Interviews with a Sculpter, a Violinist, a Corpse Expert, a Choreographer, a Dancer, and a Clarinetist
Portraits by Kelly O
Two years ago, after moving to Seattle from Lahore, Pakistan, your first solo show was about your miscarriages. Were you afraid to be so public?
I don't know why I have this personality, but whatever people don't want to talk about, I want to bring it up. In our society, if you tell someone you had a miscarriage, they think it's your fault, so women stop talking about it. I decided I would share because maybe it helps somebody else.
The miscarriage pieces were carved wood sculptures. Now you're showing miniature paintings, done on the functional side of irons you sculpted out of wood.
In Pakistan, sculpture is really not recognized at all. People started thinking that it's like worshiping idols. I am a Muslim. And I had this big passion that I had to support sculpture. I took it as a challenge. Then I did this series combining sculpture and miniature—it was an idea I'd always wanted to execute. I went to Contemporary Istanbul [annual international art fair], and I showed them some images. In Pakistan, many people are doing miniature painting, because the National College of Arts is the only school in the world that offers a full degree in miniature painting. But when they saw [in Istanbul] that someone was combining sculpture and miniature, it was like, "You are doing something different, why don't you work on it more?"
You have a nude in this show, but you never studied from the nude.
I went to the best art school in Pakistan—it is considered a place where you had freedom. People dream to visit that place. But the maximum we had was a male person wearing shorts. And no women showing any skin. If you see nudes in works from [Pakistani] artists, it is a lot learned from books.
How has art in Pakistan changed in your lifetime?
When I went to school in 1997, it was considered a hobby. People encouraged their daughters to take art so that they could decorate their houses better. My family said, "Okay, you can do what you like, but there will be no support from the family," and I took it as a challenge. After a few years, I was able to establish myself, and my father said in front of the family, "I think that was a right decision and I am so proud of her." That was one of the golden moments of my life.
Abid shows work at ArtXchange Gallery through March 16, artxchange.org.
Your bio says you were appointed associate concertmaster of Seattle Symphony in 2009, and that you're British, but you don't sound British.
What? Do I not? No! I'm leaving my British behind—I've been here for eight years. What do I sound, more importantly? Don't say Australian. I can sound more British if you like. Cup of tea and the queen and everything.
You've played different kinds of music—folk especially—but classical is your home base. Do you find working from a score liberating or constricting?
It's very frustrating and it's liberating and your work is never done. There's no consistency at all. My interpretation of the score depends on the kind of year I'm having. Sometimes I scale it back and I want things to be super clean and unfussy and faithful. And other times I'll think, "I want to find my voice and I want to go my own way." Usually, it overlaps with a big life change.
It'd be great to read a book on the psychology of classical musicians relating to notations—notation as a form of authority. What's your relationship to authority?
Oh wow, that's a very, very loaded and interesting question. I mean, I'm a rebel for sure. But I want to do things that are interesting and way out there with good taste. I find it irritating when someone's produced an interpretation and the sole purpose of it is to be wacky.
What are the biggest differences between Gerard Schwarz, the old music director, and Ludovic Morlot, the new?
They're like chalk and cheese as conductors. Gerry wanted grand gestures and was more into the big repertoire. He liked the darker sound, more romantic and heavy. Ludo is more about clarity and lightness and fleetness.
German versus French.
Yeah, pretty much.
In addition to being a violinist, you're a trained singer, performing next season.
I just got asked to sing this piece by [Heitor] Villa-Lobos in November, and I'm like, "Ah... I've got to take some lessons." I'm already nervous. But I try to tell myself it's rarely a matter of life and death what we do. It's just a moment. And then it's gone.
McGrath performs with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra every week at Benaroya Hall and is featured especially in Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, March 8–9, seattlesymphony.org.
writer, corpse expert
What exactly is your book Rest in Pieces about?
The journeys of famous corpses—being bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, dissected, from Alexander the Great's to Osama bin Laden's. You know, there was a lot of controversy about what the US administration did with Bin Laden's corpse, whether they did the right thing or not. Basically, the Americans said that they had to get rid of the body right away, in accordance with Islamic law, which is true, but they refused to release the body to family members, because they were worried about the creation of a shrine. Political corpses are a big problem this way—there's always worry over what will happen at their grave sites. Fascists make regular pilgrimages to Mussolini's grave. Schoolkids were reciting pro-Hussein poetry at Saddam's grave, which went on YouTube and got people very upset, so the Iraqis banned organized trips to his grave. Anyway, so the Americans wanted to prevent something like that happening at Bin Laden's grave, but they sort of did it by saying: Hey, it's Islamic law, gotta bury the body in 24 hours, so we have no choice but to throw him overboard.
Did spending all of your time researching the dead, unearthing facts and details about corpses and so on, make you kind of morbid, sad, depressed? Or does this sort of thing not bother you at all?
It does make me sad. I cried a lot while writing death scenes. But I'm fascinated by how people confront their own mortality, really fascinated.
You are originally from Seattle, but you lived in New York for much of the '00s and returned to Seattle recently. How does it feel to be back?
It's wonderful. I love Seattle so much. I love the rain, the constant mild misanthropy, the goths. It's not quite as overaestheticized as New York is. There's still room for decay, for doing things that aren't constantly photographed. That said, it can be a little boring. We need more eccentrics like New York has.
Lovejoy reads from Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses on March 12 at the Rendezvous, 21+, besslovejoy.com.
