Rosanna Gamson on “Layla Means Night” | By Julie Potter

Rosanna Gamson

Rosanna Gamson

On October 30, Rosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night makes it’s world premiere at the ODC Theater. During the choreographer’s visit to San Francisco in August, I spoke to Gamson about the site-adaptive work taking over the entire theater building:

JP: During this visit to ODC, what are you thinking about while setting Layla Means Night?

RG: I was looking for dance artists in this area who have already a connection or existing repertoire of Silk Road dances. My musical collaborators are Sufis. There’s a faith and belief and purity about transcendence with them as opposed to my cynical, atheist, tragic, heroic, narcissistic worldview.

In the piece there’s a dance that’s supposed to look sexy where two performers are passing the cigarettes back and forth with all these lifts and they have to exhale the smoke and it makes them high to dance and smoke. I believe it changes the performance that they’re actually smoking so we’re negotiating that. (No one freaked out at the tech rider!)

JP: With this multisensory and site work, can you talk about the container for this composition? What kind of experience do you want to transfer?

RG: The work is site adaptive. We’re trying to obscure the late 20th, early 21st century of this building. It’s a different world and the rules have changed. People are closer to you. You walk in the door and one of the Dance Jam teen dancers talks to you and they sit you down and wash your hands and forearms and dry you and ask you if you’d like a drink.

Then the audience magically gets sorted into three groups: men, women and a mixed group. So what’s the point? There are three shows simultaneously. Certain things only certain groups see. If the men and women see the same material, they see it from a different point of view. There are common experiences: the men are blindfolded and the kids whisper in their ear… the women can watch the female dancers do a seductive dance but not touch the men. The women can hear the poem; the men can only hear the kids. Then the dancers and the women leave and men are un-blindfolded. The piece started from the question of “Why do men hate women?”

JP: Sounds like there’s an element of voyeurism?

RG: As a creator, I don’t think “This is my thesis and I’m going to prove it in this way…” It’s more like “This is the image and feeling.” I intuitively know how to make a theatrical experience with an arc.

JP: So how conscious are you of the narrative you create?

RG: We’re choreographing the audience. There’s a very linear development. The mixed group sees the 4th night, the women see the 40th night and the men see the 900th night. We also think of time going back and forward – there are 2001 nights. There are the 1000 virgins who get killed before and Scheherazade is the 1001st, and then from that point, 1000 days the other way till she runs out of stories. Each scene is a night.

JP: Could you join another group if you came multiple times to experience more parts of the story like the New York show Sleep No More? Sounds like there’s a degree of manipulation? 

RG: The women will have a different experience then the men.  It’s not a matter of sexual preference, but really gender difference of perception and how people respond to that. Masculinity and femininity don’t have to do with being gay or straight. This piece is not about gender, it’s about power.

JP: Why do you think men hate women? Where does that come from?

RG: I think there are men who lock women in the house for ten years in bondage in America or steal little girls…its not just a few people, it’s a lot of people. I also think women are participating in it a lot.

When women decide not to age and when we hold up teenage girls as a paramount of beauty and try and get as close to that ideal as possible I think we’re complicit. I think women want to look like they’re viable reproductively able forever. When I open Facebook, I get a wrinkle or liposuction ad, or something about how to reduce your belly fat  – something about changing myself to be not like myself at my age.

I don’t think guys get this idea of beauty themselves – we give it to them. We’re also complicit. There’s a reason girls are going through puberty at eight and nine. There’s some reason the puberty age is dropping.

Another object in having the audience so participatory is to make them complicit. The kids provide a service and then ask for coins.  So basically you’ve engaged in child prostitution. They’ve provided a service and been intimate in some way. I hope the king appears brutal when he dies – and then he’s charming. I want people to talk to each other and ask “What did you see?”

Rosanna Gamson World/Wide

Rosanna Gamson World/Wide

JP: Your daughter is a dancer, your mother is a dancer and you grew up in New York City. Can you tell me about your movement background, and how you were influenced by your mother and her life in dance?

RG: I think that requires a lot of therapy (laughs)…the Scheherazade part was originated by my 16-year-old daughter. One threat was raising two daughters. You think your children are beautiful but wonder what they think is beautiful…I have 2 daughters and felt I was putting myself out there, having my daughter do this thing. ODC is the premiere, but we did an iteration at REDCAT in Los Angeles.

