What is "dance theater"? Is it Pina Bausch's raw examinations of everyday life? Is it performance that mixes movement and text? Is it dance that tells a story? Dance Magazine talked with four choreographers who use elements of dance and theater—but whose work escapes easy categorization—about playing with narrative, integrating movement and words, and what "dance theater" means to them.
Dance theater, to me personally, means that there's no hierarchy of materials you can use to make a piece. Movement is not more important; text and narrative aren't more important. I feel this complete free range as I try to express something, to use a whole variety of theatrical elements, like relationship, cause and effect, clothes, dance, singing, talking, found text, plays, literature—this cornucopia of theatrical possibilities.
Above: Photos of McGregor by Erik Tomasson.
Above left: Headshot of Perron by Matthew Karas.
Although he’s basically a modern dancer, having studied Limón technique and been influenced by Trisha Brown, McGregor has upped the ante for ballet on an international scale. From San Francisco Ballet to New York City Ballet to the Bolshoi and other companies, his exploding of the ballet vocabulary points a direction toward the future. Concerned less with making beautiful ballets than with stimulating bodies and minds, he surges ahead on all fronts, and ultimately the bracing quality of his movement is a kind of beauty in itself.
For our Choreography Issue, we also bring you dancemakers who are stimulating in a different way: They find it intriguing—or necessary—to bring words into their stage picture. In “Word Play” we interview seven choreographers who are especially adept at the dance-and-text genre. Some would call their work “dance theater,” but others would not answer to that term. These dance artists who grapple with the relation of words to movement include Annie-B Parson, an acclaimed master of the form; Ralph Lemon, a hero of experimental dance; and Sean Dorsey, a 2010 “25 to Watch” in the Bay Area.
And just for fun, Adam Hendrickson, former soloist with New York City Ballet, gripes about the razor touch of the tutu’s edge in “Terrible Tulle.” From the audience, we don’t see the hazards the male dancer faces to make his ballerina look elegant. Ah, the hard life of a cavalier.
Artistic director, The Seldoms, Chicago
Interviewed by Laura Molzahn
Pictured: Exit Disclaimer: Science and Fiction Ahead, with Amanda McAlister and Philip Elson. Photo by Brian Kuhlmann, Courtesy The Seldoms.
Movement invention used to be the thrust for me, and using texts felt like a bit of a cheat. Then, as my interests shifted, language seemed the right delivery system. Monument, in 2008, was the first piece I realized was politically charged. I’d been working with an artist who was a knitter, and thinking about consumption and production. At the same time, I’d read an article about the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, and it all came together.
I was not only making dance, I was doing research on environmental issues. What charged me up was the amount of consumption—how many paper cups, how many newspapers [went into garbage dumps]. You can’t convey that scale in movement. We found that the height of Fresh Kills exceeded the height of the Statue of Liberty. I felt, That needs to be known! I no longer felt, This is cheating. I felt it was necessary.
I’m not really confident of my writing or directing, though. I’m lucky to have company members who are naturals at exploring that. Working together is more successful than me sitting down and writing.
Sometimes I use a found text because that grounds the piece in a particular time and place and in the landscape of American politics. With these issue-based pieces, I’ve been drawing circles, each one an aspect of the problem. I grapple with one circle at a time, getting at the topic through dance and physical action—and word. At each point I ask, What’s foregrounded, text or movement? Then I figure out how all the pieces fit together.
I’m variably successful at helping dancers handle text. Doing it again and again helps. Going rapid-fire with language builds energy. Dancers learn from the people who are comfortable speaking. And I talk to them through a Laban framework, like, “Try this with a little more weight, or a little more indirect space.” My dancers are such good sports—even if they’re not that comfortable, they’re really willing.
Upcoming performance: “MIX with SIX,” a concert of short new works made and performed by the six Seldoms dancers, April 12–14, Links Hall, Chicago
Artistic director, Cross Performance, NYC
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom
Pictured: Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, Darrell Jones, and David Thomson in How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy Cross Performance.
I was an English lit major. That literary part of my creative being was there before anything else. When I write, it’s about words and what these words do and what a sentence does. And when I’m working with the body it’s about that body moving and the instantaneous forms that appear.
I learned from Meredith Monk [with whom Lemon performed in the early 1980s] that dance and performance and music and text don’t have to come together. I was given permission early on to mash it up.
