The Rubin Museum of Art, Upstate Films, and the Fisher Center at Bard Present the New York Premiere of “this body is so impermanent…” (Vimalakirti Sutra, Chapter Two), February 8–12
During 2020 Quarantines and Amid Our Ongoing Global Public Health Crisis, Improvisatory Artists on Three Continents and in Multiple Disciplines Created a Film Responding to the Vimalakirti Sutra and Bridging Art, Spirituality, and Wellness as a Call to Community to Learn and Heal Together
Screenings Are Followed by Conversations with Sellars, Collaborators, and Practitioners in the Field of Healing and the Arts
For Immediate Release
The Rubin Museum of Art, Upstate Films, and the Fisher Center at Bard present the first New York screenings of “this body is so impermanent…” (Vimalakirti Sutra, Chapter Two), a film directed by Peter Sellars and produced by the Fisher Center and The Boethius Initiative at UCLA, with performances from Wang Dongling, Ganavya Doraiswamy, and Michael Schumacher, February 8–12, 2023. The Vimalakirti Sutra, a foundational scripture of Zen Buddhism from the first century CE, understands illness as a path of spiritual awakening. Exploring two pages from this visionary Sutra, five virtuosic and singular artists—master calligrapher Wang Dongling, devotional singer Ganavya Doraiswamy, improvisatory dancer Michael Schumacher, cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, and Sellars—came together in the autumn of 2020 to create this 79-minute work, which seeks to explore the deepest of human experiences—health and mortality, spirituality, and transcendence—all heightened by the pandemic. Filmed in real-time via a specially created digital platform, with the artists collaborating remotely from Portland, Amsterdam, and Hangzhou, China, this work’s purpose became all the more immediate as illness changed the world in a matter of months. It now stands as a major artistic response to the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“this body is so impermanent…” features cinematography by Yu Lik-wai, sound design By Shahrokh Yadegari, editing by Tim Squyres, English translation by Robert Thurman, and Chinese translation by Kumārajīva.
The upcoming screenings include:
Wednesday, February 8, at 7 pm Upstate Films at the Starr in Rhinebeck, NY, featuring Ganavya Doraiswamy, Michael Schumacher, Peter Sellars, and Robert Thurman
Thursday, February 9, at 7 pm Upstate Films at the Orpheum in Saugerties, NY, featuring Ganavya Doraiswamy, Michael Schumacher, Peter Sellars, and Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies at Bard College Dominique Townsend
Friday, February 10, at 7 pm at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, NY, with Peter Sellars and Tibetan doctor Kunga Wangdue discussing healing practices
Saturday, February 11, at 2 pm at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, NY, featuring Ganavya Doraiswamy, Michael Schumacher, Peter Sellars, Tim Squyres, and Yibin Wang
Sunday, February 12, at 2 pm at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, NY, with Peter Sellars in conversation with palliative care physician Dr. Craig Blinderman and essayist and Dean of Columbia School of the Arts Carol Becker
Peter Sellars first began exploring artistic dramatizations of the Vimalakirti Sutra in 2011 at the Rubin Museum, where he staged a workshop and public rehearsal with Michael Schumacher and Kate Valk, and a conversation with Robert Thurman. In 2019, further plans to collaborate on a work surrounding the Vimalakirti Sutra began to materialize. Wang Dongling felt that he understood this text—in which the principal figure is not Buddha himself but Vimalakirti, a layperson who is ill—deeply in his mind and in his body. They originally intended to perform it in theaters and museums—and then, COVID-19 hit.
Says Sellars, “Gideon Lester of the Fisher Center at Bard suggested to us that in fact a Buddhist sutra does not belong in a theater or museum, but in cyberspace where the reality of a human body appearing in multiple universes instantly with a single thought is a daily miracle of the Internet.”
The Fisher Center took on a lead producing role in the project, following the success of their digital production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest, directed by Ashley Tata. The project in its filmed form came together as the pandemic’s impact on all humanity escalated and laid our injustices and inequalities out before us. As it developed, it increasingly examined the connections between art and medicine—their focuses on healing, repair, and recovery. “this body is so impermanent…” (Vimalakirti Sutra, Chapter Two) came to encompass the notion that art creates a shared space, a glimpse of shared purpose and shared destinies, and can help translate immediate pain into longer-term meaning.
Describing the process of collaborating across continents, Sellars says, “We began rehearsing in quarantine on Zoom. Wang Dongling in his studio in Hangzhou at 3 pm in the afternoon, writing with ink and brush as he listened to Ganavya singing at midnight in a Sufi chapel outside of Portland, Oregon, who was in turn responding to Michael Schumacher dancing at 9 am in the morning light of his apartment in Amsterdam. Meanwhile the technical work was occurring at 3 am at Bard College in New York, where young inventors were writing new code for a platform to supersede Zoom with stunning new bandwidth that can render the depth and complexity of the human voice and show the hairs on Wang Dongling’s brush.”
