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In 1965, Yvonne Rainer choreographed Parts of Some Sextets, a 43-minute dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses. The piece embodied the renunciation of modern dance conventions by the Judson Church artists and the creation of new rules for dance making. Shortly after, Rainer wrote an essay about Parts of Some Sextets that contained a paragraph in which she listed a series of artistic refusals (“No to spectacle/no to virtuosity/…). Although intended as a provocation that originated in this particular piece of work and not meant to be prescriptive, this paragraph has been since singled out to become the No Manifesto, an iconic postmodern document that has been influencing the following generations of art makers.
Rainer’s No Manifesto is one of the artist manifestos that Hope Mohr is quoting in Manifesting, which will premiere this week at ODC Theater. In preparation for the piece, Mohr researched manifestos and explored the rules that artists set up within their creative process. Mohr and I spoke over the phone last week.
Marie Tollon: What qualities were you looking for when choosing dancers for Manifesting?
Hope Mohr: I looked for people who could move, sing and act. It’s hard to find people who can do all three well, but I was looking for dancers who were comfortable mobilizing their voices.
MT: During a lecture at Stanford last October, you listed a set of productive rules for art making. While creating Manifesting, did you come up with additional rules? And was there one that dominated?
HM: I have followed those rules and I still think that they are all productive. For me, the biggest rule has been to come into the room and work with what’s in front of me. I came into the process with a script, so I toggled back and forth between that language and my commitment to responding to what’s in the room. I distilled the text over many months prior to the rehearsal process. But the choreography, direction and collaboration can’t happen ahead of time. They have to happen in the room. I honored the script and the concepts that gave rise to it, but I also trusted the process.
MT: You have written text for previous works, including Failure of the Sign is The Sign. Is the script you wrote for Manifesting different from anything you have done before in terms of writing in preparation for a piece?
HM: All of the script is in the form of a dialogue, which is different for me. The text in Failure was in the form of voice-over—an omniscient narrator. I have two performers in Manifesting who function as narrators, but they are in conversation with each other. I waited as long as I could to give the performers the script because I didn’t want the process to feel too script-driven. The process has been similar to a devised theater process. I had a bank of language, but I let the physical collaborative process drive the structure of the piece. I brought the language in to seed the action.
MT: Did the movements push the text in a different direction?
HM: Definitely. Some of the text dropped away because in some cases I felt that a physical image delivered content better than words.
MT: What manifestos did you research and choose to quote in the text? Why those in particular?
HM: Famous manifestos quoted in the work include those by Yvonne Rainer, Antonin Artaud, Tristan Tzara, Jiro Yoshihara (for the Gutai group), and the Guerilla Girls. The language spoke to me. And their place in the art canon. Works that also heavily influenced my process were Mao 2 by Don DeLillo, Martin Puchner’s Poetry of the Revolution, and Crimes of Art and Terror by Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe.
MT: Yvonne Rainer’s iconic No Manifesto is among the manifestos you quote in the piece. Did that manifesto have a specific impact on your personal artistic development?
HM: That manifesto, and all of Judson Church, has influenced every choreographer since, whether they know it or not. It’s part of the air we breathe. In sitting with Rainer’s manifesto, it’s a lot harder to know what you are saying yes to than no. Part of what the piece is about is how paralyzing it can be to internalize ‘shoulds.’ Part of my interest in lineage and in articulating voice in relationship to influence is about listening inside to find what you want to say yes to as opposed to be driven by “I can’t do this… I can’t do that… that’s been done…” I think Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto is iconic for a reason, because it was a clear renunciation of the modern dance master narrative. It’s the quintessential postmodern document and so it’s part of my DNA, part of my aesthetic skeleton. But that is true for anyone making work right now.
MT: Do you see anything in the dance field today that would resemble a manifesto – not necessarily in the form of one, but as a movement reacting to what came before?
HM: People are still asking what’s next after Judson. I see trends but not a movement per se. I see a lot of people going back to formalism, to structure, to unison. What is formalism in the absence of a master (Merce, Pina)? I also see a lot of people interested in territory that is in between: in between genres, genders, modes, identities. That is a by-product of both the post modern sampling culture and the mainstreaming of queer wisdom. Manifestos and in between-ness are arguably incompatible. It’s hard to write a manifesto in which both form and content embrace ambiguity.
MT: Can you talk about Stay and Manifesting being presented in the same evening?
HM: There is no language in Stay. It’s more dancey–the movement is more technical. It’s more about composing the body in space and time [than Manifesting is]. I think it’s interesting to see the two pieces side by side because Manifesting is language-heavy and concept-driven and Stay is much more about pure aesthetics. But conceptually, both pieces embrace the principle that desire and pleasure are the ultimate ‘shoulds’ for me as an artist. That is the thru line.
In a 2002 essay, writer and performer Anna Deveare Smith pointed to the multiplicity of identity: “Is it possible that, now, we can look at identity as a constellation:/That each of us has inside of ourselves many fragments?/And the fragments are not neurosis.” Bringing those fragments into a conversation with each other can become the platform for an artistic journey. Such is the case for dance makers Christopher K. Morgan and Patrick Makuakane, who both share Hawaiian roots and will open ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival tomorrow.
In that journey, an inevitable interaction between the old and the new takes place–whether it is expressed through movements, costumes or musical score. Morgan’s Pōhaku soundscape incorporates ancient Hawaiian sounds – played on the Ipu gourd or the Pahu drum- with the contemporary ones made by an electric cello. Similarly Makuakane’s modern hula pieces are performed with contemporary songs and The Hula Show’s costumes display modern aesthetics applied to traditional ones.
A modern dancer for the past 20 years, Morgan became interested in how the Polynesian dances that he learned as a child had influenced his work. Pōhaku is the culmination of a 10-year long process that included numerous trips and residencies in Hawaii and is partly inspired by Morgan’s late cousin, hula master John Kaimikaua.
Founded in 1985, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu combines hula kahiko -which involves traditional movement vocabulary accompanied by chanting and percussive instruments- with hula a’uana, or contemporary hula danced to the accompaniment of popular music. Some of the pieces honor political figures – from Robert W. Wilcox, who led an insurrection in an effort to return rights to the monarchy and to Native Hawaiian in 1889, to president Obama who was born in the same hospital as Makuakane, only two weeks apart.
As Morgan explains, “no matter what our identities are, we are all dealing with multiplicity. I would hope that when people see the specifics of one story, they would reflect on their own.”
Last August, Minneapolis-based artist Emily Johnson started her piece SHORE on Clarion Alley in the Mission District, before leading the audience to ODC Theater. Some of the murals on the alley portrayed the narrative of neighborhood families and helped anchor SHORE, a piece about home, community and connections, into the local fabric of the city. This coming Saturday, as part of Mission Street Dances, Dance Brigade will perform an excerpt from Hemorrhage on Clarion Alley. The piece deals with the gentrification of the Mission and police brutality. Once again, the dance echoes themes of displacement and gentrification beautifully illustrated within the murals that cover the alley walls and just across the street from the Mission Police Station where the Frisco 5 went on hunger strike last month to protest recent fatal police shootings in San Francisco. I took this opportunity to reach out to Megan Wilson, director of Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) to hear more about the history and projects of CAMP.
Marie Tollon: What is your role at CAMP?
Megan Wilson: My relationship to the project started in 1998 initially volunteering with the first block party. I did my first mural in 2000 and just continued to be involved. Aaron Noble, who was the last person to live in the warehouse at 47 Clarion Alley, had been pretty much the main administrator of the project since the beginning. When he was evicted and decided to move to Los Angeles, the project was turned over to me. I asked Aaron to stay on as a co-director because he had the institutional knowledge. I was co-director until 2005. We did the huge international exchange project with Indonesia during that time. I left in 2005, and I’ve been back since 2010 and heavily involved.