In Come home Charley Patton (2004), the third part of “The Geography Trilogy,” the text work was basically a memorial about race in America, from my point of view. I had one long narrative arc that I broke up into parts. In between these parts, I inserted movement-based material that related to the idea of the black body—or the racial body. But the dancing was abstract. For me, because they were black bodies, there was an obvious relationship and contradiction to the more tricky text addressing the issue of race.
My next performance piece, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2008–10), was, in part, about radical transformation and my direct experience of losing my partner—the whole care-giving, death-and-mourning experience, when there’s a breakdown of language. One might say that the text was a long cry, Okwui Okpokwasili crying. She was wailing for over eight minutes.
In my current work, a solo for Okwui [Scaffold Room, planned for 2015], the words are coming first. I call it a lecture-musical. The texts are a mash-up of autobiographical stuff, a lot of political thinking about blackness, pornography, and popular culture. I’m pushing the words to the extreme so the text becomes a physical language.
Okwui came into my life as an actress and performance artist with a technical background in translating [performing] text in a way that was not naïve or accidental. She has a fearlessness, which is about finding states to inhabit. I try to bring that to my more purely movement collaborators. What’s the state of this? What kind of presence is it?
Current project: I’ve just completed my third book related to “The Geography Trilogy.” Come home Charley Patton was published by Wesleyan University Press in February. These books include research, drawings, photographs and “experimental journals.”
Choreographer and co-director, Big Dance Theater, NYC
Interviewed by Zachary Whittenburg
Pictured: Ich, Kurbisgeist with Kourtney Rütherford (on floor) and Tymberly Canale (left). Photo by Paula Court, Courtesy Big Dance.
The piece I’m working on right now is called Man in a Case. It’s at Hartford Stage until March 24, and it’s with Mikhail Baryshnikov. We’re very honored that he came to us and asked to do a project.
Man in a Case is an adaptation of two of Chekhov’s short stories. We started with a world, and that world did not include movement, although until this project, I had always started with movement. I would make material without knowing where it would go. I might know that I was interested in looking at Aeschylus, in looking at [Harold] Pinter, in looking at [Mark] Twain, but I’d still always start with dance.
For this piece, movement came later and was more about making dances to be inserted into this text. To deepen—because movement always deepens—our staging, to deepen character, to deepen relationship, and also to provide the pure kinetic pleasure of people moving onstage.
I’m really not a writer myself. I try not to write one word. I have great respect for writers. That’s part of the reason I magpie a lot, borrow a lot. I’ve actually borrowed a lot from Chekhov over the years. I’ve secretly stuck him into things.
I did the first draft of the adaptation in a room by myself, just working with the text. It’s very skeletal. I took out probably 50 percent of the words, looking for places where I could replace them with movement. For me, there are always too many words—in everything.
Now, it’s not a musical, you know: “I’m so happy I could dance,” or, “I’m so sad I could dance,” or, “I’m so excited I need to sing a song.” It’s not that kind of form. It’s more that the dances fit in like doors, opening onto a dark hallway. The movement vocabulary has to do with the sparseness of the language, the qualities of the text, rather than the words themselves.
It’s a bit of a mystery whether a piece leans more toward “talky” or “dancy.” When I started [choreographing], there was no talking. When that changed, it wasn’t because pure dance wasn’t enough. I just have an omnivorous spirit. One of the things that interests me is the contradiction between the nonverbal and the verbal. I look at that distance, and the dissonance, and the refraction, between how we’re experiencing the nonverbal and how we experience the verbal.
I like to apply ideas from writing, specifically poetry, to movement. For instance: I’m interested in a “rhyme” in dance, in “metaphor” in dance. What is “simile” in dance? Rubrics from film, as well: Close-ups. What is a “jump cut” in dance?
Alternately, I like to play with how dance rubrics and choreographic rubrics affect language. I’m going to be doing that a lot in another piece I’m making for 2014. One section is all talking, but it’s really choreographic. It has nothing to do with text, really—it’s more replacing movement material with language. Specifically, I’m using a script from Terms of Endearment, the movie with Shirley MacLaine. I’m not adding to it, but I’m tampering with sequencing and the structures of the language itself, using choreographic forms like retrograde. I’ve never done that—so I’m gonna try it.
