“The Other Witch—Contemplation” a response by Yoshinojo Fujima

A response to Nejla Yatkin’s The Other Witch made in production residency at the Dance Center of Columbia College co-sponsored by the Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum and the Performance Response Journal.

The first segment of the film premiered October 23rd. The remaining two segments will stream October 30th and November 6th. Visit the Dance Buffet for tickets.

photo credit: Philip Dembinski

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The Other Witch

Before #1  –The Other Witch – Sonar Blips from afar

I am assisting in the streaming performance for a creative music band, in dim lighting, wearing a mask. The air in the small venue has been cranked up to full in an attempt to keep the air circulating.  This is to thwart the virus, but the more tangible result is that the entire place is freezing, and although it might be considered a luxury during the heat of summer in late July, I sit hunched over the keyboard trying to absorb the warmth from my laptop, wishing I could gulp my way-too-hot Dunkin’ coffee and consoling myself that the maple frosted donut will help insulate the heat.  I take tiny painful sips and then look towards the guitar player and crew.

There is still time before the scheduled sound check so the band members rehearse and want to do another run through.  The sound engineer is savvy and has, of course, been recording their rehearsal too (I usually record bits and pieces of audio and video for documentation purposes)…  Who’d of thought to bring gloves and a scarf in July? The mask has become the new clothing accessory and I have a plastic face shield too. I can hear my own breathing as I double click and eagerly search for Nejla’s email.

Nejla sent me the teaser trailer for The Other Witch

Initial reaction to Nejla’s The Other Witch teaser trailer and rehearsal footage:

First, I read her process narration regarding her personal connection with the impression of witches and the different perceptions of what ‘a witch’ brings forth. There is the scary, negative force witch vs. the powerfully in-tune-with nature witch she recalls from her memories extracted from the resonating thoughts of her own grandmother.

I pressed play, prepared and expecting to see the ‘positive, sprite spirit witch’, but the trailer actually fortified a disturbing image for me. I watched it a few times, and each time I was transfixed by an image that seemed unearthly. (I use “unearthly” to refer towards spirits, the otherworld, and the realm where in Japanese lore vengeful spirits and mystical creatures roam. It is not a cheerful place.) The images were in black and white, the motion flowed in an unnatural presentation.  When observing something, we take the flow of time for granted; i.e.  the “smoothness” of a motion. Or, since we are able to see time in small pieces, we are able to string together and  smooth out the motions that are occurring before us (like spreading frosting on a cake: we see the entire cake, but the frosting smooths over each little bit of cake).  The scary movie clips have taken out chunks of the movement, and it makes me feel that something is hidden and unknown.  Maybe because one knows there are bits missing, you haven’t caught everything, the chocolate frosting has been taken away, so it feels like you ‘know’ less. This leaves me unsettled. Camera edits that force you to acknowledge that your vision is being manipulated so that the ‘smooth chocolate frosting’ is missing, and there are strangely shaped bites taken out of the cake…I do not like horror films, but I have been unable to escape seeing images from movies like “The Grudge” and “The Ring,” where the natural observation of motion has been tampered with in such a way that the eyes recoil in reaction to the eerie flow they are experiencing.

Perhaps I misread her explanation?  I will have to wipe away these impressions in the sunlight and revisit the footage again.

Before #2  -The Other Witch – First Sighting

A month has gone by, it is a summer day, and the heat reminds me how much I have been able to avoid sweating this summer.  Instead I am sweating out of worry; in isolation, indoors.

I enjoyed the 20 min. walk from the parking structure to the theater.  Being OUTSIDE is enjoyable.  I revel at how I am truly happy to see a strange cluster of bees, hurriedly buzzing among the cityscaped flowers instead of panicking and looking for the sure-to-be nearby hive  There shouldn’t be this many bees in this little marked off grid, in the middle of the city. I also quickly decided that this is evidence of the benefits of a suppressed human presence. Now the bees don’t have all the cell phone signals to confuse/kill them. The environmental doomsday clock is pulled back from midnight and the earth is just starting its retaliation against the strange human infestation….

