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?”
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.