Sometimes it feels hard to let dance be privileged when the demands of the text are great. But dance is still my center of gravity. It is so fragile, so hard to hold on to. It’s very elusive.
Maybe including text lets people know that dance is a sacred object. You don’t take dance for granted as much when you combine the two. Dance, because it’s of the body, is more immediate. As an audience member, you connect with it kinetically; you feel it in your body. So dance always wins.
Upcoming performance: Here Lies Love, about former Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos and the woman who raised her, Estrella Cumpas, with Parson’s choreography and music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, plays New York’s The Public Theater from April 2 through May 5.
To see Annie-B Parson's "Choreography in Focus" click here.
Artistic director, Sean Dorsey Dance
Founder, Fresh Meat Productions, a transgender festival, San Francisco
Interviewed by Rita Felciano
Pictured: Uncovered: The Diary Poject, with, from left: Brian Fisher, Sean Dorsey, Juan De La Rosa, Nol Simonse. Photo by Lydia Daniller, Courtesy Dorsey.
When I put a score together, I often already have a sense of the flavor of what the movement will be. So I may set a gesture on the dancers or give them movement creation tasks. We work very joyfully but also rigorously until everything fits.
In the shows you always hear my own voice, but for The Secret History of Love, I also edited in the voices of the elders I interviewed from the LGBT community on how they managed to find each other in decades past.
Sometimes, when the dancers hear a section in isolation and are not aware of the whole arc of the show, they have to take a leap of faith because they don’t know what happens physically or emotionally before or after each part.
In History, I asked the dancers to talk because there is something about the immediacy and vulnerability of talking to an audience that I like. Some were terrified. But I am lucky that they are fabulous theater artists with past experiences of speaking onstage. I give very concrete feedback about projection, blocking, even pitch and cadence, so that their voices become part of the sound score.
For the new The Missing Generation and The Source of Joy, I am looking at the impact of AIDS on a whole generation and the way it resonates in our queer lives today, 30 years later.
Upcoming performances: The Secret History of Love is on tour this month in Chico and San Jose, CA. (See www.seandorseydance.com.) The first part of The Missing Generation and The Source of Joy will premiere at the Fresh Meat Festival, June 20–23, Z Space, San Francisco.
Freelance choreographer, L.A.
Resident choreographer, Suzanne Dellal Centre, Tel Aviv, Israel
Interviewed by Elena Hecht
Pictured: Shani Tamari and Ariel Cohen in Barak Marshall’s Monger. Photo by Gadi Dagon, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.
My process starts with an idea, or a hunch about a protagonist in a certain situation. Alongside that there’s the music, because I don’t see the piece unless I hear the piece first. So I will go through around ten thousand tracks to try and find the pieces of music that fit. And then of course the movement, which is going on the entire time. The text comes towards the end.
In terms of the texts themselves, my work is nearly entirely vignetted, so there’s a utilitarian use to them: They’re transitional. But a lot of times it’s the narrator’s voice, the commentary on one’s own piece, or an aside to the audience—a soliloquy of sorts.
I look at my movement as words, and I build every sentence as dance. There are a lot of gestures. The way I build my movement is to express emotions, states of mind, dialogue. My work is heavily influenced by my mother [Margalit Oved, of Inbal Dance Theater fame; see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” Nov. 2010], who comes from a real dance theater tradition.
I’m always jealous of theater and film directors, who begin with a script and are able to play with that script to find new spaces and characters within that world. So the first thing that I do in building a work is to storyboard it. I try to communicate clearly with the audience, and for them to be engaged on multiple levels.
Because my work is very gestural and because we’re always talking about intent and situation, that is often a challenge for dancers who are used to being abstract parts of a larger choreographic flow. I’m more interested in character, emotion, than movement. I tell my dancers, “I want to see who you are as a person and how you move. I don’t need you to speak like me, I need you to speak like you.” There’s a kind of freedom that you give them that can be frightening at first, because they don’t often have that opportunity, and there’s something very empowering in that trust that you give them.
Upcoming performances: Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal tours Barak Marshall’s Harry to Switzerland, Luxembourg, and France. His new piece for Rambert Dance Company will premiere in October at Sadler’s Wells in London.
