I am very excited to share with you this conversation between Monkeyhouse's newest member, Courtney Wagner and one of its founding members, Amelia O'Dowd. (Amelia was the Against the Odds Rockstar of the Day not too long ago!) They have a lot of interesting and exciting things to share so I'll let you get right to it!
CW: As a founding member of Monkeyhouse, how do you feel the company has grown and changed over the past decade?
AOD: Monkeyhouse has shifted focus since the beginning. It has become more focused, clearer in its identity. When we first started, we were looking at these big nationally/internationally touring companies and trying to fit into that model, which was really the only model available at the time. Over the years, Karen and the board of directors have done a great job of taking parts of the model and changing it. They recognized that there were all these niches that no one was filing. Monkeyhouse has been adapting itself to fill those niches, constantly evolving, finding new ways to survive and meet the community’s needs.
CW: Your background is in visual art - how did you transition into dance and performing arts?
AOD: Gosh, it was a long slow process. I don’t know if it ever fully happened. I think in terms of shapes and textures - even sound is a texture for me. I’ve played in a variety of materials. I was always jumping from one “category” of art to another – ceramics to drawing to fibers to slides to story telling. When I was in art school, that was a little bit of a problem because the school was divided into departments based on materials but I’ve never been in a monogamous relationship with a single material. Monkeyhouse, on the other hand, is all about working across disciplines. I had to learn the new big discipline of using my body as a material. I remember very early on that I had to consciously stop and think about the shapes I was making with my body, trying to get the image in my head out into the world. It was really hard. Over time, that process became more smooth, less conscious, but I still never became monogamous with dance.
CW: You seem to be known for your more zany side of choreography (both in Ramafeezled and something about a bustling skirt in Pygalgia?) - where do your inspirations for these pieces come from?
AOD: My mind. That probably comes across as a dismissive answer and it sounds silly and probably isn’t very helpful, but I think in a different way than a lot of dancers and choreographers. I assume that I think differently because I wasn’t formally trained. I draw from all the other ways I have experienced and learned about the world. It all seems normal inside my head.
CW: What do you think of some of the adaptations and translations Monkeyhouse has made to pieces, including adapting your Ramfeezled, in addition to Firk and Pygalgia? Is it fun to see different interpretations of the same work? How are they different and changed? How are they the same?
AOD: I haven’t actually seen the new Ramfeezled and I understand that there is yet another Firk that has been added to the repertoire. I’d like to see these pieces, but I don’t feel like I need to. It’s not mine; it never was. Work is constantly changing. Even the same performer performs it differently one night to the next. I love that Monkeyhouse embraces that constant change. I read On the Origin of Species last week, so I’ve got evolutionary theory roaming around in my mind right now. If we take one lesson from Darwin, I think it should be that adaptation to our environment is a requirement for survival; it’s when we are no longer capable of changing that we force ourselves into extinction.
CW: What kind of work have you been doing (dance theater and otherwise) since leaving the Boston area?
AOD: Well, I worked out solutions to a couple of pieces that I had been working on before I left Boston. Unfortunately, I’ve worked those out in my mind and haven’t been dancing, so I think they will probably never see a stage. Other than that, I’ve been restoring a brick Victorian home, learning to grow food, going to school and working with my community. I live in Dayton, Ohio, a rustbelt city that is still experiencing population loss. America has a dozen or so cities like this, the most well known of which is Detroit. Unless you’ve spent time in one of these cities, it’s hard to understand what it’s like to live in these types of communities. Dayton is frequently referred to as a dying city, but it’s not. It is a living, breathing community, but it is not what it used to be. Manufacturing is not coming back, and the city is changing. I like to think that I am helping my community identify niches and removing/moving around obstacles that are getting in the way of our evolution.
CW: Tell us a little bit about the pieces you are sending our way to display and sell at the festival?
AOD: I sent several crochet necklaces made from a variety of fibers I’ve collected over the years – some are even from yarn pitstops made during Monkeyhouse tours. They are organic, bubbly shapes, intended to be worn as a necklace or scarf. I also sent some clutches made from upcycled men’s suit jackets and dress shirts and a couple of potholders made from upcycled felted sweaters.
CW: A theme of Monkeyhouse is bringing people together and encouraging communication. How do you think your visual arts background has helped and changed the company and vice versa? Does Monkeyhouse influence your art at all?
AOD: Monkeyhouse influences me everyday. I had a teacher when I was at Walnut Hill, Mr. Carver, who said that the greatest artists practice the art of living. At seventeen or eighteen I didn’t get it. Truthfully, that statement probably means something different to every person who reads it. For me, right now, I think it means that living is hard work, but if we understand it as an art, as a way of constantly creating beauty and raising awareness, it is more fulfilling. Monkeyhouse was never easy for me, but it was always fulfilling. I think we shortchange ourselves and the arts when we try to suggest that the arts are separate from our lives or when we suggest that the arts are luxuries. We Americans believe very firmly in a rational world, but people, and the world we build, are irrational. The arts help us to trust ourselves make necessary irrational leaps, evolutionary jumps, that lead us to insight that we can’t find just by rational, logical methods.