On Saturday & Sunday, March 9-10, 2024, REDCAT will present the World Premiere of Reorient the Orient by Los Angeles based dance artist Lionel Popkin. The 8 hour durational, multimodal performance will take place throughout REDCAT’s theater, gallery and lobby. Tickets include access to the Reorient the Orient installation in the theater and gallery, on view Saturday and Sunday, March 9 and 10, from 2 to 10 p.m. Performances will take place at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. each day. Tickets can be purchased HERE.

Popkin graciously agreed to an interview and when I mentioned that Reorient the Orient was a retrospective work, he said that it was indeed a retrospective of a kind. “Not the typical retrospective but definitely a retrospective.”

Lionel Popkin behind the scenes at REDCAT - Photo by Marcus Kuiland Nazario.

Lionel Popkin behind the scenes at REDCAT – Photo by Marcus Kuiland Nazario.

Lionel Popkin was born in Bloomington, Indiana to an Indian mother and a Jewish father. He was raised Jewish but via his mother also knew other Indian families in  Bloomington. While growing up there, he said that he experienced the best and the worst of being a brown person of mixed heritage. That there was both anti-Semitism and racism. In 1984 the synagogue where Popkin had his bar Mitzvah was burned by a neo-Nazis group and at school, he was harassed in school for being brown, something that was not uncommon in Indiana during that time.

As a young boy he played tennis and became interested in dance because one of his older sisters, who went on to have a professional career, was studying ballet and Musical Theater. In high school, Popkin became interested in theater, but it was when he saw a contemporary dance company that he first thought that perhaps dance might be for him. He admitted that at the time he did not have a clue what was going on during that performance, but because of who he was and is, he became curious and interested in a world that seemed so mysterious to him at the time. So, while he was at Oberlin College in Ohio, he signed up for dance classes and during the summers went to the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC. In full disclosure, I was one of his teachers at ADF.

Lionel Popkin's "Oedipus/Antigone Project". Photo by A.L. Haskins.

Lionel Popkin’s “Oedipus/Antigone Project”. Photo by A.L. Haskins.

While attending Oberlin College Popkin studied dance technique, composition, improvisation and dance theory. Because all these methods were continuously entwined and occurring simultaneously, it was there that he began creating his own work.

I took some time off from college twice,” Popkin said. “Once I moved to New Delhi and studied there and another time I went to New York. In New York I interned with a woman named Stephanie Skura which radically changed my career. I would say her influence was enormous.” Skura is a teacher of modern and postmodern dance and considered a master teacher of Open Source Forms, Improvisation, movement-based Performance-Making, & Skinner Releasing.

After graduating, Popkin moved to Seattle to study with Joan Skinner and he was offered a job to perform with Skura who had also moved there. It was in Seattle that Popkin also created his first dance work professionally in 1992.

I studied with Joan (Skinner) quite seriously and then when I moved to New York I studied a different form of release technique. I was a very serious student of Susan Klein and Barbara Mahler’s.”  Popkin moved to New York in 1996 and soon began performing with Terry Creach and with the Trisha Brown Dance Company until 2004.

Lionel Popkin behind the scenes at REDCAT - Photo by Carolyn Hall.

Lionel Popkin behind the scenes at REDCAT – Photo by Carolyn Hall.

While working with Trisha Brown’s company, Popkin took a two year hiatus from choreographing his own work until a good friend commissioned a solo. “Just because of the demands of that job but then I realized very quickly that my psyche needed to be making work,” he said. “Thank God because I needed that. There’s a creative process to being in that company but I needed to be doing my own projects.”

When asked what led him to move to Los Angeles, Popkin answered, “The job at UCLA.”

Popkin is a teacher of Skinner Releasing Technique, a professor of choreography at UCLA, and a resident artist at the 18th Street Arts Center. In January, Popkin was named interim dean of UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.

I was curious to know if Popkin ever thought of forming his own company. He said yes, but that then he thought about the administration of running a company. “I wanted to be spending more time rehearsing than fundraising,” he added. While dancing with Trisha Brown, Popkin observed how she appeared to spend more time fundraising than she did rehearsing. “Part of what the university job allowed me and why it was of interest to me was that paying the rent wasn’t tied to a commission.”

When asked how he manages to balance his job at the university and his creative life, Popkin smiled and said, “Very, very carefully.” He talked about how each takes prominence over the other at different times and how one just needs to be aware of which job requires one’s full attention. It is, however, something that Popkin has been thinking a lot about and discussing with friends and colleagues; how to cultivate that creative practice in one’s life and not let the “gatekeepers” of his profession determine what choices he makes. “The pandemic really brought this out in a large way, I think,” he added. “My sanity depends on my maintaining a creative practice. It is the creative practice that holds my soul.”

Lionel Popkin - Behind The Scenes at REDCAT - Photo by Carolyn Hall.

Lionel Popkin – Behind The Scenes at REDCAT – Photo by Carolyn Hall.

I asked Popkin to explain the title of this new, Reorient the Orient. He began by describing and demonstrating with hand gestures a work that he created in 1995. It involved two lights, one the top and one the bottom, with two performers moving between them so that the viewer only saw half of each person. “I made the elephant piece. I made the piece where we cooked curry on stage,” he explained. “ I’ve always been thinking through what it means to be a brown South Asian body on these stages and what are the assumptions that people bring to that and what I bring to it.”

