In September of 2020, Tamar Barnoon set out from Los Angeles to make a film in Amherst, Massachusetts. Clocking 3,000 miles with a station wagon brimming with handmade furniture, she and DP Erik Blinderman spent two days shooting Scenes at Sunset Ave based on a treatment Tamar developed the year prior. With unwavering attention, the piece frames two dancers in a domestic narrative composed of all too familiar repetitive tasks that reveal frenetic and passionate breaks. We sat down with Tamar to discuss the process of making it, the divide between work of the mind and work of the body, and why the ideas explored are especially resonant for a world caught in total repetition.
Tell us about the themes in this film and what they mean to you.
The thing that was interesting to me: What does it mean to be a creative person right now? What does it mean to work in the house and what does the daily work I do mean to me? What relationship do I have to these objects in my life, in the spaces I occupy and things that I take my hand to daily?
I was interested in the effect that repetitive movements have and thinking about the way in which repeating tasks brings up so many questions in the mind, but possibly freedom at the same time. How do conversations about losing oneself in one's work take into account daily work? Can you actualize yourself through "elevated practice" if you're talking about domestic work, and specifically a woman doing this work. I think there is a gendered part of this conversation that we are missing when we talk about 'losing' oneself and finding an elevated state through mastery of our physical work.
Why did you choose dance as the medium?
I wanted to play with how movement could best communicate the work of the body more than through language. I started with a story about a woman washing dishes, and seeing how the repetition of the tasks in her space could lead to both an emotional anxiety and a physical freedom. Seeing the breaks between those states helped pose the question: where is there pleasure and where is this problematic?
The choreography is so striking. What influences did you and choreographer Kate Martel draw from?
Kate choreographed and danced in this piece, along with dancer Ashley Carlisle. We spent time talking about the ideas of repeated movement and how the mundane could also lead to a spiritual ecstasy. Kate suggested I watch Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's Rosas danst Rosas and it was transformative. In Kate’s words, “the repetition and variation of the choreography abstracts the meaning behind [familiar] gestures, and it all feels very matter of fact.”
Your professional background is as an interior designer and set decorator in film. How did the objects weigh into the creation of the piece?
We had decided at the inception to use furniture handmade by EBJoinery; items that are very much about utility. For example, we featured the Trestle Table, which is a highly functional, stripped down, lifelong work object. It felt like a tool of personal space. Kate loved the idea of creating movement by interacting with the shape and texture of these objects, and was interested in how they leave an imprint on the body.
How did the choice of location affect the piece?
I started the project in the fall of 2019, imagining particular kinds of interiors that I wanted to shoot the dancers in, and fantasising about what the sets would look like, what kind of spaces they would occupy. I was planning a necessary trip to Amherst to empty out and close up my childhood home. I thought "why not just shoot it all in Amherst?" From there it felt totally right to shoot at the house, to find the memories from that space inform the layout and the process.
Can you tell me a bit about the music, which succeeds in creating an emotional current for the choreography?
Jeff Brodsky, who is a talented musician and composer, created the original music in the film. I wanted to use handmade sound, and feel the handwork in the music as much as we felt the sound of the dancers in the space, their breath, the work they are doing, the room. I think it's the same thing I see in the furniture—the sense that the work of someone's hand is clear on each piece.
Did that influence the choice of costume?
Initially we were going to custom-make an apron overlay piece for the dancers, but when we found these TOAST dresses, they represented the simplest, stripped-down form of what we wanted to design. The wrap tie offered a restriction along with the functional looseness, and the heaviness of the material that you can really wear in. They were made out of fine materials with shapes that really signified workwear and can actually be worked in. Linen offered a heavy, true, natural look that also felt like it lived in different spaces and places and people.
Did the challenges of creating during a global pandemic actually inform the piece?
It wasn't only the restraint and boundaries of the practical side of making a movie during a pandemic, but also having to be more tuned in to the important pieces of the story. There is a way in which the noise around ideas and intention moves away, especially if you're quietly by yourself in a space for so long, you're able to understand the kernel of the ideas you'd like to make. Something that I intended to create rather quickly ended up unfolding over the course of a year. Riding out that time gave me a certain space and point of view, and allowed these of course moments to emerge, as in of course it should be at this house and with these dancers, and in these spaces. The most accessible things I had for myself were the right things, and not trying to reach outside of them. It wasn't a compromise, it was having clarity. The piece ended up being as much about the process of making it as the finished product that I set out to make. It became an experience.
Interview by Natalie Toren.
Film and film stills by Tamar Barnoon. From top: Dancer Kate Martel in Scenes at Sunset Ave; Dancers Kate Martel and Ashley Carlisle in Scenes at Sunset Ave.
Ashley and Kate both wear the TOAST Cotton Linen Wrap Dress from the current collection.