In an article entitled “When Dancers Speak,” Dance Magazine contributing writer Nancy Wozny addressed the increasing trend of mixing text and movement in contemporary dance: “In today’s contemporary dance field, speaking has become a necessary performance skill: More and more, choreographers are asking dancers to double as actors, spoken-word artists and onstage narrators. And as many performers find out, merging movement with sound doesn’t always come easily.”
The work of Julia Rhoads, founder and Artistic Director of Chicago-based dance theater company Lucky Plush Productions, combines dance and theater in a way that eschews the presentational and cultivates authenticity. To help performers be as comfortable with text as with movement, Rhoads has devised techniques and processes that her performers experiment with in the studio. In anticipation of Lucky Plush’s The Queue, presented at ODC this weekend and co-created by Rhoads and theater and dance director Leslie Danzig, I spoke to Rhoads over the phone.
Marie Tollon: The qualities of presence and liveness seem really important in your process and appear throughout your work. I’m curious to know how you activate those qualities in the performers.
Julia Rhoads: We have a lot of methods in our rehearsal room to train for it. I often give them some unknown element or improvisational prompt that they will layer on top of known material. This started many years ago. We were doing a piece called Cinderbox 18, which I have since revisited. It was about reality culture and programming, and it questioned ideas about authenticity and reality, what is real versus scripted. In that work, it was really important to me that this tension that was provoked in that was within the show itself. Once [the performers] knew the work, I gave them all these pieces of paper with a task that they had to accomplish at some point during the run. It was an evening-length work. They knew they had to stay on the track of the piece somehow, but it kept them very much all in this place of not knowing when these game changing moments would be negotiated. Some of the things that happened during those experimental processes were so delightful that they ended up in the show and it made me realize how much I care about this very thing in the work itself. I’ve continued that practice in subsequent pieces, and ultimately there is a really interesting tension when very crafted, rigorously composed elements are layered with an off-the-cuff conversational tone. It gives the performers agency in the work, and they know at what point in the show that they have freedom to play with dialogue and movement in a different way, and when they don’t. There are a lot of built-in places where we want them to insert themselves in the work.
It has become an overriding value and is key to our process. It’s to get the performers in what I call response mode rather than in show mode. In show mode, they are performing something that is always the same all the time. Response mode is when they are really listening to each other and something might be different because they are responding to live circumstances.
MT: In your work, you bridge movement and text. Could you talk about how you do that?
JR: It’s something I pay a lot of attention to. The perception is that if you didn’t have training in theater, when you are speaking in dance, it is presentational. For us, we are intentionally trying to figure out a non-presentational way of being on stage, so that you feel the relationship between real people having genuine experiences on stage. We don’t think of acting at all. A lot of what we do is we play games in the rehearsal room, where [the performers] tell stories, interrupt each other, and layer language on top of things. Sometimes things are very scripted but I will keep having them play with it with their own mouths until it is delivered in a way that they would say it. Sometimes it is a talking point. They know what it is about and will say it in their own way, by listening to what is happening with the other performer or with the ensemble. The minute it feels like a line, delivered in a particular way, it gets into tricky territory where it feels forced. For me, I am really interested in foregrounding the individual performers on stage so that people, when they leave, feel: “I really know that person.” Even though all of the works that we create are not exactly about the dancers, it is close to them. There might be fictional circumstances that they might be playing inside of, but for example in The Queue, it’s actually a linear plot. And it’s the first time I worked that way. I co-created it with Leslie [Danzig] and she comes more from a physical theater background, but neither of us approaches our individual work with linear plot-like structures. But this piece [is different], because it takes place in an airport, and it goes through spaces that are in a sort of time-based situations. You are first in a ticketing line, then you go through security, then you are in a line to get food or the newspaper. Because of the structure of the work, it is a lot more narrative and in a way like a play. When we were creating it, it initially tripped up the performers. They were so used to our typical process in which dialogue, choreography, and relationships are devised from prompts and play and rehearsal room, but this had more of a script driving it. Before the premiere, we ended up having to really help [the performers] to locate it closer to them. Their names in the show are their real middle names, as a way to say: “This is really you. You have fictional circumstances in the show but we want to keep it really close to how you interact with each other. You are with these people that you know very well.” So that it doesn’t hopefully feel forced. Now, as with any shows, some days it is a bit more relaxed than other days, but that’s where we find some joy, in the tension between a dance that is quite technical and a very easy, casual place of dialogue and interaction.
MT: What was the impetus for creating The Queue?
JR: It’s our second collaboration. Leslie comes from a clown theater background and we’d been friends for a very long time before we had our first collaboration. We have a similar sense of humor. We really enjoy each other’s work, were very happy with our first collaboration, and wanted to collaborate again. The impetus for The Queue was initially two things. We were really interested in understanding what makes something funny. In terms of physical comedy, and all these forms that we play in, we were thinking of looking at all classic forms of vaudeville, slapstick and different kinds of comedy that have existed in a physical vocabulary for many, many years. A lot of it has to do with your sense of timing, a rhythm, the building of an expectation and how converting expectations can trigger laughter or familiarity awkwardness or joy, and all those things that can be funny.
Also, the other big question in the beginning was this idea that our lives often happen and unfold in these places where we are just waiting for things to happen. So oftentimes it’s when you are waiting in line or in a public space when those of larger-than-life events can occur. We had a residency in New Zealand where we started to work on this piece. It was the international context of being in an airport that we prompted us to choose an airport as the setting of The Queue. Because an airport is utterly relatable, many people have been in one, there’s a familiarity with it. Oftentimes people are in an airport because they are going to these heightened situations – a funeral, a wedding, or a big job, and you observe other people in these big moments. People witness them. At what point do people comment on them, and possibly even insert themselves into someone else’s drama.
We were also looking at classic films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. I have a lot of personal anxiety when I am coming up through the security conveyor belt. You have to remove your shoes, your belt, see if you have any metal on, drink your water if you have any, and you have to do all that very fast because there’s a line behind you. It made me think of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times when he is on that conveyor belt and can’t keep up with putting the things together. In the work, we started to explore how some utterly very mundane and pedestrian scenarios could leak out into public and these heightened moments go from pedestrian moment to more slapstick. During transitions between scenes [we use] a kind of Busby Berkeley choreography – he did these classic 30s and 40s films with overheard camera with women doing these complex but uniform patterns. We use this stylistically as a kind of theme and variations so the audience becomes familiar with how it functions, but also has this classic feeling to it.
Throughout this work (and in all of our work) we think about the logic of when something moves from dialogue into action, when you can earn this idea of abstraction in contemporary dance. This work also has a very vaudeville quality, and we sing in it and have live musicians, The Claudettes, who are very key to the narrative. We often talk about how it can be a jarring transition between singing and dancing. So we think about what each moment needs. We might use an awkward or messy transition between forms because it supports the humanness of the moment, and sometimes a surprising or abrupt transition is most successful in delivering content to an audience. We always think about how we are teaching the audience to see the work, or giving them anchors to understand it. So often in dance, the sort of cliché response is “Oh, I didn’t get it!” We try to create works that are layered and complex and thought provoking but that are utterly relatable. They might not get every single reference or know the form as well as we do but they feel included in it.