Monica Mirabile on choreographing Mitski's Be the Cowboy tour
Perched on the back of a chair holding a microphone, right leg extended long, the artist and songwriter Mitski Miyawaki (known mononymously as Mitski) languishes on a barely illuminated stage like a cabaret chanteuse. There’s a tension in her pose; her arms appear relaxed, but every muscle is held. This photograph from her latest tour, which she posted on her Instagram, illustrates a different sort of physicality for the artist—previous show photographs tend to capture her at a standing mic, holding her guitar.
“I think of the show as an integral part of the album,” she captioned her post on August 19th, before announcing that she had roped in her “dear dancer friend” Monica Mirabile to help choreograph the fall 2018 tour for her recently released 5th studio album, Be the Cowboy.
The 14 tracks of Be the Cowboy work like emotion-capsules, self-contained worlds of frustration, love, ambition, and pain. At times she is swaggering and bombastic (“nobody butters me up like you do, and / nobody fucks me… like… me…” she croons on “Lonesome Love”), and other songs find her ambivalent, wavering through expressions of lust and limerence. Her songs are smart and melancholy and hyper-specific, like an inside joke between you and someone you used to love. Perhaps for this reason, she is often characterized as a confessional poet of particularly gendered angst, whose emotion blooms, unbidden, into song.
Since this album came out, I’ve shared her videos and interviews and screengrabs with friends, arguing about nuance (is “Two Slow Dancers” wistful or just straight-up sad?), and playing the tracks again and again on solitary train rides. Though her songs might be manifestations of constructed artistic expressions and not personal confession, they feel immediate and deeply personal. Which is why the announcement of adding choreography into the mix so interested me—how to create movement that matches the mood of these songs, that elevates without distracting or overwhelming?
“I think the Internet has made people crave the intimate, the ASMR intimate,” Monica Mirabile told me when we spoke at a coffee shop on St. Mark’s place the first week of September. “You go to a live show to feel, it to experience it. It’s not the same as listening to an album in your bedroom. That’s a different, special thing. A live show is meant to be felt in your whole body.”
Mirabile is an interdisciplinary performance artist and movement director who trained as a visual artist. Along with artist Sigrid Lauren, Mirabile creates work through FlucT, a collaborative project that addresses “issues in the capital obedience of American culture through choreography and performance.” Both alone and with FlucT, Mirabile’s work is experimental and wild, exploring the dark sides of domestic spaces and capitalist structures while allowing for moments of transcendent grace. She makes work involving ghosts and computer glitches, and the occasional indie music star; recently, she has created work for musicians Maggie Rogers (she choreographed Rogers’s first three music videos, including the hit “Alaska”), Dan Deacon, and others, and her work or collaborations have been shown in places such as the Guggenheim and MoMA PS1.
Mirabile was tapped to provide movement direction for the tour after choreographing for the music video to Mitski’s “Geyser” as well as another forthcoming music video, gigs that transpired through her previous collaborations with director Zia Anger. Collaborations are important to Mirabile—she speaks eloquently and passionately about the projects she’s worked on and people she’s worked with—and the process with Mitski was no exception. Over the course of nearly three weeks, Mitski and Mirabile worked in Mirabile’s compact Bushwick studio, Otion Front (in a working space spanning about 260 square feet in total), experimenting and formulating a narrative for the tour.
In the following conversation with Mirabile, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talk about control, iconography, and intimacy in the Be the Cowboy tour—and the subtle details of the show she hopes we notice.
Rachel Stone: In Mitski’s post on Instagram announcing that she would have a fully choreographed tour, she wrote about wanting her shows to be “a place you can find or let go or forget or re-organize the stuff inside you, if only for an hour.” Can you talk a little bit about how you translate that intimacy into a performance?
Monica Mirabile: A lot of what I’ve done in my career as a visual artist and performance art has been about intimate relationships to space and people. I myself am a visual artist, and create choreography work and dance work mostly in the realm of performance art. I never studied dance, but a lot of people consider me a dancer now.
I tend to make performances where audience members are involved, or they’re very close to the performers. I don’t really like using stages. I try to get to that moment where people are looking at each other, or an audience member, and you can see this subtle movement. In the “Geyser” music video, I used directions of the hands and facial expression as an expressive emotional moment, and I did the same for her next video that’s coming out.
She doesn’t have a fast sentiment. Her sentiment is very calm and slow and attentive; empathetic in her facial expressions. She takes her time. She’s very easy to work with, very eager to try movement immediately. She was very open to ideas, and she’s the type of person who doesn’t shut you down. I would suggest weird things, and she would be really down to do it.
What I was supposed to do initially for the Be the Cowboy tour was to coach Mitski on movement. But then we got into the studio, and I wound up choreographing the entire show. All of the movements are in the same realm of what we’ve done before—utilizing hands and subtle movement gestures.
RS: I remember reading about the way hands figure into some of her music videos—[Larissa Pham wrote about this]—how she kisses the back of her hand in the video for “Your Best American Girl,” and how she holds her hands outstretched in front of her in the “Geyser” video. How much of her—I hesitate to call it this, but—“iconography” makes it into the actual performance?
