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Musician ‘serpentwithfeet’s’ Heart of Brick mixes humor with soul at ICA’s theater

October 11, 2023

Written by Charlotte Howard

Three hundred twenty-five people sat in squishy orange seats overlooking a dark stage. Strobes, flashes, and loud music hit audience members’ eardrums and pupils as they grappled with what was in store for the next 75 minutes. It was Friday, October 13, at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Thirty-five-year-old musician serpentwithfeet entered casually onstage in an oversized red bathrobe.

serpent sat down on the stool and put the mic to his mouth while the audience's applause slowed.  “So, how is everyone doing tonight?” he asked the audience warmly. Audience members replied with a “GOOD!” or “YEAH!” serpentwithfeet established a genuine, comforting persona right off the bat. Someone delicately put a glass of wine in his hand, and he initiated a toast with the audience.

“Now, won’t you cheers with me tonight,” he said, as members of ICA passed out small plastic cups of rose. Everyone raised their hands and glasses. serpent then started telling the audience a story about his ex-boyfriend, alluding to the theme that would permeate his performance.

serpent then asked the audience if he should attend the club, hoping to see his ex-boyfriend. This wasn’t something I was expecting. Most musicians may say 15 words throughout the show, especially: “Hey Boston, thanks for coming tonight!” This was something different.

This performance has been in the works for years. John Andress, the Bill T Jones Director and Curator of Performing Arts at the ICA, organized this event. He said, “Rather than creating a world tour, he wanted to create a theatrical presentation that incorporated dance and visual arts sensibility into his performance.” He did just that for two nights.

Behind the scenes:

When you enter a museum exhibition or performance, the first thought in your head is not usually the organization behind it. As viewers, we don’t automatically jump to the spacing or placement of the art or the scenes and people it took for the performance to come together. The job of a curator is to arrange these things to feel as though they’ve always existed in this space.

“The first thought is just: this is what I am seeing,” Andress said. “But over time, you realize that people are creating these connections among objects and placing them in a room.”

Andress works with local and global artists across a broad range of genres: music, theater, dance, spoken word, and interdisciplinary projects. serpentwithfeet falls into the latter category. For his performance, he worked with Roger Federer, a New York-based choreographer. It was directed by Wu Tsang and co-written by serpentwithfeet and Donte Collins.

“We have conversations with them [the artists] about the shape of the evening so they understand how best to present their work,” Andress said. “Artists get inspired and may think differently about how they want to present their work at the ICA.”

Andress has always been an “avid connoisseur” of live performance. He grew up in Houston, Texas, and hoped to become a musician performing in the back of the orchestra. Andress moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2002 for graduate school after receiving a Bachelor of Music from Rice University. In 2004, he moved to Boston. He has received an Master of Music from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an Master of Arts from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University.

“As a musician and trying to earn a living when I moved to Boston, I was both playing music and earning a small amount of money,” he said. “From gigs, I replayed around the city, but it wasn't enough to sustain a sustainable way to earn enough money to pay rent and food.”

Andress began temping. From there, he got a job at a music school in Cambridge, developed administrative skills, and then applied for the ICA position after developing some necessary skills. Andress has been at the ICA since 2008.

“Oh, this is a job, then you think it's an occupation and a profession, right? And then over time, you realize maybe this could be something I could do,” he said.

75 minutes went by too quickly:

After serpentwithfeet introduced himself in his cozy bathrobe, the audience knew they were in for a treat. Through music and dance, serpent told the story of two men finding themselves while simultaneously falling in love at a gay dance club. The ICA described the event as “capturing the multi-generational spirit of the Black queer community.” serpent’s existing albums were paired with new music created for the live performance. The beautiful combination of serpent’s singing and the choreography of his oh-so-talented dancers made for an entertaining and never-before-seen performance.

When we think of live performances, concerts, spoken word, cinema, and so on, we may think of a shared energy in the room that your computer can’t replace in your bedroom. We all know that the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on live performance, specifically minimizing human connection and the importance of existing together in a physical space. In the past two years, there has been a spike in excitement for anything live and in-person. With that being said, the future of live performance is still daunting.

“It feels like every other week, there's an article about the current crisis in the performing arts,” Andress said. “That's lack of funding, concern of audiences not coming back, subscribers number dropping precipitously.”

Andress thinks the industry will undergo much change in the next several years.

“I don't know what we will see on the other side,” he said. “But what I do know is artists always want to create new work, and they always want to engage with the public to share their ideas.”

serpentwithfeet was a project that then came to life at the ICA. Looking into the rest of this year and next, the ICA has a stacked list of upcoming projects and performances, which they will release on a newsletter or on their website.

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