In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Buddha sends his disciples to the sickbed of an enlightened lay person to hear his reflections on the fragility of physical being and the liberation of conscious awareness. The collaborators focused on two pages of Chapter II of The Vimalakirti Sutra, which Sellars describes as offering “one of the most profound and penetrating descriptions of the human body in early literature.”
Through their response to the text, the artists consider well-being as a holistic state with intricate medical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. Their project draws on how our bodies are delicate organisms which communicate and express multiplied layered realities; and how moral and ethical questions, a sense of justice, social and political equilibrium, and deep-seated life purpose are essential to the ability of human beings to function and flourish.
Tickets for the upcoming screenings can be reserved through the Fisher Center’s website, here.
About Peter Sellars (Director)
Peter Sellars is an opera, film, theater, and festival director who has gained international renown for his groundbreaking and transformative interpretations of classics, advocacy of 20th-century and contemporary music, and collaborative projects with an extraordinary range of creative artists. His work illuminates art’s power as a means of moral expression and social action. Sellars has led major arts festivals in Los Angeles, Adelaide and Vienna. He is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance and Director of the Boethius Initiative at UCLA, and a resident curator of the Telluride Film Festival. His many awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, the Erasmus Prize, the Gish Prize, and the Polar Music Prize.
About Ganavya Doraiswamy ( Composer / Singer)
Tamil Nadu-raised and New York-born critically acclaimed vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy lives, learns, and loves fluidly from the nexus of many frameworks and understandings. Hers is a deeply profound and rooted voice. A multidisciplinary creator, she is a soundsmith and wordsmith. Trained as an improviser, scholar, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist, she maintains an inner library of “spi/ritual” blueprints offered to her by an intergenerational constellation of collaborators, continuously anchoring her practice in pasts, presents and futures. Much of her childhood was on the pilgrimage trail, learning the storytelling art form of harikathā and singing poetry that critiques hierarchical social structures. She is a co-founder of the non-hierarchical We Have Voice Collective.
About Michael Schumacher (Choreographer / Dancer)
Michael Schumacher is a performing artist with roots in classical and modern dance. He has been a member of several groundbreaking companies, including Ballet Frankfurt, Twyla Tharp Dance, Feld Ballet, Pretty Ugly Dance Company, and Magpie Music Dance Company. As an independent artist, he has collaborated with and appeared in productions of Peter Sellars, William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, Sylvie Guillem, and Anouk van Dijk. Over the past 25 years, Schumacher has developed a unique approach to the discipline of improvisation. He currently resides in Amsterdam and conducts workshops in movement analysis and improvisation worldwide.
About Wang Dongling (Calligrapher / Performance Artist)
Wang Dongling’s artworks ground the modernist engagement with gestural abstraction and the postmodern skepticism of language and power in the pre-modern practice of embodied action and performance originally developed in Chinese calligraphy. Wang Dongling himself is widely recognized as China’s greatest living calligrapher. Although he is perhaps best-known for public performances of monumental “mad” cursive script calligraphy, his artistic practice can be highly experimental and includes “enormous, swashbuckling abstractions” (Roberta Smith, The New York Times) and calligraphy in new media. Wang Dongling’s innovations notably reinterpret for a new era two aspects of historical calligraphy practice – its creation through performance and its embrace of gestural abstraction. Wang Dongling is currently Director of the Modern Calligraphy Study Center at the China National Academy of Arts, Hangzhou.
About Yu Lik-wai (Cinematographer)
Renowned cinematographer Yu Lik-wai has created images that have defined some of the masterpieces of contemporary Chinese cinema. While best-known for his over 20-year collaboration with director Jia Zhangke—including on Jia’s first feature, Xiao Wu (Berlin, 1997), Still Life (Venice Golden Lion, 2006), and A Touch of Sin (Cannes, 2013)—Yu has also worked with other luminaries of the Chinese cinema, such as directors Ann Hui and Lou Ye. The Hong Kong-born Yu is himself an accomplished director, making his feature directorial debut with Love Will Tear Us Apart (Cannes, 1999). His subsequent films All Tomorrow’s Parties (2003) and Plastic City (2008) premiered at Cannes and Venice, respectively.
