Making Dances

When do you/do you still 'create' the choreography? You have some fine descriptions of rehearsal process and working collaboratively.

In my last two major pieces I have not done anything that I would call 'create' choreography. What some people might recognize as 'choreography' was largely sourced in the bodies of the performers; my relation to it was more of filtering it and or placing it in time and space in relation to other actions on stage. Within The Symmetry Project the collaboration was really a co-authoring where each of us brought our artistic interests to bear on the material relatively equally.

The choreographic exploration was an exploration of improvisation within constraints. The question of how much constraint on an improvisation can make it consistently engaging to watch was one of the initial questions we began with.

More specifically even, the question was what kind of score or constraint can make Contact Improvisation consistently visually engaging.

One of my directing teachers in college, Donna Breed, always said that no matter how many decisions you have made in an artistic process there are still always an infinite number of possible decisions or choices to make. Sara Mann also often said that you should perform the freshest improv with the commitment of having rehearsed it a thousand times, and the choreography that you have rehearsed a thousand times should be performed as an improvisational score every night.

I do not think of Improvisation and Choreography as binary opposites. I tend to think in terms of when you make which decisions and how the range of possible combinations of when and where you make decisions offers very different possibilities in terms of the experience you can offer a viewer.

There's something wonderful about the non-hierarchical process which both values the group AND the individual.

You've described the open (group) process of making Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies as "dropping my normal bag of tricks for generating 'choreographic' movement material..." Please describe your "normal bag of tricks" and unpack why you put 'choreographic' in quotes.

My normal bag of tricks: 1) Making at least one or two big sweaty movement phrases with lots of going to the floor and jumping around. 2) Constructing partner-based duet interactions based in contact improvisation that involves lots of manipulation of each others' weight in a kind of conversational alternation. 3) Working with my performer collaborators to isolate a set of movement qualities and from those having each performer generate a series of repeatable movements that are then edited and taught to each other to create group movement vocabulary.

I guess the quotes are around 'choreographic' because this kind of movement generation is what has been normally seen as what choreography is: the construction of repeatable movements that can then be performed by one or more bodies on stage with a high degree of repeatability and or the possibility of multiple bodies executing the same movements simultaneously, i.e. in unison.




I asked my four colleagues to divide into pairs observing each other for 30-minute intervals. I asked those being observed to do what they felt like - not to try to entertain or engage their observer in any particular way, but to notice their own responses to the experience of being observed and even to test the bounds of what the effect...might be...Conversely, the designated observers...reported that the...set up framed a very particular type of attention for them...given permission to observe in great detail the activity of another human and...left with a responsibility to, and maintenance of, their own attention in relation to the observed subject.

Could you talk about the difference between dancers viewing other dancers in improvisation, rehearsal and performance and how spectators come to be conscious of their own volition - and active participation - as viewers?

I developed the exercise with my collaborators (and my students) which brings attention to the act of seeing and of being seen, after reading Erving Goffman's definition of performance:

"...all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers."

I was curious about isolating the act of observation and seeing what it might uncover. As we began to frame action in this way, we became interested in slowing down. This has become one of my strategies with audiences too. (It's not really original. Butoh dancers have been doing this from the beginning. In his book Exhausting Dance, Andre Lepecki refers to a "slower ontology" of dances made during the last 15 -20 years.) If one begins slowly, focusing on smaller details of movement, audience members begin to have a different sense of time. Maria was a big advocate of this in The Symmetry Project.

In Performance Research Experiment #1, a duet I made with Jörg Müller, we actually give the audience full agency in regard to how long they watch each of the eleven sections of the piece. When 5 people in the audience tell us they have seen enough of an event or image, we move on to the next. People become very aware of their own attention and how it compares to the attention of others around them. If someone is really interested in something that other people are about to make stop, the moment often turns into a long discussion between audience members as to whether, or why, an event or image is engaging to them (or not).

In general, I think audiences for contemporary dance and performance are more and more interested in a relationship to work that leaves space for their participation and is not just handed to them as an entertainment commodity.  

In Richard Schechner's description of performance on a continuum between "efficacy" and "entertainment," one of the issues that arises is the potential for transformation of the performers and spectators. I wonder if you could talk about your desires in this regard.

I do like to "move" my audiences, and I also like to give time for them to think and notice smaller movements in their own experience and hope that they go back into their lives with a deeper or more open sense of their relation to the world.

I like real things to happen in the theater. In my recent work I ride a bike for an hour and this generates electricity that powers lights that become part of the action. I think audiences feel the consequence of this, and that something real is happening (legs pedaling=electricity=light) and that something ethereal and esthetic or symbolic is also happening (pedaling becomes lights, lights become stars, light = life, we are bodies dancing through a universe that is this life). I also like to initiate discussions and feel this is also an important kind of transformation in my audiences. The asking of questions about what is a 'normal' body, or how are bodies symmetrical, or what is virtuosity are also some of the consequences that I like to provoke in audiences.


Symmetry Study #19: Solo Medi(t)ations/Intersections - Excerpts
The choreographic exploration was an exploration of improvisation within constraints. Jess Curtis
Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies, YBCA, Jan 2011 - Excerpt 1
Jess Curtis / Gravity: Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies Installation @ YBCA
I do not think of Improvisation and Choreography as binary opposites. Jess Curtis
Excerpt from: "Performance Research Experiment #1"
Jess Curtis and Choreographer Joanna Haigood via Skype, April 5, 2011
"The Symmetry Project - Study #16 - Transmission San Francisco", trailer