My mother was famous for reconstructing Isadora Duncan dances, which I learned and danced. I don’t know how it influenced me. I went to the Nikolai/Louis School and then got involved with Robert Wilson and big macho theater. I think by the time I was 24 I wanted to be a choreographer.

My movement is hard to do. It’s demanding physically and also not abstract. It may look abstract but the dancers are doing something specific to them. Like, imagine your heart is a bird that’s trying to get out of your body…

I’m dealing with aging so I have a limited range; a lot is about can you physically do this thing, go from here to here? I’m trying to come up with new strategies to keep the movement in my own body. I used to be very dare-devil-y. Can I somersault from a chair to the floor and not kill myself? It was about curiosity and what does a body do and feel like texturally to be in tis kind of movement…does it make me high? What if I exhale all the breath in my body and dance as big as I can?

JP: So getting into endurance and states?

RG: Seeing other peoples version of ecstatic dancing is interesting because I think I was trying to get to that altered state.

We do the big dance numbers about pushing yourself past what you think your limit is. Pushing and not necessarily violent but also how slow can you go? I am interested in that altered state of performance – because you know why?! When the dancers are that busy they can’t be self-conscious and watch themselves. It’s all about intimacy.

I think that’s why we love sports: because the person is so engaged in the physicality of what they’re doing. They’re so generous we attach to them. They’re you. When they’re not busy enough or attached enough – I mean we stand in front of the mirror all the time –  when you are thinking these complicated nonrepeating long hard phrases that go on for three minutes without repetition and are physically challenged in one way or another, you can attach to them in a different way – they’re busy and I’m the witness.

I love the body as a spectator sport – he lets you in his body with him – I think that’s exciting; especially as my body becomes more restricted, to be in these other bodies becomes more pleasurable.

JP: So kinesthetic delight and body empathy?

RG: The whirling, Sama, means listening, the spinning. You’re turning for the people watching you, not for yourself. You dance for the people not dancing. That’s the thread.

So why do men hate women? If you could be inside the women’s body in a heroic way would something change? Rather than admirer, judge or dislike…

JP: Interesting. So you’re in L.A. What is your relationship to the Bay Area? Do you have a connection to this city? Does it feel different?

RG: I think L.A. has a couple of groovy things – there’s not the separation between high art and low art and different types of dancing – commercial etc. There are not those lines.

I think there’s an interest here [in San Francisco] in process versus outcome. Like the interest in how and why things are made. In L.A. being boring is a problem. You can’t be boring! [Laughs.] We don’t really care how you made it. If I’m thinking about something else there’s a problem.

I’d love to engage more here. The other thing that’s different in New York is a real interest in the training of dancers so that they become transparent and versatile, so they show the choreography, that they fit into the imagination of the choreographer and to some extent they are at least translucent. In essence you’re revealing the choreography.

In L.A., maybe because people are also working in commercial industry or other reasons, the dancer is not versatile, they are themselves and do the thing they do their identity is central to the performance. “I’m going to put my little thing on it.” That might get you fired in New York.

Much of what I’ve seen here is concerned with devising dance and strategizing dance in a certain way, and performing the body and thinking about dance in a way that maybe we just like to feel good.

I also want to say I’m really excited about other people’s work and trying to be helpful. I want the field to progress and for us to professionalize and for dancers and choreographers to get paid and the work doesn’t have to be anything like mine. I’m interested in the devising and these other ways of thinking about dancing. I also want people to come to the show and have an amazing evening – luscious and delicious and too much.

BodyTraffic Program Notes: Wearing the Work of Three | By Julie Potter



Usually choreographers choose dancers. Los Angeles-based BodyTraffic co-directors Tina Finkelman Berkett and Lillian Barbeito had a different idea as performers choosing the choreographers with whom they’d like to work. By commissioning contemporary dance works for their versatile repertory company, BodyTraffic creates both a power inversion and a vibrant mix tape of dance.

Los Angeles-born choreographer Barak Marshall knows a thing or two about what he calls “umbilical whiplash.” The son of Yemenite-Israeli choreographer Margalit Oved, Marshall happened upon his dance voice while accompanying his mother in the studio during a 1994 visit with the Inbal Dance Company in Israel. Since then, Marshall has been creating his own dances, working as the first house choreographer for Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company in 1999, and more recently arriving with his own company at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv. And at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square… for BodyTraffic is based on neighbors of his mother’s family in Aden, Yemen. Jewish love songs and hymns are juxtaposed with explosively jealous performer relationships.

