By Rachael Warecki ’08
When Associate Professor of Dance Kevin Williamson began working on his co-collaborative movement project with Nguyen Nguyên and Maria Gillespie, to get there from here, he thought of it as a “gesture toward empathy.” The exhibition, which combined video footage of the three collaborators moving through vastly different environments, explored the artists’ physical and emotional landscapes as they negotiated both the allure and the impossibility of arriving at a destination.
Each performer’s work was informed by their own identity and experiences: For Williamson, it was the nature of discomfort and queer pleasure; for Nguyên, it was navigating unfamiliar terrains as a refugee from Vietnam; and for Gillespie, it was the erasure and restoration of her Mexican heritage. Williamson hoped that audiences would reflect on their own process of self-discovery—how memories perpetually shape our journeys.
“We wanted audiences to experience the visceral sensation of trying to belong in and make sense of the world,” he says.
The exhibition was the apotheosis of an enduring artistic vision for Williamson, who had long dreamed of creating a gallery installation as a movement artist. After earning his BA and MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles’ department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, Williamson lived in New York City and abroad before returning to Southern California. His numerous accolades include the Lester Horton Award, which honors excellence in the field of modern dance, and recognition as a finalist for the Center Theatre Group Sherwood Award, which is given annually to “innovative and adventurous” theater artists in Los Angeles. His performances and choreography have received awards from the LGBTQ Unbordered International Film Festival and the Madrid Arthouse Filmfest, and he has collaborated with the Washington National Opera, the Juilliard School in New York City, and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. At Scripps, he teaches classes from Core I and II—the first courses taken by first-year students in the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities—all the way through senior thesis.
So, it’s been a long journey to get there from here. The exhibition’s logistics only began to come together last year. In May 2021, Williamson was one of the first tourists to visit Iceland when the country re-opened to outside visitors after its COVID-19 pandemic closure. Traveling solo—a trip he describes as “contemplative”—he explored the topography of Iceland, taking video footage of himself moving through harsh Icelandic landscapes.
Williamson then began working with Nguyên and Gillespie to create a series of videos, set in different locations, all in conversation with one another and with the central theme of arrival as an impossibility. In addition to Williamson’s footage from Iceland, the videos included Nguyên’s films shot in arid desert regions and Gillespie’s movements captured in and around buildings near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each segment contained uniquely striking imagery: Williamson stretching as ice-capped mountains loomed in the background, Nguyên crawling under barbed wire and squeezing between boulders, Gillespie lolling at the top of cement stairs decorated with graffiti.
“We wanted to create movement sketches in meaningful environments, to explore how our bodies contour to and are affected by these environments,” Williamson says. “We see this footage as a conduit to mapping journeys without arrivals.”
The six-week installation of to get there from here—the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery’s fall 2022 exhibition—featured the co-collaborators’ panoramic video footage projected onto three of the gallery’s four walls. Williamson, Nguyên, and Gillespie also filmed close-up, more intimate footage that formed part of a smaller installation in alcoves along the Gallery’s fourth wall. These films, Williamson explains, were interpretations from each artist’s past: Williamson’s footage, for example, examined his childhood exploration of gender through the lens of his lived experience as a gay man in adulthood. The footage played on outdated technologies were interspersed within collections of shoes, blankets, dirt, and teacups—“materials that help us journey,” as Williamson describes them. When combined with the videos, “they’re objects as landscape as memory.”
The exhibition’s highlight occurred in September, when Williamson, Nguyên, and Gillespie joined fellow dancers Keith Johnson, Rebecca Lemme, and the LA Contemporary Dance Company to perform a series of new dance works across the Scripps campus. The performances—which took place in Garrison Theater and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery—were accompanied by an opportunity to dine and engage in discourse with the artists among food trucks parked outside the gallery.
“I found the interaction between still life and embodied performance thrilling,” Williamson says of the opportunity to interact with the gallery installation through dance. “It’s been such a gift to engage with gallery attendees and with students in classes that visited the installation over the course of the semester—hearing about their personal memories, and how the objects and physical movements conjured different feelings of both isolation and a collective desire to belong in the world.”
Naturally, the journey of to get there from here will not end with the closing of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery exhibition. Says Williamson: “The collaborators and I will continue layering the archive in variation and through performance in other galleries—never quite arriving, but always evolving.”
This story first appeared in the fall 2022 print issue of Scripps magazine.