Welcome to Tools of the Trade, a series about the unusual objects that help make Seattle art happen.
As the dancers prepare to perform Swan Song—a creation by New York's Madboots (Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz) that's as part of the Whim W'Him's season-opening Choreographic Shindig (September 9–17)—they must remain ever mindful of the floral friends sharing the stage with them. That's because Campbell and Diaz's artistic design for Swan Song requires 16,000 blue rose petals.
“[The stage] starts out pretty clean," says Campbell. "[The pedals are] kind of placed in piles around the perimeter of the space, and over the course of the 22 minutes, they get carried out, they get dropped, just from the [dancers] running around they float into the space. There’s also a fan involved in one of the corners of the space that is actually kind of pushing them out into the space every once in a while. But mostly [it’s done] through the dancers just picking them up and moving them into the space.”
"There's not much magic to it," jokes Diaz.
Campbell and Diaz were drawn to the imagery of the rose petals for a variety of reasons. They serve as nods to classicism, iconic ballet imagery, nostalgia, and the natural world. "We liked that kind of conflict of these very soft, elegant, beautiful things creating such a mess," says Campbell. "That something so soft and that could just make so much chaos, we loved that."
An additional source of inspiration from the piece came from Charles Bukowski's poem My Garden:
in the sun and in the rain
and in the day and in the night
pain is a flower
pain is flowers
blooming all the time.
"[The poem] really spoke to us," says Campbell. "The two lines that really stuck out were ‘pain is a flower / pain is flowers.’ Let's roll with this and thread it through this piece."
The choice to use rich navy blue of the petals came about once the Madboots duo realized the realities of their performance space, the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway. They'd originally planned on Swan Song employing a monochromatic pink color scheme for both the costumes and the petals, but when they learned the surface they'd be performing on was black, not white, they shifted course. On the darker floor, the navy petals offer a look of iridescence and create more of a textural landscape.
So how does one obtain thousands upon thousands of colored rose petals? The internet, of course. Diaz and Campbell found a distributor in China that sells inexpensive bags of 500 petals. Unfortunately, the job wasn't done when they arrive.
"We spent quite a lot of time opening those bags and separating [the petals] when they get stuck together," says Campbell. "Hours of separating them," adds Diaz, with a laugh. But the duo has at least come up with creative ways to pass the time while doing the mind-numbing task. "We were just watching [fellow Whim W'Him Choreographic Shindig choreographer] Joseph Hernadez's piece, just sitting there with a box in between our legs and separating them. Kind of mundanely doing it while watching this really physically bombastic piece. So we kept ourselves entertain. [Laughs]."
So what exactly are the 16,000 blue rose petals supposed to represent in Swan Song? The Madboots men prefer to be coy about it.
"We know we’ll probably get a lot of questions about them, because there’s a lot of symbolism tied to flowers, petals, and roses," say Campbell. "Even between the two of us, we have very different perspectives on what they mean. I think it’s going to touch people or kind of resonate with people in several different ways, and from a creative standpoint, we’re really okay with that. We’re kind of hoping for it. It’s all about the interpretation for us."
Whim W'Him Choreographic Shindig
Sept 9–17, Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, $25–$50