MT: How do you select artists?
MW: We are an all-volunteer organization and there are only two of us who manage the administrative duties of the project, myself and my partner Christopher Statton, working with an additional core group of about 10 – 15 volunteers. Being a 24-year project, we don’t have a lot of spaces that open up each year. We turn over a space when an artist is no longer here and has given it up, or if the space gets tagged really bad and the artist has moved or is no longer able to repair it or to paint a new mural. Or if it is a space where we’ve said: “this is temporary.” If the artists are taking good care of the murals, coming back and painting them, there’s no need to curate the wall to someone else.
Most of the time we already know artists or organizations we want to work with, such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, South of Market Community Action Network, Hospitality House, or the Arab Resource & Organizing Center. We do get proposals, and we accept some; however it’s only a few each year because we are so limited with space.
MT: These murals are very much related to current issues in the neighborhood and the Bay Area. Yet CAMP also started a collaboration with Indonesian artists. How did that start and what did it entail?
MW: I went to Indonesia in 2001 as one of the publishers and editors of the online art magazine Stretcher. I was interested in what contemporary Indonesian art looked like because I had never seen any. Indonesians were also coming off Suharto’s dictatorship so I was curious as to how artists were responding to that. After being in Bali for 2 weeks, I was recommended to go to Jogjakarta where the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI), the most prestigious arts university for Indonesia, is located and I ended up meeting a great collective of artists – Apotik Komik. They were doing work that was similar to work that was being done in San Francisco at that time – quite ephemeral, working with cardboard, comic book influenced, pop culture influenced and politically influenced. I interviewed three of the members of Apotik Komik for an article for Stretcher. When I came back to the United States, I stayed in touch with them and wrote two articles for Stretcher based on my travels in Indonesia. One month later September 11th happened. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and at that time the country was still in the early stages of becoming a democratically run country, following a 33-years dictatorship with Suharto as President. We (Apotik Komik and I) thought 9/11 provided an opportunity to bring our cultures together to share our experiences with one another collectively following such a life-altering event for everyone throughout the world and that is what we did.
It took 2 years to raise the money and in July/August 2003 six artists from here (Aaron Noble, Alicia McCarthy, Andrew Schoultz, Carolyn Castaño, Ryder, and myself) traveled to Indonesia for 5 weeks to paint murals, do an exhibition, and participate in many community discussions. Then Apotik Komik (Arie Dyanto, Arya Jalu, Nano Warsono, and Samuel Indratma) traveled from Indonesia to San Francisco for 8 weeks. It was an incredible experience to get to know these artists. We are launching another exchange with JokJakarta and this one is going to be more direct in its use of socio-political messaging to help support global change. We are living in a world that is driven by capitalism globally and that is destroying everybody and everything in its path. We need to work together on a global level to change the path that we’re on.
MT: Can you talk more about how CAMP’s community partners are involved in the project?
MW: We have key community partners like Community Thrift. They were the first building to give us space on the alley. They are also a wonderful non-profit and own their building. Since we lost our warehouse and then our garage, Community Thrift has let us store our ladders in their space, use their bathrooms and get water. We have been partnering with ATA since our early days and they often present video programming for our block parties. We also work with them on community organizing within the neighborhood. CAMP is part of the Plaza 16 Coalition. We also work specifically on murals with certain organizations like the Anti Eviction Mapping Project.
MT: CAMP lost its warehouse then its garage. So where are you now?
MW: We do not have a physical space, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is amazing how much we do with how little we have. Nobody gets paid. We don’t have overhead as far as a space we’d have to pay rent on. There is no danger of us getting evicted. We do have basic site agreements going back to the beginning of the project and now with the new developments that have gone up on the alley, we have contracts with those buildings that give us the rights to curate the space.
MT: San Francisco has a strong history of muralism. Can you talk more about it and how the murals on Clarion Alley fit within it?
MW: I didn’t start as a muralist or as a painter, so I’m not that knowledgeable! I’m more of a conceptual-based artist who uses paint and murals because it’s a great way to get messages out. Balmy Alley, which started in the early ‘80s was the first mural alley that inspired Clarion to start 10 years later. Balmy focused on issues speaking to Central American socio-political issues and giving voices to that movement. There is also a labor activism mural movement in the Bay Area. Clarion brought it more toward the diversity of what you can do with public art, creating work that was more stylistically diverse – with spray and brush works, conceptual projects, and a many other approaches to creating public murals – also more diverse in the content presented. In the past several years socio-political messaging has become more predominant as we’re seeing so much hyper-gentrification impact the Bay Area. Like the trains with graffiti of the twenties and thirties that were going across the country carrying those messages, social media is carrying those messages everywhere now too.
MT: Although hard to quantify, can you trace some of the impact of Clarion Alley on issues the murals are tackling?
MW: Our mission supports giving voice to disenfranchised communities, to this neighborhood, and to the political issues that are happening in the Bay Area. As you said, it’s really hard to quantify but the images do get used a lot for socio-political imaging. They will get picked up and be used all over the world. In 2015, I was contacted by Dr. Albena Azmanova, an esteemed economist, an Associate Professor in Political and Social Thought at the University of Kent, and a policy advisor Associate Professor in Political and Social Thought, and policy advisor for the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the European Commission, and Transparency International. Dr. Azmanova is writing a paper for an international policy journal and she wrote to ask permission to use images of my murals “Tax The Rich”, “Capitalism Is Over! If You Want It”, and “Stop The Corporatocracy” to accompany her paper. These murals will be seen by policy leaders from around the world. Likewise, Rebecca Solnit recently wrote an article for the Guardian “Gentrification’s toll: ‘It’s you or the bottom line and sorry, it’s not you’ and she used an image of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s mural “Narratives of Displacement.” So in this way, CAMP’s social/political messages have become a part of the visual landscape that is helping to define the social change movements of our time.
Additionally, being on the alley painting, we have a lot of conversations with people, often tourists. People are so grateful that we are doing the work that we are and that they are seeing this type of work in the public realm. It is one of the only spots in the city that actually has that kind of voice and that kind of socio-political weight.
MT: What are you working on now?
MW: The website has been taking most of my creative energy for the last 5 months. Before that, Christopher and I were in Indonesia for 4 months and we each did large murals – Christopher, in collaboration with Nano Warsono, who was one of the artists that was part of the Sama-Sama/Together international exchange. Nano is also our partner in leading the next international exchange. I am itching to get back into making work! I know it’s going to be some socio-political messaging. It’s so hard to live in this climate and this world, and not respond. I miss making really beautiful, more personal, more design-based work. But at this point in time, I just can’t do that.
Earlier this spring, Christopher K. Morgan and Patrick Mukuakane were talking on the phone about their upcoming engagement at ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival. Both artists knew of each other but had never met. Morgan, a modern dancer for the past 20 years, is based in Washington, DC., while Mukuakane, who founded Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu in 1985, lives and works in the Bay Area. The conversation between both artists focused on the Hawaiian roots that they share, as well as the work that they will present at the festival.
Morgan’s Pōhaku is the culmination of a 10-year long process that included numerous trips and residencies in Hawaii. The piece stemmed from Morgan’s desire to explore how the Polynesian dances that he learned as a child influenced his work and is also partly inspired by Morgan’s late cousin, hula master John Kaimikaua. Makuakane’s Hula Show combines hula kahiko -which involves traditional movement vocabulary accompanied by chanting and percussive instruments- with hula a’uana, or contemporary hula danced to the accompaniment of popular music.