MM: Well for “Geyser,” we just took the same choreography and put it onstage—without the beach, and with a limited amount of space. We modified it slightly, so she bangs the floor rather than scratching or digging a hole in the sand. But “Best American Girl” is totally different in the show, as is the choreography for the next video.
We actually had a concept for the whole show, which is broken up into three parts. She really wanted to focus on the idea of this repressed, controlled woman. The narrative we created was of this this Old Hollywood portrait-style repression. At the start of the show, she acts and moves in a way that’s very still. But through the ritual of performing that repression, she starts to break free. There’s some actual ritualistic choreography that repeats a couple times. Then, about halfway through the show, she’s completely unhinged.
At times, the concept really came before the song. There’s a point where she does a certain movement and we had to ask the band to vamp so that she could finish the movement before going to the next song.
She doesn’t go offstage throughout the whole performance, which is really exciting—building in transitions from the end of one song to the beginning of the other, and seeing how those transitions work with movement.
The idea with the beginning of Mitski’s “Geyser” music video and Maggie Rogers’ music video for “Alaska” is that there’s this presence within you that is not your own. Often my work is about getting rid of that, and coming back into control.
RS: It’s interesting to hear these choices come through for Maggie and Mitski, for female artists in positions of power still reckoning with this question of: “this body is mine but it’s also not mine, how do I come back into my body?” You’re able to convey this in an organic way that’s still elegant and clear to the audience. Is that something that you discovered through working with these artists, or is that a theme in your own work?
MM: The subtle choreography in the hands and wrists is something that’s very present in my work. A lot of the moments that I create are working with this idea that the hand is not yours, or that the hand is yours but someone else is controlling it. This gets at an overarching influence on how culture influences behavior. There’s a political ontology there, something that’s subtle within behavior.
I didn’t study dance—I studied interdisciplinary sculpture in school, which meant I studied a lot of performance art. I’ve always approached movement as iconography; as a semiotic text to how people are actually feeling.
RS: Was the choreographic process mostly you setting work on Mitski, or was it more of a collaborative process?
MM: Since we only had a couple weeks, I had been more direct in the beginning, but then it became more collaborative. We’d go into the studio and listen to the song and dance around, and I’d give her workshops to do so we could find movement that she was comfortable with. A lot of the stuff we did we went through different modifications, so it was collaborative in that way. All choreography is like that to an extent, unless you’re working in the “dance world,” which is different.
With Maggie and Mitski we were working together, and so that means that you have to compromise. Ideas mesh and you have to like what each other is saying. If that wasn’t happening, I wouldn’t do it. I do feel lucky to be an artist on these projects.
I think a lot of it has to do with relationships too. I have an incredibly tight relationship with Zia Anger, where we get along really well and have the same ideas about how things should go, and it felt the same with Mitski. I think the best work happens out of relationships like that.
RS: Are there particular details in the Be the Cowboy tour that you hope the audience will pick up on?
MM: Yes—there are some really subtle things. One of my favorite choreographic moments is for “I Don’t Smoke.” She does this thing where it looks like she’s smoking, but it moves very fluidly and subtly down her body. It’s very iconic, and meant to be a symbol; I think she does it three times within the whole song. The song’s not very long, around two and a half minutes, but it’s incredibly beautiful to me. I think some people could really miss things like this in a live show.
RS: I feel like if anyone’s listeners or watchers would pay attention, it would be Mitski’s—her lyrics are so specific, so attuned to all these tiny switches and changes.
MM: I hope people see it. Every one of the songs is kind of like that; so many little moments that are just perfect.
Watching the whole show, you see the concept evolve; starting with this image of a controlled woman, who is very stiff—a portrait, less of a personality—then watching her break out of that, and let herself be wild, working towards breaking free, and working towards a fearlessness. I would hope that people leave the show taking that narrative away.
RS: Is there a song that you didn’t know how to choreograph to at all?
MM: There were a few songs that I felt that way about, though we figured them out, and some of them became my favorites. When I didn’t know how to choreograph, I found that we could return to the concept, to a point in the narrative.
There’s one song at the end of the first part of the show, right before her first freak out, where we didn’t know what to do, and she said, “let’s just pace.” So for the whole song, she paces on the stage.
RS: I was reading some of her interviews throughout the years where Mitski has spoken about how she’s often portrayed at this sieve of sadness, where emotion just pours out of her, and how she wanted to convey that she, as an artist, was very much in control. Is the show narrative an example of that coming into play?
MM: I guess we did talk about this, just as friends—not necessarily what you mentioned, but how you transition in your life, how things change; how sometimes things feel hard, and then they lighten up, and things are lighter now. So I suppose she sort of talked about that, but it was more conceptual.
It’s also something she’s comfortable with. She’s a very controlled person, a “gets-her-work-done” kind of person—she was always on time. So I think that it’s a part of her nature too.
RS: A big part of this album finds Mitski embodying this ideal of a cowboy, or at least the mythology surrounding a cowboy. Did this idea manifest at all in the choreography?
MM: There’s this strength that’s present in the whole show; that was an important aspect in creating the choreography. It’s not like—[she crumples her upper body, lets her arms fall limp, then pantomimes an exaggerated ennui] “I’m sad!!”—it’s all in control. This feeling of [she pushes her shoulders back, and sits upright]: “This is all my work, and even when I break out of it, I’m still powerful.”