Leslie Allison: Bath Piece & Other Songs

Leslie stayed at Room & Board in April, 2015. Unlike previous projects here, which made the best use of limited time, Leslie began planning in late fall, with the idea of devising an entirely new work. She knew that she wanted to compose for an unaccompanied chorus, a recent direction in her work, and she knew that she wanted to involve Room & Board’s outsized bathtub, which appealed to her as an apartment-dweller accustomed to forgoing that fixture and its salutary effects. By the time she moved in, just before April, Leslie had assembled her chorus—Laurel Atwell, Brooke Herr, and Claire Wilcox—and established an ambitious rehearsal schedule. Out of this emerged Bath Piece, a paean in three movements to pain, healing, and the treacherous path to self-knowledge. It was also a nod to the audience intimacy conjured by previous residents Daniel and Samuel. In Bath Piece, Leslie and her chorus sing in the bath, conducting a kind of aquatic choreography as they sink into and emerge from the hot water.

After rehearsals, I found myself humming one particularly arresting line: My genitals are real / They are how I feel. I felt that this line—firm yet ambiguous, sad and silly—captured so much of Bath Piece, and Leslie and I decided to emblazon it on buttons (another anchor of teenage culture) for guests to wear. Leslie also put together a list of “Works Cited,” a diverse array of the music that inspired her work, for guests to take home on USB drives. Summoning the teenage self that had been the site of the experiences that inspired Bath Piece, Leslie also invited friends to collaborate with her for a related work, together singing Fiona Apple’s “Paper Bag”—a song that had been a sort of anthem to her. Filmed and edited during Leslie’s birthday party, this group performance was projected on the raised lid of the downstairs toilet, headphones nearby, reminding viewers that teenage angst is not restricted to song.

In discussing the role of hot baths in her life (and now, work), Leslie brought up the relationship between corporeal and emotional feeling, the translations between the two. I wanted to bring this idea into the salon, to help bring guests into the spirit of Leslie’s work. I devised an experiment: the Emotion Potions Laboratory, which invited guests to mix cocktails that expressed their current emotional state. Once drunk, I reasoned, the potion would bring the body’s experience in harmony with the mind’s. Guests were invited to concoct new potions throughout the evening, as their emotional states shifted.

To see Bath Piece, guests signed up for one of three performances, as we could only pack so many people into the hallway outside the upstairs bathroom. Even then, hampered viewing conditions governed the piece. The bathtub is to the right of the doorway, whose door we removed from its hinges, so that even an oblique viewing angle is partial. We set up a mirror on the other side of the door frame, ensuring that everyone would catch glimpses of the performance inside, aware that no one would see more than that. As visitors left the bright hubbub of the party downstairs, climbing the steps and entering the darkened upstairs hallway, they saw only the light spilling out of the bathroom and heard only the water spilling into the tub, as well as the laughter and voices of the four women filling it. Guests crowded round the open door, feeling like voyeurs, unsure what would happen next and what they should do. When the hallway and tub were both filled, the bathroom grew quiet. Then Leslie, Claire, Brooke, and Laurel began to sing, their voices reverberating off the bathroom tiles.

Truth be told, Bath Piece has a fifth voice: it’s the bathwater, thundering into the tub as guests entered the dark hallway, and gurgling disconsolately away as the four performers harmonize with it, as if in accompaniment.

— Julia

All photographs are by Nate Boguszewski unless otherwise noted.

“Paper Bag” filming and editing is by Vanessa Haroutunian.

The event program features the libretto to Bath Piece, a full explanation of the Emotion Potion laboratory, and an essay by me.

Northwestern & Other Chromes

Performer Brooke Herr produced filmed documentation of one of the Bath Piece performances.

For those who could only be there in spirit, buttons from Leslie’s salon featuring a Bath Piece lyric are still available—in four gorgeous, gender-ambiguous desaturated colors!—and Room & Board will even cover the postage. Send your address and color preference to julia@roomandboard.nyc.

Leslie with button Bath piece buttons