This is your 10th year at Spectrum, which lured you here from New York. Does the decade mark feel arbitrary or meaningful?
A little of both. On one hand, it's like: Oh shit, 10 years just passed! But I've been surprised by how long it takes to build a company—at least 10 years until you feel like it actually starts to reflect what you have in your head. There's finding the dancers, getting them to internalize the aesthetic to where they make choices that reflect it. There's finding the right board that doesn't always like what you do, but supports what you do. People forget that a board is not about liking. If the work is doing what it's supposed to do, you sometimes will not like it—it will push your buttons.
You have a reputation as a provocateur. Is that something you aspire to?
No, that's a young way of thinking. People who want to make their reputation sometimes consciously provoke. Most of the time, I'm surprised that people react the way they do. For god's sake, it's just a goddamned dance! Provoking takes too much energy and effort. It's like fashion—you have to work at it.
How has Seattle dance changed in that time?
There are more people going to see dance performances because there are interesting young people doing new things, or trying to. When I arrived, it was like Seattle had a lesbian mafia, and they ruled the roost in the dance scene. You had to be on their good side! Now that viewpoint is just one of many, which is great. Now we have other perspectives and aesthetics: Zoe | Juniper, Olivier Wevers, Danielle Agami, Ezra Dickinson.
What have you got for the next decade?
I have some plans for the future about helping to build an arts infrastructure. The arts in Seattle have not created a vision for the next 50 years, like "What do we want this to look like?" I won't talk about it now, but things will start to slip out in the next year or so. It's not all altruism. I want something, too. But it's like a party—you can't party by yourself. Well, I guess you can, but it's not much fun.
Spectrum Dance Theater performs A Cruel New World/the new normal, a 10th anniversary performance of Byrd's rumination on post-9/11 America, April 11–13, spectrumdance.org.
Talk about the dinosaur head.
It's an allosaurus. I copied the face out of a National Geographic. I like the idea of masks. And I like using cardboard a lot—it's a really plentiful material. It's everywhere. And it's light. Papier-mâché is a lot heavier and a lot messier. This is no mess. For me, the dinosaur is childhood—playing with dinosaurs when you're a kid.
And you've been dancing since you were a kid?
My mother is a dance teacher. She put me in dance when I was 4. I started at Pacific Northwest Ballet when I was 8, and I danced there for 12 years on full scholarship. I left PNB when I was 20, and I went to Cornish and got a degree in dance with an emphasis in choreography. Even before graduating, I was supporting myself as an artist.
You're working on an outdoor dance piece about your mom, who's been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was homeless for a time. Is that right?
Yes. She called me and tried to act like nothing weird was going on. She was like, "Oh, I'm living on the street right now," but she wanted to move on and ask me about what I was doing. And it set my imagination going—both "Oh my god, my mother is living on the street," but also "This is heavy, crazy imagery that's popping into my head now." When your parents are weird and sporadic artists, it lends itself to making art about them. And it's not like I'm making fun of them or want anyone to think less of them, but I'm really inspired by their craziness.
It's called Mother for You I Made This and starts outside the Greyhound station downtown.
Right now the performance is scheduled to begin May 6 at 7 p.m., and I'll perform every single day until May 19. Fourteen shows. Or 21 shows, if the 14 go well. I imagine this as maximum 20 people as an audience. But one day, it could be just for two people. I love the idea of having a super-intense solo performance just for two people, potentially.
What if it rains?
Great. I'm going to be providing the audience with umbrellas. And myself, I'm going to be dancing through it.
Dickinson talks about his work in progress on April 14 at Velocity Dance Center, 2 pm, free, and performs Mother for You I Made This, May 6–19, velocitydancecenter.org.
clarinetist, composer, businesswoman
In addition to performing music, you run the Frank Agency, a company that manages the careers of many local artists, including world-renowned jazz pianist Wayne Horvitz. Where is Frank's office located?
I have an office in my apartment, but I do a lot of my work at Joe Bar. You can always find me there in the balcony, doing things for my artists. I work there because it is only two blocks from where I live, but also because I'm really into Joe Bar's egg and cheese on a croissant. And the cinnamon with cream crepe—it comes with strawberries and bananas. And the hard-boiled egg with the little pickles, such a lovely side dish. Those are the only three things I order, and because I know what I'm going to order, I don't have to think about it. And if I don't think about what I'm going to eat, it doesn't get in the way of my work.
When did you start the company?
Around 2004, when I was still a student at Cornish. I like both the left and the right sides of my brain. I like being creative but also doing arts administration, writing grants, making strategic plans, and things like that. I also offer therapy for artists. But this is how it happened: I suffered a dental injury in 2001 causing nerve damage. I lost all feeling in my lips. I was not sure I was ever going to play again. I would be blowing something, and suddenly the sound would slur and drag. My lips were not responding. After a two-year medical recovery, however, things got normal again. The feeling returned to my lips. I started playing regularly and also building my philosophy for the agency, which emphasizes creativity in a culture and gives rise to creative solutions to social problems. The Frank Agency allows me to amplify as many creative voices and perspectives as possible.
Why is it called the Frank Agency?
It's a long story, but it's also a masculine thing. You know, some people think the agency is owned by a guy called Frank. Once, I had a potential client who got frustrated with me and demanded to speak to Frank. Well, there is no Frank. It's all just me.
Fleenor performs her score for the Book of Leviticus (in the Bushwick Book Club show of original music inspired by the Bible) on March 28 at Town Hall, townhallseattle.org.
This article has been updated since its original publication.