“Where are we going, and who do we think we are? Let’s dig a hole in the ground, and let’s toss a ball in the air.”
These are lyrics from a song I wrote. I have been asking these questions through physical and spiritual practices, and my inquiry has resulted in performance work, mark making on the stage, and sound and image making in the shared space.
All my life, I have been digging. Digging in the dirt, digging through the past, digging in to the body — unearthing what it means to be human. The journey of us as a species is this search to uncover, or to remember, who we really are. And so I have made these performance works, each an archeological dig of its own, a scratching away, a discovery of artifact, and a representing of something lasting — even in the most ephemeral medium of all — performance.
Where are we going? Who do we think we are?
Early Works, Multidisciplinary Performance is a compilation of several of my early pieces, performed throughout New York City in the late 1990s. At the time, I was studying bodywork, sculpture, and drumming, and my performance work was a crucible of those three practices.
The bodywork I was engaged with was about unwinding habitual patterns in the muscular defense system. That work gave rise to images and dreams, and from these I built performance. The feet I drag behind me are made of grass, clay, and chicken wire. I carry an armful of sticks with words burnt into them, phrases which were metaphors for my personal healing journey yet became universal explorations of substances and materials, and that which we carry. Here, I am also beginning to unwind my fear of speaking in public, through sound and song.
And then I fall and get back up. This is my personal journey, but also all of human history can be found in this simple gesture: we fall, and we get back up. We begin again, and sometimes we learn.
2. The Valley is footage from these early pieces, filmed live with a bird’s eye camera and projected behind me as I performed at P.S. 122, Ubu Rep, and Dia Downtown. In this footage, I am excavating my own clay sculptures of the body from various substances and materials, almost literally uncovering Who We Are. The soundscape mixes the sound of this uncovering with pre-recorded sound of me working with elements like pieces of metal and bunches of grass.
This is the beginning of Live Sound Action, my process based on the meeting between performer and object, in space and time. It engages the performer in ordinary actions —dragging, washing, and rubbing—with ordinary objects—piles of stones, buckets, rusty chains—to release their poetry.
I see the meeting of human labor (carry, drag, touch, drop, handle) with substances found by the side of the road (leaves, paper, buckets, stones, sticks) as a contemporary theatrical form of Zen Art Practice. I was in search of embodiment and physical presence and I found that through working with my hands and working with sound.
3. Nearly a decade later found me pursuing an MFA in Theater: Contemporary Performance at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. It is there that I created Chicken Man. This piece again highlights the relationship between sound and object, and is again inspired by the practices I was studying at the time, namely Developmental Movement and Body-Mind Centering. It also marks the beginning of my focus on verbal storytelling, and finds me asking the question, “Who commits the violence that helps society function?” Chicken Man is the person who collects the organs for Dr. Frankenstein to make his Monster, and this character was created for a show that investigated “Monstrous” behavior as well as our obsession with Frankenstein.
4. Elephants and Gold 3 is an edited compilation of an ensemble musical I wrote and created as my graduate thesis and continued to develop for both the Boulder and Berkshire Fringe Festivals.
My inspiration for the piece came from an article in the New York Times about how elephants are dying out through poaching, trade, and lost environment. The piece addresses the question of Who We Are in relationship to the larger or natural order of things, as well as what we can learn about ourselves through the study and embodiment of animals.
Here I am still investigating the poetry of objects and how we make and unmake our world right before our very eyes, creating Live Sound Action with wood, stones, rope and the iron remnants of old railroads.
5. Landscape Memorial you and me is the final section of Elephants and Gold. We continue to make the performance environment as we go, through drawing on the tarpaper floor with chalk, placing and wrapping stones, and pouring mulch. Here, the poacher finally becomes the elephant.
The last image is a sculptural installation which remains as the audience transitions out of the theatrical space. It is emblematic of paths we have taken and landing points we have made along the way, and everyone gets to be with the beauty of the materials of the earth. There’s iron, stone, mulch, the fundamental materials of human survival, the stuff we dig through to discover ourselves. The beauty of detritus. What do we see as beautiful? I find beauty in a bucket of stones and what a human can do with that.
6. Five years after graduating from Naropa, I began teaching movement and dance to MFA actors at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory in Sarasota, Florida. Between the years 2012 and 2019 I developed a solo piece at numerous venues including Dixon place, United Solo Festival, the Berkshire Fringe, and Sarasota Contemporary Dance. I performed one version, O let me be the Greek whore that I am, a comedy about death, at the Sarasolo Festival in 2015. This is a video compilation of excerpts from that iteration of the solo work.
“Sticks and stones are from the earth, and words are planted later.” My own journey as an artist has followed this trajectory, and so again you see sticks, stones, buckets, earth; and, you hear me telling stories, and engaging once more with the question of Who We Are. We are beings who suffer, and beings who persevere. We are beings who die, and this work encourages us to confront and accept our own mortality. It is “a comedy about death,” and my performance draws heavily on my training in clown.
“Where are we going and who do we think we are? Let’s dig a hole in the ground, and let’s toss a ball in the air.”
“This is the end of before, and I mean that quite literally.”
7. Twenty years after beginning my creative journey, the New College New Music Foundation in Sarasota commissioned me to make work with students using Live Sound Action, and here we are in Selfie of the Ancients, still carrying and dropping, still falling and getting back up.
“We were here. We were here. We were stone throwers in the night, we were arrows bending across the light. We were time, time catchers…We were making marks on the ground, we were making marks in our mind, with our sound. With our sound.”
Digging, and making marks. We’re living, we’re fleeting, we express time, we catch time and then it’s over.
There’s a paradox in performance: it is fleeting, and yet it allows us to live in humanity’s epic longevity. And located in that owning— of our time and of our space— is true empowerment. That is my work, and it is also my process.
I continue to dig it. And stir. And I find my self to be beginning again.
— Eliza Ladd