Singer/songwriter and Folk gem Rachel Garlin released her new EP The State That We Are In in 2021 and took it on a summer tour. It represented a period of soul-searching and active engagement with her San Francisco community as well as cybercommunity, through sidewalk performances and late-night confab sessions. On top of all of that, Garlin had also trained and competed in American Ninja Warrior during this time. Not one to sit still while the world continues to lag a bit, Garlin has been embarking on video projects in connection with new songs.
Today, we’re delighted to premier the video for “To Be” at Wildfire Music + News. While many music videos are an intense and interesting collaboration between music and the visual arts, “To Be” is a story of next-level communication between several arts, not limited to, but including music, dance, and filmography. The extra twist to the story is that Garlin was originally inspired to write the song “To Be” after watching a Sarah Bush Dance Project event. Garlin then collaborated with dance and movement artist Sarah Bush and ballet director and dancer Joan Lazarus to create this “artventure” filmed in Joshua Tree in California which paints “a picture of both sovereignty and communion — with nature, with art, and with others”.
All three collaborators kindly composed this conversational essay about the evolution of the project, which you can read in full below.
Rachel Garlin, Sarah Bush, and Joan Lazarus on “To Be”
Rachel: Last year I got to tune-in to an Olivia-at-Home event with choreographer Sarah Bush and collaborators from her dance company. They shared retrospective video clips and talked about the power of multi-generational casts and their present project collaborating with the Audubon Society, dancing with birds during a global pandemic. I remember Sarah describing the need for both distance and closeness among the dancers and then she paused for a moment before saying something that felt profound to me, about the power of embodied gesture, the way that artistry and purpose can be channeled through the tiniest of muscles: through a pointed toe.
From there, the song unfolded and (be)came “To Be.” [Lyrics here]
Sarah: I was truly honored when Rachel shared with me that she had written a song inspired by the presentation I had given. Dance feels like my first language but I am most energized by the ways creativity amplifies when ideas cross mediums, and artists form ideas that could only come from that unique combination of collaborators. So, this sort of cross-pollination is totally my jam.
One of the dancers Rachel heard me speak about was Joan Lazarus, a dance icon, who I have had the total honor of getting to know and work with on several projects. Joan has 65 years of dance experience. In rehearsals with dancers one or two generations younger than her, I’d see the way she would energetically and muscularly compose her energy with such clarity and purpose that you could FEEL the story she wanted to communicate just by looking at the way she pointed her toes and stepped onto the dance floor. Joan had recently transplanted herself to the Palm Springs area and I was planning a visit. I told Rachel I’d be there, dancing with the woman who inspired her song, and asked her if she’d want to join us and film a video for the song.
Rachel: Joshua Tree had been calling me for years and so had the impulse to collaborate with Sarah. So when the call to adventure appeared on my phone, it took me all of five minutes to accept.
Sarah: The pandemic has been such a teacher for me. Each day the parameters for gathering, touching, traveling change. For those first two years, improvisation felt like the most appropriate artistic tool I had to meet each moment with. So following instinct, momentum, responding to the elements that present themselves, was in every phase of this project.
Rachel talked about her interest in this concept as a songwriter and musician, swing and release–the idea of truly letting go, without a landing place, and creating lyrics and melodies on the fly. Improvisation as part of the creative process.
I met up with Joan and we did some location scouting, looking at landscapes and envisioning what it would look like to place our dancing bodies in them, what stories would that convey? The large round rocks at Joshua Tree held us, almost like a stage, their dramatic architecture anchoring us, unlike the vast openness of other spots in the desert. The surfaces were relatively smooth, free from prickly things, and we knew we wanted to dance with bare feet.
Joan: For me, dancing in nature is a profound role switch. Dancing in a theatrical space, I am being witnessed. Dancing in nature I am the witness. When Sarah Bush calls and says, “Want to try something?” – I know it will be an adventure that goes beyond steps. It approaches a kind of embodiment that becomes more and more available as dancers mature. We find that we are no longer able to execute certain techniques, but rather begin to understand what universal constructs are linked. I am a plant. I am a rock.
So, preparation for me often is as seemingly simple as being willing to drop into the quiet space or gap in time that exists just before Rachel’s voice vibrates into the air nearby. Thankfully, Sarah has great interest in the scouting, costume part – I summon a kind of interest, but sometimes I am already in the dance. That’s why usually the “first take” is The Dance for me, and the subsequent “takes” are slightly contrived. If we were doing the dance again tomorrow night, it would be another First Take.
Rachel: Dressed for sunshine-winter in the desert, we set out with a guitar and our iPhone cameras. In a fluid exchange of performance and filming, we exchanged places— as we sang, danced, filmed, and occasionally backed-up to see the full tableau of what was becoming. Our first location was a dry cove, an ancient underwater site with tumbleweed for seaweed and water-worn caves visible in the near distance. Our second location was a prehistoric theater—a cinema where the light and shadows played naturally against a blank screen of granite.