I reach the theater and have worked up a sweat, the security guard peers worriedly at me as I step back from the facial temperature check.  TOO CLOSE it reads, the alarm beeping. “Are you okay?” she asks.  I had to explain that I parked the car quite far and had to walk 20 min. to get to the theater.  “Why did you do that?” she replies, but once my ‘within norm’ temperature registers, she goes back to her cell phone, losing interest.

photo by: Philip Dembinski

I try to quietly open the heavy double doors to the theater, and luckily, they had just finished lunch and were beginning to set up for the afternoon film shoot.  I looked towards the 3 or 4 tech crew and smiled beneath my mask in greeting, making sure to try and make eye contact and nod as I passed by. Everyone was busy so I made my way in to find a seat.  I was nervous.   I didn’t want to be in the way, I didn’t know if they were going to be in the middle of something. As nice and cordial the random meetings I had with Nejla were (at social events, or by chance, bumping into each other at other studios, knowing myself, I know the pressures of being “in production” are handled differently by different people, so I didn’t know what to expect. (And I only had the eerie trailers to feed the hungry anxiety beasts in my mind…)  Luckily and after two attempts, I found a seat that I both wanted to sit in, and was able to sit in.  The theater seats were forcibly socially distanced, the seats were lashed with what reminded me of those plastic ties used to keep huge industrial garbage bags closed. Imagine having MANY seats between you and the next patron, so that if you are trying to open your butterscotch candy, it will probably echo more since there is more space. (As opposed to the undercover tactic of muffling your candy against your clothing as you attempt to smother the crackling noises.)

After fumbling with the seats, trying to sit down into the seat while making the seat open (but being foiled by those plastic strips locking the seat in the ‘up’ position) and attempting all this while getting distracted by a gigantic umbrella in the back corner of the stage with shards of mirrors in random patterns on it (like the Justin Timberlake album cover where he is stomping on the disco ball, and they scooped up pieces of that and stuck it onto the umbrella). There was also a huge flat tarp which, after I saw her using it, looked more parachute-like than the paper dress mats we use for our kimono changing.

Nejla entered wearing a black costume that reminds me of the Black Swan. Although the gown is long, I can see as she walks across the stage that she is barefoot. The mask she wears would fit into regulation specs of covering nose, mouth, eyes, and well, face really.  Her entire head is covered.  It is a baby remnant of the huge umbrella I saw earlier while hunting for a free-roaming seat.

I saw her rehearse the movements and I preferred these exposed motions.   I think it gives back the sense that one has—for lack of a better word— ‘control’ of what is being seen. Watching a film reminds me that the director has absolute control of what we are seeing. (Can you tell I’d  rather be watching a live performance?!)  I don’t know what the soundtrack will be. I think I am using that term for the sound because the preview brought forth images of movies…scary movies…

But she is filmed in silence except for the whirring of the huge fan on the floor sweeping away stagnant worries of the outside heat.

It’s now the second or third take and I am starting to include my own soundtrack to her tensed movements, a soundtrack orchestra with Tchaikovsky-like swells and terror movie high pitches and low plucking noises (not the repeating “Psycho” chords, we are still in the ‘curious but wary’ stage of this movie).

She is wearing another mask on top of the first sparkly one. From this distance, it looks like what one would see if a bank robber used a stocking over their face; a squished nose, the eyes are hard to open, maybe she has long eye lashes, and those are forcibly pressed into the stocking.  I will have to ask for a closer look. I expect to have my mental image ‘corrected’.  It is a white mask; however, it appears to have some kind of slightly shimmery cloth, I feel like I see locks of hair blurred into it, or perhaps, it is meant to be a non-facial covering, a smoother baseball catcher’s mask.  I cannot see any discernible expression or ‘face.’

As she maneuvers with the black tarp, now billowing like a parachute from the whirring floor fan, I think how she has to be careful to present ‘controlled’ movements otherwise it would be easy to slip into a frantic ‘need-to-keep-the-parachute-from-flying-out-of-my-grasp’ sequence. (Yes, I realize it is a part of her dancing, but it appears to me this way. This is all I can think about as a dancer who regularly has to manipulate/dance with kimono.)

Nejla waves and says “hey” walking by after giving a direction to the lighting team, wearing her mask like a shiny knit beanie, a cuter image of Baba Yaga, no less…

Seeing the filming of the piece comforted me. It was nothing like the scary horror movie trailer that I saw. (And she was chill and not a “witch”).  I am much less worried about being engulfed by my thoughts and look forward to seeing the finished edited film, and having an extended conversation with her, hopefully outside in the sun with the bees.

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Yoshinojo Fujima is a PRJ embedded writer.