Neva Cockrell and Raphael Sacks, OC ’09


Courtesy of Lucie Weismuller

Neva Cockrell and Raphael Sacks, OC ’09.

Raphael Sacks and Neva Cockrell, two Oberlin alumni, performed their dance-theater work Prime in the Warner Main Space this past Wednesday. The two created their own ensemble company, Loom Ensemble, and have also worked with the Art Monastery Project, which they now run out of a communal living farm in Vermont. Cockrell also dances with the renowned company Pilobolus. They spoke to the Review about their focus on collaborative art making, and the paths they have taken building careers in a creative field. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Because you were both pretty involved in dance and theater here, could you talk about how you ended up following that, or if you directly followed that after graduation? What have the last 10 years been like?

Neva Cockrell: I didn’t dance before college. I mean, I’d probably seen some contemporary dance before, but I remember my first semester I saw a modern performance in Warner Main Space and just totally fell in love and ended up studying dance. And then after school I was really deciding between pursuing a career in environmental science or moving to New York City and trying to dance. There was a visiting professor I took some classes with in Seattle, [WA] right after graduating. I remember that we went out to lunch in this cafe and I was like, “What should I do with my life?” And she said, “If you can do anything else, I really recommend it. … And if you can’t do anything else, you’ll know, and you’ll dance.” I left that conversation just really like, “Wow, I think I’m going to dance.” And so Raphael and I moved to New York City together after graduation and I just got whatever odd job I needed to have to prioritize taking classes and auditioning, and we were in that. 

There is paid work in the arts. It’s very rarely available to people fresh out of college and it’s really easy to get distracted. I feel like I watched a lot of people struggle with, “Okay, I’m trying to pursue this thing that I know I’m going to have to probably pursue for a few years before I can make any income doing it.” Now our lives have shifted such that we are totally oriented around these activities and make our money doing it, but it took time.

Raphael Sacks: In our first years out of college I used grant money from Oberlin Creativity and Leadership matched by the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance to gather together the professional theater companies that I most intensely admired, and organized a workshop series in our living room with a dozen other peers in New York City — the coolest kids who would answer our emails. Guest teachers would come in, teach us a workshop, and then we would continue to have sessions on our own to unpack all of the tools that they had offered us. Those workshops funded by Oberlin Creativity and Leadership were eventually the start of the theater company that we continue to run now, Loom Ensemble.

How does Loom Ensemble function now?

NC: So in the past almost ten years with Loom, we’ve made nine or ten evening-long shows, and many short things for smaller projects. We specialize in the overlap of dance and music, and theater that’s not quite like musical theater. That’s taken a lot of different forms because we’ve moved around and we’ve taken the company with us and collaborated with lots of different people. What it’s looked like the past few years is that we work on a show in a series of what we call devising intensives. So we’ll bring together a group of performers and artists for five days, and we’ll have an intensive work period on new material, and then they’ll go home, and then Raph and I will continue to work on the material for a month or two, and then bring back a group of performers again.

What have some of your past themes for your show been?

RS: We have a show that’s about white folks stepping up to take responsibility for dismantling white supremacy. I have a solo show that’s about ocean ecology that’s really this ecoactivist call to action riffing off of David Attenborough’s deep sea Planet Earth.

NC: This script that I just wrote for this past show was about looking at self-destructive behavior and body shame. The piece before that was looking at a classic love affair, but how relationship models could be explored as new information for classic love affairs. We end up with a show and then when we’re ready to perform it, we’ll cast the performers in the place where the show is. So we spent a year making a show and then decided to perform it in Dubai. So then we spent two months in Dubai working with the performers. We have also toured. 

What’s the Art Monastery Project and how are you involved with that?

RS: The Art Monastery is an artist collective that centers spiritual practice as the source of creativity. Neva and I went as artists in residence when the Art Monastery was operating in historic empty monasteries in rural Italy in 2012. I met someone from the Art Monastery in New York City and she was bringing together a group of artists to collaboratively devise an interdisciplinary performance in context of daily meditation and group song and communal living in a rural place. We both applied — they were looking for an actor and a choreographer. When we were there, we fell in love with the people and we fell in love with the lifestyle. In the seven years since then other people who were in charge have gone on to other things. Now it’s me and Neva and two other people who run this organization and have brought it home from Italy to a farmhouse in Vermont. We host other artists in residence. We use it as a communal living container for our own creative process. We grow a lot of our own food. We practice meditation and sing songs together every day. The Art Monastery is a lot like Harkness [co-op]. It’s like Harkness meets Sola Luna. 

