreographed by Dayna Hanson, On the Boards; Seattle, WA.
2006 There Ain’t No Easy Way Out, choreographed by Zoe Scofield, On the Boards; Seattle, WA.
2006 The Invisible, choreographed by Jessica Jobaris, The Chamber Theater; Seattle, WA.
2010 Associated Program of Shunpike
2010 and 2008 4Culture; Seattle, WA, financial grant for stifle and tracings.
2010 and 2008 smART ventures; Seattle, Mayor's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, financial grant for stifle and Holding This For You
2009 Flight Deck Residency at Open Flight, Seattle, WA
2007-2008 Northwest Film Forum; Seattle, WA, fiscal sponsorship and equipment usage grants for dance films; Holding This For You and Tracings.
1998-2002 Cornish College of the Arts; Seattle, WA, BFA in Dance