At the end of the conversation, Makuakane offered to make the Lei poʻo (head lei) and Kūpeʻe lima (wristlet) that Morgan will wear during his show. Made up of ti-leaves and ferns, they are a traditional part of the hula dancers’ costume. This act of spontaneous generosity reminded me of the customs of hospitality and generosity palpable throughout the Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i exhibition at the de Young Museum.
Developed in partnership with the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, it was the first exhibition of Hawaiian featherwork on the U.S. mainland, and was on view until last month. The show featured approximately 75 rare examples of the finest featherwork capes and cloaks in existence, as well as royal staffs of feathers (kāhili), feather lei (lei hulu manu), helmets (mahiole), feathered god images (akua hulu manu), and related eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and works on paper. Most of these works had been donated as gifts to foreign royalties, as a way to promote or reinforce alliances.
Learning about Morgan and Makuakane’s work as well as visiting the exhibition highlighted similarities about larger issues present both in the visual and performing arts, including questions of costume as identity and the underrepresentation of non-Western art on the contemporary scene. Christina Hellmich, curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and curator of the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young Museum, graciously offered to answer my questions.
Marie Tollon: Where does your interest in the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (AOA) stem from?
Christina Hellmich: My grandparents loved to travel and I was fortunate to travel with them to Europe, Asia and the Pacific. My Master’s degree advisor was Allen Wardwell, former curator of primitive art at the Art Institute of Chicago and director of the Asia Society and the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. He encouraged me to pursue museum work in this area. I was lucky to be hired by the Peabody Essex Museum right after graduate school to work with their important AOA collections.
MT: What was the impetus of this exhibition?
CH: A colleague at the Bishop Museum, Betty Kam, and I began talking about the possibility of an exhibition over a decade ago. We were interested to develop a show that would celebrate the outstanding collections of the Bishop Museum and highlight this extraordinary Hawaiian art form. It was the first exhibition of Hawaiian art at the de Young and the first exhibition of Hawaiian featherwork in the continental United States.
MT: This exhibition was very much about relationships – between Hawaiian royalty and visitors, between the objects featured in the exhibition and viewers. What was your relationship to these objects?
CH: I have the utmost respect for these sacred cultural works and I greatly admire the artistry and technical skill of their creators. It was an honor to have them on view at the de Young and to share them with the public.
MT: Was there one specific piece you were drawn to personally?
CH: I was particularly drawn to the late 18th century capes. Few remain in Hawaii. They show the diversity of styles and the use of domestic fowl (chicken) feathers in combination with red and yellow honeycreeper feathers. One of these large capes in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is stunning with its thick layering of iridescent black feathers and striking border of red and yellow triangles.
MT: Do you share Hawaiian visual artist Maile Andrade’s observation that Hawaii is largely absent from the representations of world cultural heritage in museums? If so, what do you attribute that absence to and is this situation changing?
CH: Yes. Oceanic art is not widely displayed in museums globally. At this moment, there are a limited number of curatorial advocates for Hawaiian art working outside of the Hawaiian Islands, especially in art museums.
MT: I was struck by the similarities underlined within this exhibition and the Oscar de la Renta show which had just opened when I visited the museum. Each spoke to a sense of artistry and craftsmanship -The hundreds of thousands of feathers that went into making a cape echoed the copious amount of fine material that went into the making of luxury fashion item. I am wondering what you thought of both exhibitions living in the museum together.
CH: I love that visitors came to see a fashion exhibition and then made their way up to Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali‘i where they experienced fashions from another part of the world that they had never seen. Both exhibitions highlighted the desire to wear stunning and powerful garments. While money can buy garments infused with power and status in our time, only Hawaiians of chiefly class had the sacred power and political status to wear featherwork.
Efforts to facilitate meaningful international exchange in the arts are nothing new. For good reason. The myriad ways in which we share, learn, connect, and generally cross-pollinate beyond our own political borders are an artistic, or moreover, a human, imperative. For the dancer, choreographer, or visionary at large, the act of purposefully immersing oneself far beyond the local and into the unfamiliar can fuel vital creative growth and amplify perspective. To this end, organizations and institutions occasionally create exchanges and residencies to serve as artistic homes for artists to engage in their craft, and are designed in any number of ways. In that sense, this practice is not a new development. What is novel in its own respect, and perhaps even revolutionary, is how a government-based project founded sixty years ago by President Eisenhower would lay the framework for a lasting cultural partnership between the cities of San Francisco and Zurich, Switzerland.
For over ten years, San Francisco and Zurich have been designated as Sister Cities, and it is from this relationship that the Swiss Artist-in-Residency at ODC draws its roots. Devised decades ago by political leaders with the participation of city officials, the aim of the Sister Cities organization was to increase and sustain meaningful mutual support and stimulate partnerships in fields of shared interest between American cities and cities abroad, thus promoting, on a grander scale, global peace and understanding. The Sister Cities partnership between Richmond, Virginia and Ségou, Mali is centered around music. Rouen, France and Cleveland, Ohio share a Sister Cities affiliation centered around the culinary arts.
As Martin Schwartz, Cultural Officer of the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco, explained, San Francisco and Zurich both place a high premium on the arts. To commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the partnership, which had been relatively dormant, a number of new ideas and projects emerged: a co-curated photography exhibit, a film festival, and the Swiss Artist-in-Residency, with ODC as an official partner. It was affirmed that dance and choreography were a major component of the artistic identity of both cities, and plans were put into place to highlight this.
This particular experiment in thematic international cultural diplomacy has taken prominent Zurich-based dance artists Meret Schlegel, Natalie Wagner and Sandro Minasi, among others, from their lives in Europe. It has brought them to San Francisco and funded their six-month living experience with Swiss-government sponsored stipends, and provided them with a place to live. It immersed them within the hub of ODC and funded their studio rentals. As a facet of this unique partnership of goodwill between two cities, the Swiss Artist-in-Residency is purposefully designed to prioritize that which is of most basic need to an artist, without making stipulations or demands on the artists in return. There is one salient responsibility imposed with their participation in the program: to simply explore—their art, their surroundings, themselves. To create space for themselves in San Francisco, in whichever way it may manifest for them personally.
Applicants for the Swiss government-funded residency are vetted through the dance department of the City of Zurich Department of Culture, with a jury entrusted with making the selections. The application process is competitive, and those applying are expected to have been working at a professional level, with well-established experience in the area of dance and choreography. With regard to finding a venue for the residency, Schwartz noted that in the planning stages, ODC was considered the best possible fit for the Zurich artists to come and be artistically housed in. The large range of dance styles represented, the diversity of residency programs already in place, as well as the tremendous resource of space were described as major factors that led to the decision. The ample amount of studio space was considered part of the heart of the residency program, a resource allowing the Zurich artists freedom to try out new ideas within the walls of ODC. Connections with Zurich-based dancers have sprung up in neighboring arts organizations as well, such as CounterPulse, and Zaccho Dance.
Through this program, two global communities are connected meaningfully and intend to remain so in the area of dance. Synergies between the individuals and communities of the San Francisco Bay Area and Zurich continue to thrive as mutual learning takes place, linkages are made, and networks widened — rippling their effect into the future. The value placed on unbridled exploration espoused in the program, as well as its international scope, contribute to what makes this program and its inception unique. Of particular interest, however, is not only the design, history, and implications of this program as a model, but also the way the Swiss Artist-in- Residence program is experienced on the individual level, by the residents themselves. Who make up the artists who participate in this residency? What are their experiences like, and what does it conjure up for them? Their perspectives, which three of them share in the interview below, speak to relatable themes of self-discovery, hard work, and passion for their craft.