About Shahrokh Yadegari (Sound Designer)
Composer and sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari, has collaborated with such artists as Peter Sellars, Robert Woodruff, Ann Hamilton, Christine Brewer, Gabor Tompa, Maya Beiser, Steven Schick, Lucie Tiberghien, Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam, Keyavash Nourai, and Siamak Shajarian. His productions, compositions, and designs have been presented internationally in such venues as Carnegie Hall, Royce Hall, Festival of Arts and Ideas, OFF-D’Avignon Festival, International Theatre Festival in Cluj Romania, Ravinia Festival, Ruhr-Triennale, Vienna Festival, Holland Festival, Tirgan Festival, Forum Barcelona, Japan America Theatre, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, and the Institut für Neue Musik und Musikerziehung (Darmstadt).
About Tim Squyres (Editor)
Tim Squyres has edited 25 feature films, including 13 for director Ang Lee. Four have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture: Life of Pi (2012); Gosford Park (2001); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000); and Sense and Sensibility (1995). Other films include Unbroken (2014), Rachel Getting Married (2008), Syriana (2005), The Ice Storm (1997), and The Wedding Banquet (1993). His work has received two Oscar nominations for editing. He has also edited a wide variety of television and music video projects, and his documentary work includes collaborations with Bill Moyers, Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, and George Butler.
About the Fisher Center at Bard
The Fisher Center develops, produces, and presents performing arts across disciplines through new productions and context-rich programs that challenge and inspire. As a premier professional performing arts center and a hub for research and education, the Fisher Center supports artists, students, and audiences in the development and examination of artistic ideas, offering perspectives from the past and present as well as visions of the future. The Fisher Center demonstrates Bard’s commitment to the performing arts as a cultural and educational necessity. Home is the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Frank Gehry and located on the campus of Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley. The Fisher Center offers outstanding programs to many communities, including the students and faculty of Bard College, and audiences in the Hudson Valley, New York City, across the country, and around the world. Building on a 163-year history as a competitive and innovative undergraduate institution, Bard is committed to enriching culture, public life, and democratic discourse by training tomorrow’s thought leaders.
The Center presents more than 200 world-class events and welcomes 50,000 visitors each year. The Fisher Center supports artists at all stages of their careers and employs more than 300 professional artists annually. The Fisher Center is a powerful catalyst for art-making regionally, nationally, and worldwide. Every year it produces 8 to 10 major new works in various disciplines. Over the past five years, its commissioned productions have been seen in more than 100 communities around the world. During the 2018–2019 season, six Fisher Center productions toured nationally and internationally. In 2019, the Fisher Center won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical for Daniel Fish’s production of Oklahoma!, which began its life in 2007 as an undergraduate production at Bard and was produced professionally in the Fisher Center’s SummerScape Festival in 2015 before transferring to New York City.
About the Rubin Museum of Art
The Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea, New York City, explores and celebrates the diversity and uniqueness of Himalayan art, ideas, and cultures across history and into the present. With its globally renowned collection, largely centered around art from the Tibetan Plateau, the Rubin fosters understanding and appreciation of this region by relating its art and ideas to our shared human experience today. Inspired by the philosophical traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism and aligned with ongoing research into learning, behavior, and the brain, the Rubin offers innovative exhibitions and programs that examine provocative ideas across the arts and explore the mind. Through this work, the Museum serves as a space for reflection and personal transformation, opening windows to inner worlds so visitors can better navigate outer ones.
About Upstate Films
Since 1972, Upstate Films has connected the Hudson Valley through transformative cinema. We believe that the moving image—the most powerful storytelling force in human history—can shape a kinder, more equitable and sustainable world, and we use movies and other media-based storytelling to build empathy, community and a stronger appreciation of our place and our planet. Upstate Films operates its flagship Starr Cinema in Rhinebeck and newly acquired Orpheum Theatre in Saugerties, provides regular events in Kingston and Catskill and has barnstormed the region with its mobile cinema, bringing movies, music and locally sourced food.
“this body is so impermanent…” (Vimalakirti Sutra, Chapter Two) is made possible with support from June and Simon Li, The J. Paul Getty Trust, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and the Fisher Center Artistic Innovation Fund, with lead support from Rebecca Gold, Barbara and Sven Huseby, University of Kentucky International Center, Asia Society, Center on U.S.-China Relations, The Thendara Foundation, Carol and Harvey Berman, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Special thanks to Wang Dongling and Ink Studio.
For for the Fisher Center at Bard: Blake Zidell of Blake Zidell & Associates: 917.572.2493 or [email protected]
For the Rubin Museum: Sandrine Milet |Senior Manager, Communications & Marketing| 212-620-5000 x228 | [email protected]
For Upstate Films: Jason Silverman | Executive Director | 845-876-2515 | [email protected]
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