NC: I really feel like our lives are composed of those three things: Loom, the Art Monastery and freelance touring.

RS: Neva is always so humble about this, but she dances with Pilobolus. While we’re talking the nuts and bolts of trying to make a life in the arts financially, that was the game changer. A steady supplemental income from that high profile gig has made so many other things possible.

NC: I’ve been dancing with them for three years. I auditioned for Pilobolus in 2014 at a mass open call with probably 600 people there in New York and it was a five- day-long audition. And I made it to the end with maybe six other women and they sat us down and said, “We really like you all but we aren’t hiring women.” We’re like, “No way. I just spent five days.” But eventually, in 2016, I got offered my first gig with them. They do a combination of live dance and shadow work and they got hired to do a shadow background for Britney Spears at the MTV Music Awards.

I saw Pilobolus in Cleveland while I was at Oberlin and I remember thinking, “Oh, I could do this.” Not, “I can do this now.” But I used to watch ballet and just feel like, “I cannot and I will never be a professional ballet dancer.” But I remember watching Pilobolus and thinking, “Wow, I have that kind of athleticism.” It’s been a dream to get to dance with them.

Can you talk a little bit about what the themes or questions or ideas behind Prime were in development? It was created by an ensemble of 10 artists — how did that process look with this specific piece?

NC: This show was created in 2014 in Italy, and Raph and I were running the Art Monastery for many years, and did something called an art monastic laboratory where we brought together a group of artists for multiple months and made a show over the course of those months. So we’re living together and training together in the mornings, rehearsing in the afternoons — and at that point the Art Monastery was exploring different monastic hours of the day each year. For a year we’d explore a certain hour for a day. Prime was made in the year that we were exploring prime, or sunrise, 6:00 a.m. All of the material came from that exploration. There was a director, a choreographer, a sound designer, a costume designer — Raph and I were the two performers. There’s an assistant director, there was a chef there, and a composer, a songwriter in addition to the sound designer, and a writer. Everyone was living together working on the material all day everyday. I think it’s a really cool process because there’s not a super layer — every layer was contributing. The different pieces are really nicely knit together.

RS: I don’t think if you saw the show, your first takeaway would be that that was a show about dawn. But a bunch of the artists there realized that that something we had in common was trying to work through long term, committed partnership in a way that doesn’t get represented in a lot of love stories — in the sexy new love of most romantic comedies. So in the show this couple is at their dawn time breakfast table having two completely different experiences — like what happens at any breakfast table — and this multiplicity and this possibility for two mutually exclusive contracting experiences to be happening right at the same time became the central exploration born out of these questions. 

Can you talk a little more about the specific ways that all of these different artists and creators are prompted into making material and making ideas for something? A chef and a composer are doing different types of work. Can you speak more to what that looks like?

NC: I think each director does it differently. Oftentimes in a devised process there is a director who is kind of guiding the show. I think this is really where tablework — sitting, talking, writing, discussing — comes into play. You bring in research, you bring in readings, and we’re all sharing ideas and then each person is going to be stimulated in different ways by the ideas. Each form is going to offer direction or limitations. Collaborative processes also really depend on the social sculpture that they’re held in. If the people feel cared for and heard and that they’re valued and there’s space for them and there’s a general respect in the room, then I think that people take more risks.

RS: Sometimes collaborative process feels like locking arms together with a group of people where no one in the line can take the step forward that they want to take because they’re being held back and have to push each other forward at the same time. There is a slowness and frustration. Sometimes we take hands and all just run, and when one person is flagging or losing steam, we pull each other up. The difference between those two situations is totally elusive — it seems magical. It requires good chemistry and all of the secret powers of good facilitation, inspiring leadership, good listening, leaving space for other people, knowing when to step up and step back.

Is there anything else that you would like to say?

NC: It’s just so cool to get to come back to Oberlin — to discover dance and interdisciplinary processes here and then end up where that’s actually what I’m doing with my life, with someone else who went here — and now 10 years later to get to come back and perform and teach some classes after all of the experience we’ve been gathering.

RS: I think that I learned more about the theater that I want to make from attending Jazz Forum than from any other performance or masterclass. It’s the way those badasses listen to each other and respond in real time. It just lit up something that I keep coming back to about how performers can be together on stage in the moment, co-creating and wild. Holding it together without diverging in an incoherent way, but each totally free.