Lucienne Alicea: What is your background with dance?
Natalie Wagner: I started when I was seven years old at the National Ballet school of Switzerland, though I left ballet in order to explore — I wanted to be more than just a little swan! I discovered jazz and flamenco and even took dance classes in Los Angeles for a long time. I went to the United States when I was 19 and at that time the West Coast blew my mind! The level was so much higher here, it’s like we were sleeping in Switzerland when it came to dance. The dance genres were very separate in Switzerland, yet they were already starting to mix forms here. I knew I wanted to do that so from then on I started to create more and do my own work, and delved deeper into contemporary.
Sandro Minasi: I started dancing late, when I was about 18. I would mimic Michael Jackson and MC Hammer, but in Switzerland hip hop was never that big— it was more about sports. In the beginning, I would dance with my older brother who would go to dance classes with his friends to impress girls. Eventually, teachers from the United States came to teach hip hop and my brother dragged me with him. I remember thinking it was so cool. My brother started teaching hip hop classes and I started taking his class. I had stopped sports all together and started going every day to dance class. Later on, a company took me in as a rookie and picked me to be a part of their crew. We started doing commercial style shows all over Europe. Eventually I stepped out on my own and started to dance with my own group. A turning point for us was when we came to the United States to perform in 2009. The audience in San Diego really loved our performance, which was picked up on video. By the time we got back to Europe the video had gone viral. We were getting offers to perform everywhere and invitations to TV shows.
Meret Schlegel: I have been dancing all my life. Dance and art are still my compass to help me find my way in our complex life on this planet. But my dance training is very unconventional. As a kid and teenager I took all the classes I could in my hometown – mostly music and dance improvisation. In Switzerland back then, there was no dance in high school or junior college, nor were there dance schools in contemporary or modern dance. After junior college, in the early 70’s, I left for the United States. There, I found a new performance scene which spanned across different disciplines – a departure from what I had previously experienced not only in the arts, but in society. Vertical hierarchies, like in ballet, were becoming more horizontal, and collaborations, teamwork, and self-organized collectives were emerging. It was a very interesting and inspiring time, which formed and molded my approach to dance. I kept moving back and forth between the States and Europe, and studied modern and Release under Joan Skinner and other teachers in the Bay Area, New York, and elsewhere. Once back in Switzerland, I received a BA in dance and continued what training I could find in Europe.
LA: What inspired you to apply for this residency?
NW: I found out about this opportunity when it was made newly public to dancers. One of my teachers encouraged me to apply. I was teaching every day, performing, and choreographing for theater and musicals— it was super chaotic. I never knew how to pay the rent the following month and it became exhausting. For me, the residency was more about the idea of having a break from my daily life, have time to reflect and explore, and not worry about how to pay the bills. In my application, I also explained why it was important for me to go to San Francisco. I wanted to make it clear that the city itself held interest for me. I had come to San Francisco 13 years ago for a weekend, and I wanted to see how the image I had from before compared with the San Francisco of today.
SM: I applied because I got to a point where I asked myself: What is next for me? I was always leading, which I enjoy, but I felt like it was time to do something just for me. I didn’t think I had a chance, but Natalie said I had to try. I sent the papers in on the very last day so that I could at least tell myself that I had tried. In general, hip hop in Switzerland is not as accepted as in the United States, and people don’t look at it as “real” dance because they don’t know the culture of what’s behind it. So when I got it I was shocked and not ready for it! But it felt right to take this opportunity to step away from everything, see things from a different perspective and grow as a dancer and as a person.
MS: From 2000 to 2011, I was the director at Tanzhaus Zürich. I was teaching consistently, but only performing abroad once in a while. When my time at Tanzhaus was over, I resumed my career as a dancer and choreographer. This change felt reminiscent of when I first came to San Francisco in the 1970’s. When I heard of this residency program, it felt like something would come full circle. Being the Swiss resident artist at ODC for 6 months was my dream, and it came at the perfect timing!
LA: In immersing yourself in an entirely new city, and a new dance community, how has this new environment impacted your artistic vision, your approach to your work, or your perceptions of yourself?
NW: First, it’s inspiring to see that on a different part of this planet, people care about dance. At ODC, they create these beautiful platforms for different people, which I really admire. Young artists are given possibilities! Just to notice the structure of it, to see it combined as a dance school and theater, bringing different people together in one house is amazing. We don’t have anything like this in Switzerland. At first, I checked out classes at ODC but soon I realized that dancing didn’t give me anything, and it had nothing to do with the classes themselves. The classes and teachers are amazing. I discovered the aerial dance world. The fact that I don’t have to leave my whole dance background behind, but can instead contribute to this new art form with my dance background was something that I’ve loved. I cannot even imagine to still be only on the ground! My dimensions went up, and I want to explore the whole space, not just the ground.
I admire that it’s a totally different vibe in the aerial world from the dance world. There’s less elbow fighting, but then again, I’ve found the dance world in San Francisco to be unique. Here, people care more about you as a human being. I hear a lot about energy here and I really love that. It’s calm, and it’s been like therapy for me. In aerial, it’s even more interconnected. You must arrive and be present not just for yourself but for others, because when you’re up in the air, your life is dependent on the person grounding you. In dance you don’t have this risk— if you fall, so what? There’s a heightened commitment that you engage in with others that was totally new to me and resonates with me as well.
With my experience in a new movement form which brought me out to Oakland quite often, I also had the chance to take on the role of student for the first time in a long time and I realized that I had missed it. Being that someone being told what to do. I’m a perfectionist, but in that role, I was able to be ok with making mistakes.
Residencies don’t exist in the aerial world. I was just another person coming in and trying my best, and it gave me the chance to just be me. Through that process, I wound up being invited to perform aerial for a show that I had originally bought a ticket for! It took so much strength and courage and the experience shifted my outlook in a foundational way.
SM: In my experience so far, one thing I would want is more connection with the dance community from the beginning. It was hard to get to know people, but the exercise is a good one for me because I’m shy and don’t approach people easily. Since everything in Switzerland is already happening around me, I don’t typically have to go to it. That wasn’t the case when I first came here. It took me a while to really arrive. Immediately before coming here, we had a crazy event and right when that finished, I was suddenly here! Eight months of work ended abruptly, then I was in San Francisco. Now I feel like this is my home.
The diversity and cultural offerings, with the Latino community while living in the Mission District, have made me attentive to the particular cultural vibration here. I am interested in the acute differences in cultures and I’d like to incorporate this in a new dance piece. At first some things [people say] may seem rude, but it’s just the way people talk here. Appreciating this difference has helped me grow to be more tolerant, which will affect my own dancing as well. It’s always good to be challenged or you’re not growing.
The hip hop from the Bay Area is great as well, and I’ve always loved hip hop music from the Bay Area. For me, the hip hop community here is like New York’s in its feeling, but smaller and more familiar. In Los Angeles it’s competitive, but here, you know there’s a place for everyone. In exploring festivals around the Bay, I got to know a local dancer who introduced me to Nicole Klaymoon of Embodiment Project, another Resident Artist at ODC. I like the way her group works, and we’ve begun to explore the possibility of a continued collaboration together and bringing her company to Switzerland! I really like her approach and ideas, and I love the dancers. They’re kind and warm, and the way she talks to them is with so much respect. I’ve been inspired by how you can feel that they respect and love each other, and how it’s not only about technical skill. Human to human connection is important to me.
I’d like to continue training and sharing with local companies, as well as try other dance forms. I want to learn more about modern floor work, so that I can incorporate it into my hip hop b-boy work. I’ve connected with local choreographer Stacey Printz in an attempt to pursue that. My approach while in San Francisco is to exchange deeply with dancers and mentors rather than take classes. I need real personal one-on-one exchange, which will allow me to go deeper into my dance research.
