Ocean Body | Wednesday, Feb. 9–Wednesday, Feb. 16, free | CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, Chapel Hill

In a preview clip from the film Ocean Body, which comes to CURRENT in Chapel Hill this week, Helga Davis and Shara Nova face each other at a distance. Their matching white dresses are connected by long strings, which they manipulate with their hands as they sing. The energy is more collaborative than competitive—not a tug-of-war but, perhaps, a tug-of-peace, using designer Annica Cuppetelli’s “embodied sculpture” to probe the seam where independence meets its foil. Still, the image has literal tension and reflects the music’s dignified beauty tinged with harmonic unease.

Davis and Nova are both accomplished in the genre we feebly call “new music,” where a learned classical past hurtles into an uncodified future. Davis has starred in major productions by the famed experimental opera director Robert Wilson, singing music by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Philip Glass; she also interviews luminaries like Solange and Hilton Als on HELGA, her podcast for the New York classical station WQXR.

Nova, who is based in Detroit, is known in overlapping circles for her indie chamber-pop band, My Brightest Diamond, and her more formal commissions for prized new music ensembles such as Brooklyn Rider and Roomful of Teeth. In 2015, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) staged her baroque chamber opera, You Us We All, which featured Davis.

Davis and Nova are both “Creative Futures” artists-in-residence at CPA. This partly provided the occasion to make Ocean Body, which they composed and performed with a palette of harp, drums, bass, guitar, the Detroit Women’s Chorus, and other singers. But the motivation goes back to when they first bonded, a decade ago. In fact, their relationship—its inner dimensions as well as its contact points with more public, political spheres—is the subject.

What was first conceived as a live theater piece called Body Vessel began to evolve when director Mark DeChiazza, who previously worked with Nova on a large-scale orchestral project called Look Around, filmed Davis and Nova spontaneously entering the water on the Gulf Coast of Florida. That moment of rebirth enlarged the work’s scope, revised its title, and foreshadowed its ultimate form as a 45-minute multiscreen film, as we learned in a video chat with Davis, Nova, and DeChiazza.

INDY WEEK: What was the motivating spark for Ocean Body?

SHARA NOVA: I love singing with Helga, and so the desire is always there. I walked into an artist studio here in Detroit, and on the wall, there was a pencil drawing of two women in a dress that was connected with strings. I said, “I want to be in that with Helga; how do we make that happen?” Well, that puts us in a relationship to time and to where we come from, in terms of women in corsetry, and it puts us in relationship to one another. One of the things that Helga says so often is, we start right where we are—with ourselves.

I thought maybe the image of the dress was the first thing that sparked the piece.

HELGA DAVIS: I just want to stop you, because that isn’t the first thing. The first thing is us, singing together, and then we find a device through which we can have a conversation.

MARK DECHIAZZA: As the piece developed and became film-based and involved the ocean, them not being in this device, the dress, became as important as them being in it—who they are alone and together, dependent and independent. So, it definitely was one of the sparks, but it was a physical metaphor for this existing relationship and, as Helga said, a way to start talking about it.

Helga, you and Shara have been friends for about a decade now. How did you first connect?

HD: I was at New York Public Radio, and a producer said to me, “Do you want to come hear this band with me tonight?” I heard this music, and I was a little bit freaked out, because I hadn’t ever heard anything like it. I felt from the very beginning that I wanted to sing those songs, to find a way to work with the person who was making this music. Fortunately, we knew someone in common who happened to be at that concert. I said, “Who is this? What is this music?” And he said, “Oh, we’re writing an opera together. Do you want to be in it?”

Have you two done other collaborations?

HD: It doesn’t feel like we’re ever not collaborating. Shara is a person with whom I have a continuous friendship and musical relationship and spiritual relationship that isn’t about whether or not we make stuff for other people to see. There isn’t a lot that I write that I don’t also pass by her.

How did Ocean Body evolve from a live piece to a film?

HD: When we got to the residency at the Hermitage Foundation, it was very clear to me that we had business with the water—that there was something about this piece that needed to begin again at a source that was, indeed, in us and of us. It’s all the things of birth and baptism and what our physical bodies are made of.

MD: Something very interesting about this piece is that it’s also a document of the process of making it. For me, much of directing it was listening to what was really happening with Shara and Helga’s relationship in real-time. When the water becomes important, how do we pivot to a new angle of looking?

What do we hear in the piece—a lot of orchestration, or choirs, or music sung by you two?

HD: Yes, is the answer. We explore our roots that we have in common—evangelical, classical, all those categories of music.

SN: In Detroit, the public school that we were working with was Cass Tech. Alice Coltrane, Regina Carter, Zeena Parkins, Carla Cook, Jack White—many, many great musicians came from Cass Tech. Particularly, their harp and vocal program is really important. So, harp plays a prominent place.

To what extent is this piece about the personal relationship of Helga and Shara versus something broader?

HD: You go, Mark, I’m going to keep thinking about what I’m trying to say.

MD: I don’t think there’s a difference. In looking at this relationship, it’s impossible that these other things aren’t touched. But we very purposefully did not turn to make statements about societal issues. We felt that we had to trust that they would emerge in relatable ways through honestly keeping our focus on what was right in front of us.

HD: See, I knew to be quiet.

To allow for social distancing, each screening of Ocean Body has a capacity of 10, with advance reservations required.

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