“Anderson’s vision was childlike to the core, as is shown not only by his sympathy with the child’s struggle to survive, believe, be listened to, but also by his empathy with plants, toys, and domestic objects as living things.” -Jackie Wullschlagger
I first met Phyllis at a concert at the (then temporary home) of Roulette in SoHo five years ago. At the time I was writing a chamber opera with the complication of two pianists built into the ensemble. Uninterested in writing for piano-four-hands, I mused to a friend at the concert that maybe one of them should play toy piano. The opera revolved around a psychotherapist attempting to raise to chimpanzee as his daughter, so the instrumentation seemed enticing. Finding a toy piano, however, seemed daunting: “Where do I even get one?” I asked, “They must be very rare, expensive and difficult to find…” My friend Emily pointed across the room and said “You should talk to Phyllis, she’ll know.” After the show we met, and talked for a bit. I asked where I could find such a rare instrument and Phyllis laughed “Oh, I’ve found them in dumpsters, on eBay… pretty much anywhere!”
The next day I logged onto eBay and that was that. But more than a new sound for the piece at hand, that evening sparked a beautiful friendship. It also started a series of conversations about possible collaborations that never quite stuck. Suddenly it clicked this year when my partner Jordan (a choreographer and puppeteer) and I started creating Snow, a re-interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, with Phyllis as the central performer alongside dance on film, puppetry, costumes and masks. Phyllis’s open-heartedness and playfulness – obvious from that first conversation five years ago – are balanced with a rigor and talent I’ve always found inspiring.
Anderson’s Snow Queen examines the tension between youthful imagination and the pragmatism of experience, and beautifully advocates for keeping a sense of play and the childlike in life. As Jordan and I have been making the work – we’ve aimed for taking all of the rigor and talent in the combined group of artists towards a direct, open, and childlike place. Ordinary objects become infused with magic: a sweatshirt turns a Cunningham dancer into a talking Raven, a twisted piece of wire becomes a barren tree in winter, plastic pieces from Canal Street become a garden of signing flowers.
This winter and spring Snow will come to life at the Invisible Dog Arts Center in Brooklyn NY January 29-30, and then my hometown at the Detroit Institute of Arts March 4. But FIRST a sneak peak will happen at this year’s Toy Piano Festival with an excerpt from one episode of the work: The Raven Suite. The music is a both a nod to the baroque keyboard suite (a dubious Allemande, Courrante, and Sarabande) and a wink to Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (written for his partner Merce Cunningham). The film features former Cunningham dancers Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood as pair of ravens, one of the many creatures who aid the protagonist, youthful Gerda, on her journey to save her brother Kai from the wounds of maturity. Each episode of Snow links performance with visual in a different way, and the silent film inspiration of the Raven Suite seemed just right for the Toy Piano Festival’s first outing at Museum of the Moving Image. Hope to see you there!