MS: The city, its climate and location are unique! This once in a lifetime experience of not having to make money (actually not even being allowed to), caused such an opening of my mind and body. The effects are still with me in my way of approaching dance.
The experience of getting an inside look into the whole organization of ODC, and meeting all of those wonderful people who run and make ODC such a unique place, was a big part of my residency. Understanding the organizational aspects of such a place was important. I was also very fortunate as an artist to be invited to take part in Take 5, be a docent, and share my work by presenting a full piece that I choreographed in Switzerland.
During the residency, I was able to reflect upon some illuminating contrasts between dance of San Francisco and Zurich. I find that in Europe, the performance pieces ask more questions– they are scratchy and take risks, and shake up your preconceptions and ideas about dance. Often, you keep thinking or pondering about the theme afterwards. Most pieces are not so easily digested by only watching because they want you to engage and also leave a physical sensation in the viewer. In San Francisco, I have seen lots of beautiful pieces, so in my mind I kept remembering more the presence of individual dancers, and less the piece itself.
With regard to being immersed in this city, it was actually of some help that I used to live in San Francisco, because I felt at home right from the beginning! It made these 6 months so special.
LA: Since moving to San Francisco, have cost of living issues and the challenges it poses to local artists and art spaces been palpable to you? Do artists face similar economic challenges in Zurich?
NW: In general it’s hard for every artist, it doesn’t matter which planet or country you live in. Even in Zurich, the funding is just for a few people – a selected few. I think many people in the States have a wrong image of Europe that everything must be better with regards to funding— but you need to check who actually gets the funding. It’s the big ballet companies with prestige, the super famous choreographers. What about the rest of us? My life in Zurich compared to the life of artists here is not so different. I was just lucky [with this residency], it’s the first time I’ve gotten anything from the city, after proving myself as a choreographer and producing work for 10 years!
SM: I hear the talk about it from afar, but when you don’t talk directly to people, you don’t know. I didn’t know how much an apartment costs here, as the residency provides us with an apartment. When I found out how much it was, I was shocked! Switzerland is expensive, but this is twice the prices of Zurich. It’s so small there and there’s a lot of money because it’s a rich country, however it’s not easy if you’re an independent artist who wants to create. You have to know the right people. If you do hip hop, there are no funds at all! It’s hard, though I’m not suffering or complaining. It was better for me to build up my own project because I wasn’t going to wait for the government to support us. It’s hard, but it’s the right way for independent artists in Switzerland to do their own stuff and build their own community. There are a lot of politics involved, and if they don’t like you, they won’t support you. I was determined not to depend on them, but I see a lot of other people struggling within that system back home.
MS: First of all, Zurich is a small town in a small country! Traditionally, compared to the United States and San Francisco, we are very fortunate to still get public support for the arts. But unfortunately, the independent dance scene, dance theaters, and alternative locations are funded less and less! The funding is more project oriented. In the last 15 years, the network of these theaters and venues, as well as dance lobbying groups throughout Switzerland have been well-established, so we are lucky that the economic crisis is only now hitting the arts.
LA: In what ways do you think you will look back on this experience? Will carving out space hold more of a priority for you in the future?
NW: This will always be my time off, it’s special and unreal. I’m a workaholic and it’s hard for me to take time off. Now that I’ve had it, I am filled with energy and ready [to start again.] I initially felt that I needed to prove to the city of Zurich that it was good that they invested in me, and take advantage of every little thing, but that’s actually not the point of being here! It brought up contradictory feelings in me. I asked myself what do I need? It was a challenge not to feel a sense of obligation. That’s why this residency is so exceptional — when do you ever get the chance to just sit down and reflect about what you need right now? If I look back in 10 years, it will always be these 6 months which gave me the opportunity to ask: what do I want in life?
SM: It’s been an awesome opportunity. It’s going to affect my future in many ways. The goal to have time and explore, without having to accomplish a new piece or anything— I now look at it as a gift.
MS: Seeing how my daily studio time became so important was a wonderful surprise. Now back in Switzerland, I still rent a studio once a week without the pressure to create a defined product.
I came back to Switzerland not only with an extra bag of books and memorabilia, but also full of inspiration, ideas, energy, new contacts and friends, and memories of times passed at ODC, both in the studio and at the Theater watching performances. It was not only my personal research in one of the wonderful studios that I see as important—I absorbed the unique atmosphere there, and as a result, became part of it.
Lucienne Alicea grew up in San Francisco and has been a student of dance since the age of 5. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in International Studies, she began working for the Adult Dance Program of ODC School. She has been actively involved in the SF Bay Area performing arts community for the last ten years, having also worked for the Stern Grove Festival and Brava Theater for Women in the Arts. In addition to her passion for the arts, she is also an avid traveler, having studied and traveled extensively throughout Europe and Latin America.
My first experience of Christine Bonansea’s choreographic installation was at the Kingmond Young Studio – a photo studio turned performance space for an evening of 2013. The French, New York-based choreographer presented three solos, two in which she danced and one in which a male performer led the audience from the entrance of the shop to the backroom of the space where viewers sat on bleachers.
Bonansea’s solos were dense with her ferocious energy, her body contorting in shapes that were part animal, part monster. With her face masked by protruding goggles, the movements explored the transformative possibilities of the body, one that leaned toward the grotesque. In one simple and beautiful section, Bonansea played with scales and the relationship between inside and outside: she danced outdoors in front of a light, while the audience, sitting inside, saw her reflection on a screen. Adjusting her distance from the light, her shape alternatively grew from minuscule to humongous, playing with the imagery of a distorted body.
During his solo, the male performer repeated to the audience “Who wants to be my baby?” until a middle-aged man enthusiastically volunteered to join him on stage. A series of play between the baby/lover and the literal baby succeeded. At one point, the volunteer audience member was held into the performer’s lap like a baby. The performer moved a bottle towards his face, seemingly about to feed him, before splashing water on his face. At this point the viewer, extremely upset, vehemently rebelled. The piece touched upon power relationships between audience and performer. Does a viewer relinquish his/her will power when stepping on stage, in the world created by an artist? What is their motivation to transcend the observer/observed boundary by volunteering to be on stage? Is it simple curiosity, wanting to be loved (becoming the “baby”) or a desire for that one-minute of fame?
In a different way, these questions of audience-performer relationships and the grotesque body were also present in Floaters, a trilogy that features three men and three women, presented at The Lab this weekend. For Bonansea, audiences are not meant to just be there and watch, separated from the performance happening on stage. In Floaters the audience was thoughtfully curated within a large rectangle in the middle of the room. Except for a row of chairs in the back, everyone was invited to sit in the rectangle. During the show, the performers moved around the audience, at times coming to the edge of the rectangle, and even moving through the audience, on the long stretch of reflective Mylar taped on the floor that ran across the rectangle where the audience sat. The piece ended with the three male performers (Sherwood Chen, Sebastian Grubb, Alexander Zendzian) performing what appeared as a contact improvisation section, bodies tangled up either in ecstasy or anguish as they moved through the silver lane.
Dance audiences in San Francisco are largely made of dance artists, whose hips are likely more flexible than non dancers,’ allowing them to sit on the floor at length. I wondered if I was one of the few struggling to retain the sitting position for the 1 hour and 45 minutes that the piece lasted. I soon felt trapped within a sea of bodies. Was it the choreographer’s intent to impose some kind of physical restriction and discomfort to her audience? Again, I wondered about audience’s agency when viewing work. You could minimally change positions since your neighbors were so close, you could not stand since you would be blocking the view of your fellow viewers, but you could of course walk out at any moment.
