Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Coco Karol: Journey of a Female Voice in Dance

Coco Karol
photo by Joseph Victorine

Coco Karol: Journey of a Female Voice in Dance

by Melanie Greene

4 o’ clock in the afternoon. The air is thick and hot. Eying a table and bench made of wood, we find a cozy spot underneath a covered patio. Condensation forms on the outside of my plastic cup and runs down the back of my hand—refreshingly cold against the vibrating heat. Ice cubes clash inside the container, melting into the green tea liquid. I’m look forward to taking a sip of this cool refreshment.

Karol sits comfortably on an adjacent wooden bench to my right. She carefully sips her tea, while I sip mine. In the shade, we catch bouts of wind that we gladly coax through the fibers of our clothes and against our skin. Taking one last sip of our liquid refreshment, we begin to talk at length....

If you Google or Bing modern dance images, you will encounter a visual menagerie of female and male bodies frozen in suspensions, extensions, and vertical contradictions to gravity. Refine your search further to choreographers and you may peruse lists counting up and down the decades of modern and contemporary dance greats.

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by discussions in recent literature surrounding the presence of the male gender bias in dance. From choreographers and company directors to performers, male visibility is undeniably large in a field dominated in numbers by women.

The Dance Advantage blog offers a possible reason for this phenomenon through a guest article written by Dorothy Gunther Pugh. Because there are fewer men, a perceived male scarcity leads to preferential treatment in the form of free training, bonuses, and unique performance opportunities and experiences (http://www.danceadvantage.net/2011/02/22/women-in-dance/a). It is within this climate that I wish to remember the female artistic voice in dance; the choreographers, creators, educators, performers, and provocateurs. To highlight the female artistic voice in dance brings into question what it means to be female or have a feminist voice in dance. The feminine mystique does not only appear in issues and content relating to females; therefore, it is not exclusive to females. This aesthetic can extend beyond culturally constructed ideas of gender, so it may be important to first define what I mean when referring to the female artistic voice.

Locating the feminist voice in dance involves considering how women and other under-represented minorities are represented in dance. It considers the stereotypes and portrayals of women and does not assume to locate a universal idea of feminine identity. It considers the fine line between oppression and empowerment. It is this voice that I wish to hear and highlight in this article.

To find the feminist voice in dance--and indeed that of other under-represented minorities--we must consider how the population is currently represented and treated in dance. We cannot assume that dance holds one universal truth about feminine identity that dictates how women should exist and participate in dance. Instead, we consider the information that flows through and around us as a tool to perceive, understand, and sometimes provoke existing circumstances. It is this information that shapes our understanding and consideration about interactions and relationships. It allows us to consider the fine line between oppression and empowerment, real and fantasy, and realized and fetishized. It is this voice that I wish to hear and highlight in this article.

I met Coco Karol during a six-week dance summer intensive in Durham, North Carolina. We participated in a theory class designed for dance professionals and artists wishing to obtain their Master of Fine Arts. We shared a unique space with others that nurtured questions and considerations about dance as it related to pedagogy, sexuality, phenomenology, and visual aesthetics.

Upon our first encounter, I was struck by Karol's careful consideration of thought during group discussions. She appeared genuine in the way she chose to articulate her ideas without appearing disrespectful, combative, or condescending.

Collective Collaboration         Passion projects                  Long hours

                Distant    work that brings people together

Different-Language-New                                                   Communication


Collaborations cultivate a collection of ideas, insights, talents, and passion. It marries disciplines and encourages many languages to come together as one.

Karol and I shared stories about the nature of collaboration and the possibilities that can manifest even when artists speak very different artistic languages. It is very rewarding when artists are able to bridge gaps and discover new ways of communicating.

Karol has worked on a series of collaborative projects with artist Björk; photographer Steven Sebring; sculptor Eve Bailey; composer Inhyun Kim; and dancer Chloe Douglas. With each work and collaboration, Karol identifies a set of conceptual challenges that are influenced by the collaborative medium. These seeds of consideration and contemplation root the foundation of her works. As a set of challenges becomes realized, Karol sees it as an opportunity to explore new challenges. For example, when moving within the physical structures designed by Sebring, Karol spoke about how conceptual challenges served to mirror physical ones. Working inside a 360-degree photo rig with Sebring, Karol described how, “the two of us talked our way to a final product, each person at different times responding, reacting or having agency, within our respective mediums.”

As a mover, it is important to work within evolving environments that present new questions and challenges for the performer. It keeps the mind and body active, thinking, and agile. Many would agree that this trait is also advantageous in life. We have to be able to fluctuate and adjust to daily challenges. Collaboration gives you an opportunity to work with different people, which has the potential to generate unique excitement when you see “what can happen when everyone involved is learning and growing” together.

Collaboration with architect Marcos Zotes
from the installation Rafmögnuð Náttúra--
a temporary and site-specific light installation animating the facade of
Iceland’s Hallgrímskirkja Church with a large 3d video-mapping projection
from Karol's film-in-progress, Topography
photo by Azmi Mert Erdem
Entasis Dance (2012), Karol's collaboration
with sculptor Eve Bailey
photo by Adam Bailey

Examples of recent collaborative works for Karol include Entasis Dance with Eve Bailey, Rafmögnuð Náttúra conceived by Marcos Zotes, When Insight Comes In a Dream III. I write to you and you feel me composed by Inhyun Kim, and Karol's own creative brainchild Topography.

