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.