Visuals are an important aspect of Bonansea’s installations. Reflections of light on the silver band that ran along the floor could be seen undulating on the ceiling, reminiscent of the shimmering light of a pool. I was reminded of sitting in an empty, abandoned pool many years ago in McCarren’s Park in Brooklyn, which was temporarily taken over by site-specific choreographer Noemie Lafrance. The nostalgia of an empty public pool brought back images of weathered paints, places abandoned and left to oblivion, places where memories rust.
Reinforcing this memory, Floaters’ sound scape and choreography invoked images of clouded, dark pockets of the collective unconscious. The sensation of being enclosed in a somehow oppressive environment was conveyed at the beginning of the piece, with faint sounds recalling squeaking doors, girls’ voices and branches scraping against a wall. In quasi darkness, the three female performers –Bonansea, Liane Burns and Michaela Burns, their profile somehow shaped grotesquely by dark glasses and a hat covering their long hair- scurried around the audience, with menacing little pitter-patter, the sound echoing in the room. They recalled the unfamiliar, somehow threatening sounds of steps in the dark common in horror stories. Yet, with their frantic pace, those figures were also comical.
Bonansea then performed a brilliant solo, her body twisting and thrashing against the wall and the floor. At moments, she rounded her back, shoulders lifted, opening her arms wide, as if Louise Bourgeois’ huge spiders sculptures were suddenly given motion and taking over the space. She circled around the audience, shoulders up to her ears, right arm straightforward and index finger pointed. At times her shadow was projected on the wall – a long, black figure with a pointing finger. Imagery of witches in old fairy tales arose in my mind, but also the literal meaning of pointing a finger at someone, of denunciation, accusation, and indictment.
As Kate Mattingly stated in her preview of Floaters, Bonansea’s work “does not illustrate a message or announce a discovery, but communicates through sensation and environment. It’s a world that is masked and opaque, and rich in craft and attention to costume, sound, movement, and their interactions.” If there are any messages or associations, they are in the eye of the beholder.
Maybe because the story of Luis Gongora’s death, which happened four blocks away from The Lab the day before, was very much on my mind, watching Bonansea’s recurring accusatory finger brought back to mind a recent article by Rebecca Solnit that details the death of Alex Nieto. Solnit mentions the day-to-day racist finger-pointing that led to Nieto’s shooting by the police: “Some use the website Nextdoor.com to post comments “labeling Black people as suspects simply for walking down the street, driving a car, or knocking on a door.” The same thing happens in the Mission, where people post things on Nextdoor such as “I called the police a few times when [there] is more than three kids standing.”
Toward the end of her solo, Bonansea took off her shirt and bra, and sat with her naked back exposed to the audience while a projection ran along her figure and the wall – the body merging with its environment, and both equally marked by the power of visuals. The image of an intricate network of sinews and veins was projected. The multiplicity of pathways that were shown on the wall echoed the many emotional and psychological trajectories one could travel through within the performance: As much as Bonansea creates a unique universe, thick with not easily identifiable sounds and movements, entering her world is equally entering one’s own. It is about being allowed the possibility for memories to surface, for the reality of the outside world to enter our inner world, sometimes with discomfort, and always with the possibility of revelation.
Click here to view more photos by Hillary Goidell.
There are countless ways to be an audience – tired, excited, distracted, curious, bored, interested, etc. Regardless of how each of us began the performance, we, the audience for Still Life Dances on Friday night last week, became transfixed together, as if taken into stillness by the performance.
Still Life Dances, choreographed by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, is a series of dances based on specific still life paintings in the de Young Museum’s permanent collection. I saw three different works from the Still Life Dances series last year, Still Life No. 1, No. 2 (two different iterations) and No. 3. I didn’t plan to see them, but was always happy when they appeared on the program. I will admit that by the third time, I was a little giddy. Given the giggle, I am not drawn to discuss the intricate compositional features or choreographic strategies used by Simpson and Stulberg. Marie Tollon superbly detailed that work last November, and captured the overall movement quality as a reinvestigation of “the small, the minute, the quirky play with duration and modes of seeing,” which creates a unique style. Yes, there is something new happening here, but it’s more than something new. Why do these dances seem so touchable, so inviting? What are their movements of stillness trying to say?
The Oxford English Dictionary first defines stillness as the “absence of movement or physical disturbance; motionlessness.” The second definition moves beyond physical action: “Freedom from tumult, strife, or agitation; tranquility.” The dances presented in Still Life Dances at ODC on Friday night– Still Life No. 1, hold (STILL), and Still Life No. 4 – explore the movement between these modalities of absence, freedom, agitation, and tranquility by creating movements of stillness that slice open aspects of life, creating glimpses into seemingly unnoticeable or forgotten spaces of human relationality.
Still Life No. 1 and hold (STILL) consider the movement of stillness between two performers, a duet of gestures that may seem simple like the shrug of a shoulder or the thrust of a palm. Yet, when considered as sentence-like sequences, these gestures and the stillness they navigate suggest a striving toward connectivity. About a minute into Still Life No. 1, the dancers pull each other into a “not-quite-hug.” Bodies lean into each other, heads resting on shoulders. A place of stillness is achieved, yet the arms dangle and torsos sway slightly – the residue of movement. Then, a need to move, to get more comfortable, to find a new place or maybe they are just not ready to let go: heads change slightly, arms readjust. This moment of stillness repeats albeit differently at times throughout the dances offered in Friday’s Still Life Dances. Watching this moment again and again seems to articulate a tenderness, a desire to be felt, noticed, or considered.
In Still Life No. 4, “made in close collaboration with the dancers,” four dancers move in various spatial and perspective configurations, which created multiple groupings of still movements. The walls divided the stage into spaces that played with distance and depth, providing new surfaces for the dancers to explore. By carving the stage into a kind of art gallery, the dance created moving pictures that evoked perspectives of passing as opposed to standing (still).
Within this spatial framing, choreographers Simpson and Stulberg also played with the movement of sound. It started with one dancer making a popping sound – “pop.” Using the lips, this bubble-like sound resonated as a singular signal. The sonic stillness of this singular pop could be the ping of sonar – the sending out of a signal in the hopes of making contact. Eventually, the dancers pop in response, slowly at first but then faster with a subtle urgency. The stillness between pops might suggest a yearning to shorten distances or a reaching toward others.
As the dance came to a close, the stillness was fully transferred to the audience; it was palpable. The effect of the performance was reflected in the proliferation of questions at the Q & A, which suggested a desire to shorten the distance between experiences of watching and dancing – a striving for relationality. In the end, Still Life Dances remind us that the movement of stillness can be opportunities for human connections even if at times they are just “pops” or “not-quite-hugs.”
Michelle LaVigne is a dancer, writer, and teacher. Currently, she teaches rhetoric at the University of San Francisco. Her writing/research focuses on the intersection of dance, rhetoric, and performance. In particular, Michelle writes about the persuasive qualities of dance movements and aesthetics, and how practices of rhetoric might be rethought from the movements of dance and choreographic praxis. She also very interested in embodied practices and is working on several collaborative projects about dance, rhetoric, and dialogic thinking. She presents at national and international conferences and has published reviews in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Michelle was also a guest writer for the ODC Theater Writer in Residence Blog, Triple Dog Dare, in 2014, and blogs about dance in San Francisco.