Interacting with sculptures designed by Bailey (http://evebailey.net/), video footage and images can be found of Karol twisting, molding, and elongating her body around organic sculptures. In Rafmögnuð Náttúra (http://www.rafmognudnattura.com/), Karol created and performed a dance in Brooklyn that was later projected on Hallgrimskirkja church in Iceland. During When Insight Comes In a Dream III. I write to you and you feel me, Karol's movement sequence created a duet with Kim's composition (http://findingcoco.net/videos) guiding the eye and ear to consider musical and physical forms.

Karol’s current Topography project continues along the spirit of collaboration, combining a collection of mediums, including dance, film, music, and projection. Her vision for this project continues to create a space that nurtures the intersection of diverse voices and disciplines. Topography enlists film to explore the human body as a landscape and navigates the physical perimeters of that space to allow the body to alternate between "map and means, path and pathos, guide and guided." While Karol spends a majority of her time teaching and performing, she is fueled by collaborative projects and doesn’t mind the flexible lifestyle. She attributes this to being surrounded by a supportive family and community of inspiring artists.

For a time, Karol articulated her gratitude for her experiences and opportunities. When I asked Karol how she comes by these amazing projects, she spoke about how they grow organically. Work begets work. One opportunity leads to another. She added that, “whenever you’re open to the possibility of something happening, something does.” She did admit that she has a difficult time saying no to projects, but fortunately she has met some amazing people by not saying no. Over the years though, she has figured out how to say yes with terms and conditions.

from the 2012 gallery show, Method of Loci
photo by Rogue Space

In Brooklyn, Karol built and managed a performance space called the Petri space: “a small petri dish concept, dedicated to experimentation, education, community, and roof top gardening" (findingcoco.com). While it was really hard to live and work in the same space, Karol spoke proudly about the nurturing vibe of the Petri space. Here you were allowed to fail, succeed, and discover. The Petri space cultivated beautiful moments where roles were given the space to combine, collide, and shift like an enchanted orchestration of improvisation. Karol has also participated in programs that promoted arts in education. Working with schools in Staten Island and Queens, she said, “You have the capacity to do more and feel rewarded by what you’re doing” when you see how it resonates with students.


Karol was raised in Boston but has lived in Brooklyn for about ten years. She acquired her undergraduate degree at Tisch School of the Arts and has a background in ballet, modern, contemporary, and improvisation. The opportunity to travel a lot has greatly influenced her worldview, with trips to South Africa and Austria leaving the biggest impact.

As a proponent of physical and mental wellness, Karol advocates establishing a daily meditation practice of one's own. She practices a type of insight mediation, which brings one's busy, straying thoughts back to one's breath. The consideration here is to be mindful about the bodily sensation of breath and how it can inform one' s thoughts and treatment of reality. This practice allows you to observe how your mind wanders–or gets distracted, or reacts–and how to have compassion for it and treat it with gentleness without struggling to control it.

Remembering to breathe mindfully while living in a big city is very advantageous. Like a piece of advice a man once offered me while sitting over a continental breakfast in a hotel in San Francisco, “The most important thing for me is that next breath. Without it, there is no next step.”

There are many ways to find balance, but you must commit to it being an ongoing investigation. “One way is to remember to take a pause. You can go to the Met and have a home for a day,” Karol added. This mindfulness promotes a healthy life and state of mind when living in a big city. As many have experienced, life in the city can be difficult, but Karol reminds us that

"There are a lot of different New Yorks. You just have to carve out the right one for you."

As we concluded our interview, Karol spoke about her part in the dance world and her hesitation to call herself a choreographer. She doesn’t see herself as a conductor, commanding bodies in space. Instead, she sees her role as creator, dance maker, and dancer. “It feels good to be a woman creator in dance,” she says.

Karol occupies a powerful place that encourages women to be artistic explorers. Through her, we see, feel, and experience how the female voice becomes manifest within artistic mediums. This evolving voice may speak to many or only a few. It is generous, considerate, challenging, provocative, delicate, aggressive, and all that flows in-between.

A friend of Karol once gave her this powerful reminder that also inspires me and fuels optimism within my spirit as I continue my journey and personal history with dance…

The universe never says no, but answers with one of the following…

(1) Yes, (2) Yes, but not now, or (3) I’ve got something better.


Endlessly fascinated by the different modes, means and mediums of communication and transformation, Coco Karol has made collaboration with artists and musicians who speak in entirely different and vast artistic vocabularies, the focus of her choreography and performance work. Likewise, the language of existing or created environments, of installation or site specific stage settings, have excited her imagination.

After graduating with a BFA in Dance from Tisch school of the arts she has had the pleasure of getting to work closely with many interesting artists such as the singer Bjork and film collective Encyclopedia Pictura, designer Jennifer Gonzales, director Steven Cook, and magazine Beautiful Decay. Karol is an eager, existing member of Chris Elam's Misnomer Dance Theater, where she also wrestles with themes of communication in its varying degrees of choreographic language.
In Addition to performing works at an experimental performance space in Brooklyn, Karol built, called the Petri space—a small petri dish concept, dedicated to experimentation, education, community, and roof top gardening—her  collaborations have been shown at D.U.M.B.O Under the Bridge Festival, New York Studio Gallery, Galapagos, Brooklyn Ballet, Death By Audio, and Aunts collective, as well as at some unique community events for neighborhood youth and gardening.


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful article ... rich and multi-faceted. Thank you, Eva.... and Coco, so happy you have been a part of my teaching and professional life. Bravo to a brave, soulful and talented woman!


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