Born in 1977, hip-hop enlivens Kyle Abraham‘s life experience and his choreography alongside his classical training. “If I’m making phrase work, there’s always going to be some kind of hip-hop or urban aesthetic that’s going to come out naturally.” Abraham notes. Additionally, Abraham is deeply influenced by the technicality and rigor of New York dance artists Kevin Wynn and Ralph Lemon. The Pittsburgh native performed his work in San Francisco during 2011 Black Choreographer’s Festival at ODC Theater with fast-motion revolutions and quick switches back to calm and control. With Kollide, we’ll see Abraham’s coiled momentum transferred onto the bodies of the BodyTraffic artists.

Pure movement and play compose Richard Siegal’s work for BodyTraffic, o2joy, set to American jazz standards. The former Forsythe Company dancer founded The Bakery Paris-Berlin in 2005 where he employs his If/Then compositional methodology, a sort of choreographic game, to generate performances, dialogue and interactive installations. For a choreographer so steeped in design and digital data, o2joy’s musical phrases seem to celebrate embodiment and remind us of the simple joy of dance and rhythm. Inhabiting the minds and movement of so many bold contemporary choreographers, BodyTraffic touts versatility with the company’s collection of work.

ODC Theater presents BodyTraffic September 26-29.

Alex Ketley on BODYTRAFFIC | By Julie Potter



In 2009, Bay Area dance artist, Alex Ketley, worked with the LA-based repertory company, BODYTRAFFIC, to create a new work. Now BODYTRAFFIC is on its way to the ODC Theater in San Francisco September 26-29 to perform works by Barak Marshall, Kyle Abraham and Richard Siegal. In advance of the company’s arrival, I asked Ketley a few questions about what it was like to work with the company:

Julie Potter: In 2009 you created Raushen 13, a commission by the LA-based repertory company BODYTRAFFIC. What do you remember from this week-long process with the three dancers?

Alex Ketley: I remember when we worked on Raushen, that we had a very dynamic and intensive week. I had no idea what kind of work I was going to make for them, and I think I ended up just responding to the different personalities in the room. I was also really beginning to think about fracturing lines of information, and curious about the visual rhythmic patterns that stem from that idea, both in making phrases and the overall construction of a work. I think Raushen was the first piece I really went headlong into this way of thinking about making a dance.

JP: How did BODYTRAFFIC connect with you initially and what did you determine as the parameters for your work with them?

AK: Glenn Edgerton, the former director of Netherlands Dance Theater, knew my work and had moved to Los Angeles and recommended me to Tina and Lillian who are the directors of BODYTRAFFIC. Tina and I met quickly one afternoon for coffee while I was in LA, and hit it off immediately. It felt like a good fit so we decided to find some time to work together.

JP: What’s different about choreographing for dancers who perform the work of others versus those who are active makers? How much did the BODYTRAFFIC artists collaborate in generating material for Rauschen 13?

AK: Working on a commission, you always feel like you are getting to know each other really quickly. The dancers in BODYTRAFFIC are very dance savvy, and have seen and worked with many different choreographers throughout their careers, which makes them really receptive to engaging new ideas. In many ways I brought them rough sketches of ideas for Raushen, that then they colored in beautifully with their unique approach and take on the movement.

JP: You’ve done lots commissions before – how was working with BODYTRAFFIC different than working with larger ballet companies? Did you communicate differently in the studio? Did anything surprise you with these artists? 

AK: BODYTRAFFIC is really unique because they feel really bright in the studio. They seem to absolutely love dancing, and when I worked with them the company was young and they seemed excited about trying absolutely anything. I think they’ve held on to this feeling that there is something really valuable in embracing the unknown, which is part of them constantly doing new work by younger contemporary choreographers. The studio and work environment doesn’t feel hemmed it by a long history. They still feel vibrant and adaptable to change because they are finding each day what this company is and what they love and value.

JP: One of BODYTRAFFIC’s goals is to bring world-class contemporary dance to LA through commissioning work. What do you value most about San Francisco as a dance home base?

AK: What I value about San Francisco as a home base, is that the West Coast feels very young historically. San Francisco was founded in 1776, which relative to the span of history is nearly nothing. This newness always strikes me as a place that is still in flux and a place that is dynamically finding its sense of identity. San Francisco feels creatively fertile and expansive to me. Also the diversity of dance work being created here feels exciting to me. I think there is a culture in San Francisco of dance makers really following what inspires them, and not feeling like they have to carry the weight of past histories and be hemmed in by past dance discourses. And the geographic diversity of California will always amaze me.

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