He went on to say that due to his dance training, he is an unusual body within the South Asian discourse. Popkin did study some Indian dance while in New Delhi, but very briefly. He voiced that he has been caught betwixt and between – not Indian enough or not American enough.

According to Popkin, there are two stories within Reorient the Orient. One relates to how South Asian performers have existed on concert stages over the past 150 years or so. The other story reflects his own archives of 30 years of dance making and how the two relate or speak to each other. “The piece is really that,’ he said. “The retrospective is how are they talking to each other. I think that I was looking for something that spoke to how I was trying to undo the presumptions that we have when we go to see a South Asian dance piece.”

Exterior of REDCAT - From the web.

Exterior of REDCAT – From the web.

In the press release for Reorient the Orient it states that “The 8 Hour Durational, Multimodal Performance and Exhibit Will Transform the Theater, Gallery, and Lobby” so I asked Popkin to elaborate on how REDCAT will be transformed. He described how during the pandemic he was running ideas past the former curator at REDCAT, Edgar Miramontes, and at one point asking what if they used all the spaces; the gallery, the theater, everything.

What’s transformative about it is that everything is open from 2 pm to 10 pm,” he said. “the theater, the gallery, and there’s video. There are lots of video installations, and there are objects in various places.” Popkin said that there is a map and a brochure that the audience members can use to help select their own journey. The theater and the gallery have set hours and there are what he called activations that last approximately two hours with four performers doing twelve scores each.

This all takes place at 3 pm and 7:30 pm lasting approximately two hours but Popkin explained that depending on when one arrives, that there could potentially be performers in the gallery with only one in the theater or three performing in the theater while the other performers are taking a break in their dressing room. “There is a meandering that is involved in this and a choice making for the audience about what they choose to look at,” he said. “So the space isn’t operating like a gallery or a theater. It’s acting like both and both are trying to operate as both.”

It also states in the press release that “Reorient the Orient” is Popkin’s response to the dubious history of interculturalism. A durational (8 hours) performance event and multimodal installation, which includes video, ephemeral objects, printed matter, historical context, contemporary responses, and scored movement activities–as social agitation. I asked Popkin to define “contemporary responses”.

Still from Walking from Home (2024), directed by Lionel Popkin - Image courtesy of the artist

Still from Walking from Home (2024), directed by Lionel Popkin – Image courtesy of the artist

The thing about Orientalism is it fixes the brown body in a kind of ancient cultural heritage place,” and how much of South Asian dance is incorrectly seen as only temple dances from thousands of years ago. “I’m interacting with these things from a diasporic contemporary lens. I am not trying to reify an ancient wisdom or play in that because I vehemently disagree with that.”  Popkin went deeper into the politics behind why he feels this way, but that is a subject for another article.

There are four performers in Reorient the Orient: Jay Carlon, Lionel Popkin, Arushi Singh, and Wilfried Souly and each is dealing with questions of orientalism and the othering of the body in very different ways. As mentioned above, Popkin is East Indian and Jewish. Jay Carlon is the son of parents who migrated here from the Philippines, Arushi Singh was raised in New Delhi and moved here when she was an adult, and Wilfried Souly is from Burkina Faso, Africa. Each coping with existing with dual identities.

Each dancer received their scores via snail mail. Each learned their scores before everyone got together in Popkin’s studio to discuss and perform their score for each other in order to help create enough shared language so that each knew why they were going about each score. It is important to Popkin that an audience member is able to connect the scores through this shared language and recognize the similarities but that each dancer is approaching the work from their own angles and in their own ways.

As I usually end my interviews, I asked Popkin if there was anything he wanted readers to know about Reorient the Orient that we had not discussed.

Still from Six Positions on Uncertainty (2020) directed by Lionel Popkin - Image courtesy of the artist

Still from Six Positions on Uncertainty (2020) directed by Lionel Popkin – Image courtesy of the artist

He emphasized how because there is so much going on within this performance that it is impossible to catch it all in one viewing. “And that’s okay,” he said. “Get what you get and to sit with that is totally fine. And that’s a political stance, like the politics of partiality.” If someone is standing in the gallery watching dancers perform, there might also be others performing in the theater at the same time. “And that’s part of it. But also that’s part of my own mixed identity, that you can’t singularize anything. Nothing is monochromatic or even diachronic, right? Things have to be multiple. And so there’s always multiple things happening in that space just as I feel like my identity is not singular.”

The Cast and Creative Team includes: Performance by Jay Carlon, Lionel Popkin, Arushi Singh, and Wilfried Souly; Original Sound by Tom Lopez; Video Design by Meena Murugesan; Lighting Design by Christopher Kuhl; Costume Design and Visual Consultation by Marcus Kuiland-Nazario; Artist and Archive Consultation by Cori Olinghouse; Stage Manager Paige O’Mara; Production Assistant Jackie Davis; and Map Design by Jesse Bonnell of Foghorn & Co.

Performance tickets include access to the Reorient the Orient installation in the theater and gallery, on view from 2:00pm to 10:00pm. Performance times are 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm. Taking place at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles (631 West 2nd Street, 90012), tickets cost $27, with discounts available for REDCAT members, students and the CalArts community ($14-$22). For tickets and more information, please visit: https://www.redcat.org/events/2024/lionel-popkin.

To learn more about Lionel Popkin, please visit his website.

To see REDCAT’s full season of performances, please visit their website.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Lionel Popkin – Photo by Steven Gunther.