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"I do a lot of moving from one discipline to the next, but I feel like there is a lot of consistency with what I am trying to do," says Karinne Keithley Syers, a multidisciplinary artist whose work involves playwriting, performance, music and sound, dance, and academic scholarship. (She's currently getting a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center with a focus on 19th-century American literature).
Another Tree Dance, Syers's latest piece, draws on her dissertation and runs at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City from October 2-5. Syers began her doctoral program in English in an effort to break from the performance/theatre world she had been steeped in. "I really enjoyed being in English and teaching comp and not showing up to work as 'the artist,'" she says. "But at the end of this long doctoral process, I don't feel like I'm going on to a career in English scholarship. So Another Tree Dance formally and ceremonially joins these two parts of my life back up."
Using text, sound, and dance, Syers explores the philosophy of Emerson while also drawing on her personal history (she uses slides found in her grandparents' basements and attics) and the history of her own work as an artist. The result is a kind of "poet's essay" in which philosophy isn't housed in ideas and concepts, but in gestures, slides, songs, and dance.
"When I read Emerson, James, Dewey, and other foundational thinkers in the American philosophical tradition, they describe certain kinds of values for living and working and thinking. I feel like the performance and dance fields enact those same values and hold them very dear," says Syers, noting the practical applications of these 19th century philosophies as opposed to classical texts, which often espouse more theoretical ideologies.
"There are corners of the performance world that are remote from commercial existence, and you stay in them because it's a way of living. These little corners have a lot in common with the ideas for living that are proposed in these older American texts," she says, adding that her aim in <i>Another Tree Dance</i> "is to bring these beautiful old texts to the awareness of my community."
Syers, who performs in her work, describes Another Tree Dance as "an essay in the form of a room. It doesn't have an argument. [It's about] that quivery floating place where the idea is emerging. It's not about adding up."
Syers admits that her deliquescent style requires a lot of patience and attention. "It's not intentionally difficult," she says, and with a chuckle, she adds, "The piece doesn't feel academic, but it might seem nerdy."
In keeping with her interdisciplinary approach, Syers does not have a director but rather a fellow artist, Sara Smith, with whom she has been in conversation throughout the making of the piece. "Sara and I have worked together in the past. There's a lot of recuperation of old material, and we have a kind of shared library together." The two devised an assignment before Syers began writing text, and Smith operates as a director, choreographer, and dramaturg.
"The whole spine of the show is text and sound," Syers says, wondering if a future iteration might exist as a radio play. "You would lose the dancing, which is critical, but you can't dance on the radio. Dancing is a treat, but not our constant condition."
Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in New York City
Photo by Jennie Mary Tai Liu