Joan: I absolutely loved the cyclical repetition of Rachel’s song. It surged again and again, and each time I experienced a different part of it.
Rachel: I had never played music during live choreography before. I was struck by the seamless integration between the dancers—sweeping arms, gliding feet, torsos tucking through the negative spaces created by limbs in motion. At high noon, the sun flooded our scene and now with their shadows, the two dancers became a quartet, joined by the occasional chipmunk scurrying down a boulder. Also just out of view was my nine-year-old Theo, along with Sue and Sean, two intrepid outdoors people from Uprising Adventures who had guided us in some morning bouldering.
Sarah: For me, it felt like getting to dance with a narrator, Rachel, the storyteller, a kind presence, witnessing and naming the sweetness, science, art that is the creative process. In the moment, as we were in it.
Joan: Rachel was indeed the narrator, and also the artist that I wanted to please.
Rachel: The collaboration felt fluid and easy, even though I was meeting Joan for the first time. We barely conversed–there was no need–all introductions happened non-verbally during the dance. We were defining ourselves spontaneously in the cradle of the desert. In the end we made a video that paints a picture of both sovereignty and communion—with nature, with art, and with others.
Sarah: I’m always down for an “art adventure”, an “artventure”. The rush and aliveness of saying, “Yes”, again and again. To say, “No”. To listen. To tune-in. The chance to call upon my craft, use my strengths, trust my weaknesses, be in conversation with place, with others, with my body and all my senses. Wherever I’m engaged in artistic practice or performance, it’s this aliveness and exchange that I’m always looking to nurture. What a wave to get to ride.
When you watch the video, the composition you see on the screen was collaborative. The dancers composed themselves in the space. Several of us took turns filming, choosing what to place in the frame. Sarah selected a few sequences but mostly Rachel did the editing. She became one of the choreographers. We all made choices and room for serendipity to create the dance you see.
Rachel: As a songwriter, I’m in the habit of walking around with an open channel. It doesn’t mean that I give myself permission to write about everything I see or that I take liberties by transferring conversations into songs. But it does mean that when I observe art myself, as an audience member or participant, I leave open the possibility that the experience might, in turn, inspire new art to come through me. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s a privilege to be part of an exchange with the artists who come before and after me on a thread of inspiration. Sarah’s dance presentation inspired the song “To Be”, and her and Joan’s call to adventure inspired “To Be”, the video. Perhaps our video will inspire another piece of art somewhere in the world.
More about the Artists:
Sarah Bush is a dance and movement artist based in Oakland, CA. She is the Artistic Director of Sarah Bush Dance Project, currently in its 15th season. She creates multimedia dance theater works for stage and screen, inspired by human expression and connection in relationship with unique outdoor and indoor spaces. Theater and film choreography credits include Shelley Doty’s We3 at Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, The Kilbane’s rock opera Weightless at ACT’s Strand Theater, and the award-winning film Her Mother’s Daughter by Alejandra Cadena-Perez. She is also a longtime member of Krissy Keefer’s revolutionary Dance Brigade and danced with hip hop company New Style Motherlode. She’s been a guest performer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, a NBA Warrior Girl, and danced in the NBC/Lionsgate TV show, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”, (choreographed by Mandy Moore). sarahbushdance.org
Rachel Garlin is a nationally-touring singer-songwriter with eight indie albums in the folk-rock genre. Her interest in people—their stories, struggles, and truths—is at the heart of her work and has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glide Magazine, and Curve Magazine (“storytelling at its best”). Rachel’s latest album The State That We Are In offers a provocative walk through the personal and political. Rachel lives in San Francisco with her wife and three kids. Her music, videos and workshop offerings are available at www.rachelgarlin.com
Joan Lazarus served as Executive Director of Oakland Ballet, Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp (Steamboat Springs, CO), General Manager of Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center, and Executive Director of WestWave Dance, an annual festival of new choreography presented in San Francisco. She was capital campaign consultant for ODC/San Francisco’s expansion project in the Mission District, is former President of Dance Bay Area, and served on the Steering Committee of Bay Area National Dance Week.
As a dancer, Joan has performed with, or in the works of, Alonzo King, Cliff Keuter, Ellen Bromberg, Victoria Morgan, Krissy Keefer, Frank Shawl, Bill DeYoung, Toni Pimble, Richard Colton, Mary Miller, Kathleen McClintock, Sarah Bush, and Alan Ptashek, as well as being a founding member of Eugene Ballet (Oregon). She was full-time faculty in Dance at the University of Oregon and Mills College, and taught at San Francisco Ballet, Dance Circle of Boston, The Princeton Ballet, and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.
Joan co-authored the Dance Curriculum Guide adopted by the San Francisco Unified School District, and she was the official choreographer for the San Francisco Embarcadero redesign in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake (1989).