Twice in the past three years, New-York based dance artist Kate Weare has thoughtfully woven her choreographic voice into the ongoing dialogue that KT Nelson, Kimi Okada and Brenda Way initiated almost 45 years ago with the creation of ODC. Often a detailed study of power struggles, Weare’s dances succeed in bringing to the surface the subterranean psycho-emotional palpitations that oscillate within each of us. Her work relies on dancers’ utter commitment to deep listening and their ability to inhabit the moment with urgency. The heightened intensity that Weare cultivates within her work could be seen in her contribution to Triangulating Euclid which she co-choreographed with Nelson and Way in 2013 or in the way she coached members of the ODC dance company to perform her Drop Down and Still Life With Avalanche (in collaboration with Way) in 2014.
After a two-week residency this past fall, Weare returned to ODC this spring to complete Giant, a piece co-commissioned by White Bird and ODC, that premieres this week at YBCA. Weare and I met to talk about her process and the work culture she cultivates in the studio.
MT: In your process, you ask dancers to do a lot of questioning. Was it the case with Giant and what kind of questioning did you ask dancers to do?
KW: I don’t think I developed this attitude about dancers consciously. It’s just an outgrowth of the way I actually worked as a dancer. I was always very interested and involved in the intellectual reasons for things to emerge and merge. I, in turn, expect that from dancers. I want to have questioning, unfolding, lively conversations with the people I engage artistically.
I was once in a working process where dancers and actors were in the same room together. It was really the only time I’ve had this wonderful opportunity to see them as unique species, and how they function differently in their training. I was very struck at the strengths and weaknesses of each mode. The actors were so involved in asking questions about their material, grappling with it, chewing on its meaning, and shifting its meaning slightly all the time as a practice. And they were doing that with words and dialogue – their medium – very intellectually. Sometimes it felt like they ended up talking, talking, talking instead of doing, doing, doing. And the dancers were sort of in the opposite camp. In a very robust way, the dancers were more like athletes; they would repeat and do and do and do, but often in a hitting-your-head-against-a-wall way. It’s another mode of chewing on material, of course, but repeating is not the same thing as shifting perspectives. I began to see this parallel potential.
Our medium is physical and we process through the body. I think there are a lot of complexities in that. It’s not just mechanical or athletic, it’s also psycho-emotional, and about intuition, about the moment-to-moment differences in temperature, energy, willingness, perception, mood. All of these things can be part of a rigorous process of reevaluation and reanalysis for a dancer. It’s an intellectual as well as a physical, emotional process.
MT: Your process puts a lot of responsibility on the dancers.
KW: More responsibility than bringing the work to life onstage? I will say that I am a precise thinker, formally speaking, so I’m not just leaving them out in the open in terms of structure or context, but I also cannot fully power the structure from the inside out unless I’m the one dancing it. I believe in dancers as a locus of meaning. The dancers have to care about what they are doing on a profound level for it to ignite – period. In performance I can’t care about it for them, the audience can’t care about it for them. They have to do it.
As a dancer, I never sat with the idea that I was empty and the choreographer filled me. Dancers who come with the notion that their technical prowess is what matters the most about them – their training as a kind of armor – often get uncomfortable with my process. I’m looking for meaning inside of movement and underneath the surface, I’m not looking at only, or even primarily, how brilliantly it is executed. How brilliantly it’s executed is kind of the least important idea for me, or perhaps the one I take the most for granted. It’s a formal component that helps create meaning but it is in and of itself not meaningful. I’ve never been that interested in dance that deals primarily in astonishing technical feats are or how beautifully intelligent the craft is, yet another kind of feat. How the performers live inside of form is what excites me on a gut-level, on a human level – that is what I care most deeply about.
Part of the research of understanding yourself within new material is to be passionately, urgently engaged at every moment, even the moments you don’t yet comprehend or that make you feel vulnerable. That’s the work. I love the quicksilver brilliance of a dancer who can stay connected with immediacy…that’s a true artistic practice, actually.
As a choreographer I feel my responsibility is to create a really tight structure but not to decide on the cellular meaning within. The dancers are part of how the meaning forms from inside out. I have a problem when a dancer comes to me and says: “What am I supposed to feel?” That’s your job! And this is our conversation to have. You are the only one who knows how this feels inside your body, within your experience, and I will reflect back to you how I think it fits in a larger context, how I need you to shift this or question that, whether it’s working, or if I believe you.
That’s something that takes time and trust to develop, as it’s both an unspoken and spoken dialogue that requires a lot of honesty through the course of making a work. It’s not an instantaneous thing, and I’ve had dancers pass through my process feeling very insecure because I’m not a director who will say: “This is right and this is wrong.” I don’t think that way. Ambiguity, nuance, complexity, ongoing curiosity, that’s the research I’m engaged in.
MT: You established that sense of trust and research with the group of core dancers with whom you worked for over 10 years in your company in New York.
KW: I had a special group for a long time but they’ve turned over, and I only have one dancer left from my original company (who’s now my assistant director, Douglas Gillespie.) We’ve worked hard in the last 6 months to get our culture back into place with new and younger dancers. Part of the way – in my studio anyway – this culture develops is that there’s an incredible amount of lateral exchange, an emphasis on unfolding. Everyone in this room, myself included, is acknowledged to be in a state of artistic process, change and growth – sometimes slow, precarious and even embarrassing, sometimes lightning-boltish and thrilling. There’s no person in the room who has all the answers – not me, not the senior dancer. We’re all subject to each other’s responses, perceptions, critiques and support. For a long time as a director, I’m quite penetrable and porous, and then, at some point it becomes clear to me what actually will be meaningful in the piece at the structural level. I take control of the form of the work as I sense it, and by the time it’s onstage the dancers have taken back control. The performers have all the power once it’s onstage. That’s a huge trust exchange, back and forth.
MT: In your process, the studio becomes a lab?
KW: Yes, the studio is a laboratory, in it we can mess up and fail and no one (who isn’t down in the mud with us) is watching. If you can’t be foolish, wrong-headed, boring, unskillful and vulnerable within the laboratory of the studio, you can’t go anywhere you don’t already know how to go.
MT: Did Giant go in a different direction that you had in mind in the beginning?
KW: I didn’t come into this project [with an artistic agenda.] I had some framework of what I knew I was interested in content-wise. I also had my long history of making work and knowing what are the inescapable issues of my work. Of course, I’m always trying to push out of what I already know, so I came into this project feeling: I don’t want to do what I normally do in a quick commission situation, which is bring a structure or formula that will end up in a work that I know I can deliver for this company who has hired me to deliver it.
Instead I wanted to feel what it is like to live here, to be myself in the studio with the ODC artists, and have a process where I live inside of not knowing for a long, long time and the dancers live inside of that too. It can feel uncomfortable, I don’t have answers, we don’t know where it’s going to finish, I can’t help them or myself feel certain. None of it is going to land for a while.
Interestingly, I had the impulse after our initial 2-week research visit that I ought to just bring in phrase-work on my own body and have [the dancers] emulate me, and that might put us all in a more secure place. But I deliberately, perhaps perversely, made the choice not to do that. Because even though it reassures dancers and speeds up processes, it also limits my ability to perceive their idiosyncrasies, their purities. As a choreographer I have to find a way to be in conversation with them, earn their trust so they can live inside my structure, my perception. I never doubt that my own voice will be seen in my work because my voice is so clear to me – it always has been an out-loud presence in my life. For that reason I can be flexible and open in process and still hear myself.
[ODC dancers] are beautiful movers, they were very alive in improvisation during our research period. I felt they had very interesting stuff inside of them. I didn’t spend as much time trying to transfer my own physical instincts onto them, partly because I’m in a place where I’m very interested in increasing and developing my directorial abilities, not continuing to believe that my dances emerge only from my own body, which is what I thought for the first 15 or 20 years of my dance-making career. I think in the early stages you think the way you do it – the source – IS the meaning, but now I understand that this complicated conversation can yield meaning that couldn’t come only from one set of physical instincts, even the choreographer’s.