Artistic director, advanced beginner group, NYC
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom
Pictured: Restless Eye, by David Neumann, with, from left: Andrew Dinwiddie, Neal Medlyn, Kennis Hawkins, and Jeremy Olson. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Neumann.
When I was a kid I would hold book [serve as prompter]for Fred [David’s father, a member of the theater troupe Mabou Mines and a renowned Samuel Beckett interpreter], so I had a lot of exposure to Beckett’s work, his language and rhythm. From a young age I was comfortable with nontraditional texts.
I’m a big fan of sourcing—repurposing—other material. In my first piece Still (1995), in addition to some Beckett and other writing, I used text from soap operas. I always thought soap writing was horribly melodramatic—evidence of our cheaper attachment to narrative. But I got kind of hooked. I reconfigured the texts and dramatized them in a different way. I was not following a narrative or psychological approach to the words, but thinking of the text as building blocks, using compositional ideas like repetition, cutting, and pasting. There were a lot of layers, ways you could hear the text.
I often have words going on in my head when I’m moving. But I don’t like to illustrate: I want the integrity of the movement to stand on its own. There’s no need to come in and explain what’s happening. I think that’s a trap. My work is often about juxtaposition, as opposed to trying to get two things to make sense together. There may be moments when they point towards each other, but they rarely reinforce each other.
Lately I’ve been interested in working with living writers. For Restless Eye (2012), playwright Sibyl Kempson organized some of my found material and then riffed on top of that. The resulting text affected the piece structurally—its rhythm, the order of things, whether or how something was repeated. More than changing actual movement phrases, it gave the piece a different shape.
I’m now working on a solo using chance operations. There’s no text at the moment, though I’ve asked a couple of writers to give me short pieces. I’ll use chance operations to decide when or what I’ll say onstage. I’m shaking up the relationship a little.
Upcoming performances: March 22–23 at the Museum of Arts and Design, NYC, and a new solo for 2014
Artistic director, Faye Driscoll Group, NYC
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom
Pictured: Faye Driscoll’s There is so much mad in me. Photo by Yi Chun-Wu, Courtesy Driscoll.
I’m interested in the psychology of movement—how we make meaning out of movement, and how the act of viewing changes that meaning.
Usually I develop text and movement together in my dances. I’ll encourage my dancers to include their voices when we’re investigating an idea or image through improvisation. We often do writing exercises before or after a movement exercise. Sometimes these are just free writes; sometimes they’re more generative for text material.
In There is so much mad in me (2010), we were doing explorations around identity and the ways we’re perceived by other people. We wrote lists of negative attributes, all the worst things about ourselves and other people. These are used in a monologue, where one of the dancers freaks out and screams at her two partners in the middle of a kind of bad jazz routine. Ultimately it turns into a self-hating tirade. The audience becomes culpable because some of the things being said are probably thoughts they have already had.
In another piece, 837 Venice Boulevard (2008), three performers manipulated each other like puppets. The “puppeteer” would project all his most ideal thoughts, as well as the parts of him that he wanted to express but couldn’t, onto the “puppet” performer. The piece poked fun at how we are all constantly telegraphing who we are based on how we think others perceive us.
I often use text to seduce the viewer so they might think, “I know what is happening and who those people are.” Then I flip things on their head so that the viewer is left in the uncomfortable attempt to re-locate him- or herself. My intention is to open a space where there is uncertainty and ambiguity, where falsehoods and truths mix.
I think some of these practices come from feeling frustrated by dance as a silent art form. Dancers spend years in studios silently practicing. You are taught to ask questions only if you absolutely need to. As a kid when I made shows around the house, there was this irreverent sense that you could grab whatever you needed to express yourself—text, props, video. My work comes from that kind of impulse.
My performers are dancers first. They have technical depth and can improvise and generate material—and they have to be comfortable talking and sometimes singing. I am transformed by the process and so are they. I’m interested in the whole human being and the dancers’ complete empowerment in the work.
In my new work, I’m forcing the ritual of storytelling to the forefront inside a physically driven work. It will be an epic fiction that’s danced, sung, and spoken.
Upcoming performances: March 21–23, You’re Me at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH; May 3–5, Mariana, new work on the Zenon Dance Company in Minneapolis; June 24–26, You’re Me at American Dance Festival, Durham, NC; and at The Yard, Martha’s Vineyard, MA, in July.