MT: In your process, the music often comes later. Is that also true for the making of Giant?
KW: I want to discover what the physicality is speaking about before I layer it with the powerful lens of music, which is the lens through which the audience will generally interpret the material. You can close your eyes, but not your ears. If you are a choreographer you have to reckon with that reality – you either serve the sound or you figure out how much meaning the sound will attribute. In this case, oddly enough, I’ve ended up with a sound score that is deeply informing, the sound ideas are profoundly tied up in the meaning of the sections. I don’t always end up there.
MT: Can you talk about the title of the piece?
KW: Giant works with issues of formal scale, and scale of will too. Power and the desire to dominate, to be feared, understood, seen, loved and affirmed are always there in my work and certainly out in the word at large (whew! look at our national unfolding drama.) I’m always interested how this trails over to gender. Emotional embodiment and drama matter a lot to me but not necessarily within a narrative context. It’s much more about how the feeling, the energy inside a system or an image plays out against the energy elsewhere in the work, how it reshapes itself in perception. I was thinking of gender originally but I don’t think that’s where this piece has ended up.
There is something interesting to me about how Giant flips back and forth on itself. Nothing adds up back-to-back, everything contests or contrasts the thing before it – large, even outsized structural gestures. There are lots of motifs in this work that deal with spatial issues: How big does the space get, or how tiny, or how bent or pressed? How do people within the work contain and shape the space, each other? Who gets to shape the space?
MT: Is there anything else you want to add?
KW: Some of the imagery of Giant is peculiar and particular and that’s to the ODC dancers’ credit during our initial research period. I think the piece is true to much of what happened in the studio for us. I wouldn’t have made this piece in another context or with a different group of artists. They’ve led me some place different.
The piece doesn’t attempt to fill all the space all the time. There’s riskiness in it, in that much of the imagery is highly concentrated yet I’m not attempting to make it all make sense for the audience.
Even though I’m very involved in mechanics and technique and asking questions that only highly trained bodies could [grapple with,] it’s not a terribly interesting framework to me as the source of meaning. The youth and beauty obsession of the dance world is such a given – it’s been done for so long, over centuries really, and those values have been accomplished and reiterated with great skill and surety. In this piece, for instance, there’s a beautiful quartet of men that hinges on a lightly generic bit of choreography, yet it works in context because it pleases the eye, soothes certain comfort zones, caresses a bit in contrast to what comes before and after. To me, it could also be touching on how banal beauty can be.
I feel many people make dances in the dance world to reaffirm what a beautiful body looks like. I’m interested in stuff that is more primitive, animal and un-nameable. I’m very interested in “essentializing” – working back toward the inevitable, the natural, the imperative, and taking you to places that you don’t quite know how to orient, where you have to trust your senses again.
Holding a water bottle, dancer Private Freeman walks casually across the studio floor and puts his bottle down upstage center. He then circles around, one hand seemingly feeling the air, before trying out a few steps, stopping pensively, and rubbing one foot against the floor, possibly testing its texture.
Rehearsal for Going Solo, KT Nelson’s piece premiering at YBCA this week, has started and the first section of the work, introspect and less choreographically set, hints at the making process that happens off stage, in the studio. Embodying the thin line that exists between process and performance, this introduction also points to other porous boundaries. At time playful and exuberant, at other times more somber and mature, Freeman lets boyhood and manhood converse seamlessly, thanks to the deeply attuned range of physicality that he has built and nurtured over the past 20 years he has been dancing.
After rehearsal, I talked to Nelson and Freeman about the piece. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Marie Tollon: KT, You have choreographed solos for dancers within group pieces before, but this is your first time choreographing a solo piece. Can you talk about your process?
KT Nelson: Making a solo is maybe the most difficult thing for me. One of my gifts as a choreographer is to balance one thing against another. A choreographer who has a talent for narrative would probably have an easier time with a solo, just because they are following an idea through from beginning to end. I’m usually following an image through which is much less linear and easier to manifest in a group. The other hard thing about solos is that there is only one body. In group works, the relationships you develop are offset by another body, or a line of bodies. I’m trying to develop [Private’s] relationships in other ways.
MT: With props?
KN: I have been using the imagery of a sailboat, at times an actual paper sailboat my sister and I made with discarded paper items. And I’m using water sound effects. Both of these function as props in a way. They have been useful in establishing an interior landscape. I am not sure they will still be in the piece in the end. But they have been very helpful in the process.
MT: Private, does performing a solo piece require a different set of tools, or maybe a different kind listening, than dancing in a group piece?
Private Freeman: I would say it involves a different kind of release. When you are in a full company work, you may have a solo within that [piece.] I have always approached solos pretty much the same way. Yes, I fit into part of an ensemble, but knowing the context of what we are doing, I have always felt a freedom within that solo, that I could interpret it more freely on a performance to performance basis and let it grow even more. A whole solo isn’t any less or more challenging, it is a broader scope of what I sometimes get to do on a smaller scale.
This is especially true with KT, because she allows you to improvise a lot and trusts that you’ll make decisions that are appropriate to the context. It is also a one-on-one conversation with a choreographer as opposed to a group conversation. One-on-one, especially with KT, you know you are on the same page and are talking the same language. You don’t have multiple interpretations. It stays in this little world which is enjoyable because you immerse yourself more.
MT: KT, what other images are you working with, if any?
KN: I definitely had an operating image, which is now different from what I thought it was going to be. I originally had an idea that was related to my environmental concern: the human in relationship to nature, the pedestrian versus the animal, and the question of whether the natural world is in us. But when we were working on the Velveteen Rabbit, I was sitting in the theater with my sister and she said to me: “Who is the crocodile? They are so playful!” It was Private and in that moment I realized my working image for the solo wasn’t the right one. He has a physicality that slips from man to boy with such seamlessness. At that point my overriding image became the melding of a man and a boy, and how those qualities can be deeply connected and not separate. The question of “Who are we really?” is also in there.
MT: There was a bit of the conversation between boy and man in Cut-Out Guy as well.
KN: Yes, I found myself revisiting Cut-Out Guy and trying not to. I think Private -who wasn’t in Cut-Out-Guy– and I worked through that after the first week.
MT: At one point in rehearsal, you said to Private: “In this movement, there’s a bit of you and a bit of me.” How would you characterize each other’s vocabulary?
KN: I really don’t dance anymore. Private’s first year dancing in the company was my last. So we actually once danced together. One thing Private and I do share is a love of momentum – identifying the energetic quality of a movement and setting it free- and the inability to stop moving!
MT: Private, you danced with ODC for 12 years, took a 7-year hiatus, and now are back. What are ODC’s specificities that you held on to these past few years?
PF: One thing I learned that is always maintained at ODC is a sense of true collaboration on the dancers’ level. It’s a collaboration in the trenches [that involves] digging deeper and one-on-one or group conversations. In a lot of companies, there is no conversation, you come in and you’re told what to do.
One of the things that I loved about ODC the first time I ever saw them, which was before I was offered a contract to work with them, was the ensemble moments because I saw every personality out there. I didn’t grow up dancing and learned from a small age to be exact and be exactly the same as everybody else. I started to dance late because there was freedom and expression in dance. It was about sharing ideas, creating something really amazing to present in front of people. It’s as simple as that.
MT: What did you learn from your “artistic walkabout?”
PF: I have learned to better understand the psychology of different groups of people. There are companies where everyone is on board with whatever mentality the director sets forth and some companies where they don’t. I learned how to incorporate all these psychologies and personalities, how to work with them better, and how to make myself better to work with as well.