In the issuu link, see pages 78-83 for the interview in French pages 224-226 for the interview in English.
The Critical Flame (a journal of literature and culture) featured my piece, Re-Hump (choreography for two pregnant women), in their new issue on motherhood. The Motherhood Issue was edited by Mia You and Chloe Garcia Roberts of the forum, A. BRADSTREET.
Enjoy the evocative writing featured in this issue along with Re-Hump.
Choreographer Trajal Harrell published XL as part of his Twenty Looks project. Included is an article I wrote on page 98 and an interview I did with Harrell on page 118. There are also pieces written by Tavia Nyong’o, Debra Levine, André Lepecki, and more!
I sat down with Zvi Gotheiner one summer day in New York City after taking his 10am ballet class at City Center Theater. I initially interviewed him in the context of my book project on Desmond Richardson and issues of race, gender, and virtuosity; but, as you will see, our conversation took some detours to discussions of teaching philosophy, institutional environment, aging, Graham technique, discipline, disability, and consciousness itself.
Zvi Gotheiner: I witnessed Desmond [Richardson] for some decades….He took my classes on occasion but not consistently. He is one of the pillars of this community because he is an amazing dancer. He has danced with many choreographers and has been able to adjust each time to their style; or, it was the choreographer adjusting to the way he is?…He is a very generous and humble person despite his talent. From the first time I saw him there was this amazing facility…. I can say now that in the first encounter, it felt to me like [he] was hiding behind his beauty and his capacity of extending his legs. But through the years it seemed to me that he slowly got more and more out of his skin, and now he is just a great dancer….He is enormously serious. He is obsessed with perfection….In class it was always inspirational….It’s intoxicating….When somebody works so seriously in class it turns the class into a workshop.
Ariel Osterweis: I was thinking of this word, “training.” I thought, I’ve trained with Zvi over so many years. But when one thinks of the word training, the idea of a contract comes to mind. As in, you sign up for a program. Do you see open classes as a kind of training? Does it depend on the commitment of the dancer? Do you take zero responsibility or are you happy to see dancers growing with you over the years? What does the word training even mean to you in terms of New York City open class?
ZG: It’s a unique situation because it’s unlike a conservatory idea of training in a way that you get into a curriculum-oriented regimen that will take you from here to there [where] you are connected to the teachers and faculty. Here there is something far more democratic in the premise. That actually puts a dancer more in the decision-making [position]—what they want to do and how they design their own training….Do you want to do one part of class, then yoga and hip-hop?…It’s up to you to create a program, and you are the master of it. And I am not going to interfere with it. It’s the opposite. I am going to encourage you, and I feel you progress more when you are the master of your destiny.
AO: I am really interested in your observations of so-called “uptown” vs. “downtown” dance training or dance styles….You have set pieces on Julliard students and other dancers. Do dancers that come to your class fit both molds—those who let go of technique but want some kind of grounding, and others who are working on a refined articulation of ballet technique? Is this idea of uptown training a myth? What do you see in terms of conservatory training of younger dancers these days? What is the aim and what are the results?
ZG: It is such a heated issue in dance training!…I wish there were a definite answer. I kind of remove myself from the idea. Nobody is good for everybody. What’s good for one is not good for others….The traditional way of teaching ballet is a wound for many people.
AO: A wound?
ZG: Yes. So many people are…looking for something that is healing first, for finding another technique that is more fulfilling and less abusive. Ballet doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. Traditionally, it developed a body that was negative, broken to pieces, and pulled together in a kind of pure way. But of course, it’s a myth….It makes many of us resentful and depressed….It’s really a process of releasing all this pain and tension…. I’ve made an effort to offer another point of view on the simple way that we do front, side, back, bend, left leg, instead of telling you that your body’s not good, or making you longer, or forcing turn-out. Just accepting your body the way you are is fine. Start from there. That’s the beginning. Just change the environment. It’s an ongoing process….It’s part of being a dancer, of obtaining decision-making parts of the body that are perfect. It’s not that I know what is better for them; they already know what is good for them. I offer some kind of feedback process, if they want. Sometimes they don’t want it.
AO: This wound that you speak of…I feel like it is both physical and psychological.
AO: A lot of us have gotten injured from over-training or working with anatomically difficult parts and trying to make them perfect. But then there is also a psychological wound, the feeling that you don’t quite fit up to some mold. So, what I find interesting about your training is that you very quietly suggest that everyone’s body is okay, that their humanity is okay, without saying too much. But this quiet way of not saying too much is constantly reiterated. Those of us who trained in ballet early on always go back to that habitual place of pulling up. And just the other day you said to me, “Just stand on your foot.” That completely changed the way my body felt for the next four days. Do you purposefully teach in a quiet, less discursive, manner? There are some teachers that say every single thing that needs to be said, or doesn’t need to be said. Do you choose to be quieter? You have such a fascinating manner of touch in which just one little touch can reorient the entire body, but you don’t really say what is meant behind it. Is that conscious or has that just evolved?
ZG: It’s decades of perfecting…what not to say. How I behave in class, what kind of tone and…volume of speaking. So many teachers are coming to play in creating an environment to make them feel safe….I mean if I stand here, “Relax! Relax!,” it’s a “relax” for me. Even with the process of induction, you don’t hear. If you don’t hear in the first twenty minutes of class, “Pull up, pull up, pull up,” it’s like giving you distance from what you saw in your school. You change your mind, the voice in your mind. It’s paying attention to dancing….Some places I teach (when I go to Europe, when I go to Vienna), I talk more and I do more personal connection and I do more personal touch.
AO: Is that because you have them less or because they are more closed?
ZG: It’s a closed group…that comes together for a week: ImPulsTanz. This is a professional class so you also want to get it going. There are subliminal messages that could be not said, communicated in different ways.
AO: So, is Julliard more of a repertory environment in which you are teaching a piece? Or do you also teach class there?
ZG: At Julliard I set a work; I don’t teach. At the other organizations I do teach, which is a very different class than this one. About every two years, I do a semester at Princeton.
AO: What’s that like?
ZG: It’s very different teaching, starting from talking and sitting down on the floor. I give a warm up; I give a class. I find teaching very creative. I try to adjust. If I am teaching a company like [New York] City Ballet or Alvin Ailey [American Dance Theater], it’s a very different class.
AO: What kind of class do you teach at Ailey, for example?
ZG: It’s about an hour class. [But in my open class] we do two [hours]. I put everything together quickly [at Ailey]; I don’t repeat. This is a major thing. This one of the things I prefer.
AO: Yes. Repetition.
ZG: I prefer to repeat an exercise twice. I try to do the second time to have them relax into the movement and dance through the phrase, instead of memorizing it.
AO: As a dancer, I notice that if I overdo it the first time, I am exhausted by the second time, and sometimes that works to my benefit because it means I really have to find that pure stance, and just sort of do what needs to be done, instead of gripping everything around it. But it also informs me that maybe the first time I don’t need to bust it out like it’s the last day of my life. I also trained at Ailey as a scholarship student for two years, and at Ailey there was this trope of, dance like you’re going to die tomorrow—just give it your all right now, balls out; don’t hold back. And that can actually be dangerous for many, and not necessarily great in creating an injury-free kind of dancer.
ZG: Repetition is an opportunity for consciousness. [There is] some understanding when you are doing it the first time, and the second time is a memory without reflection. So, if you are invested, you can realize something. If you keep moving from one exercise to another, you can get warm, but that is another thing. And then there’s the amount of pizazz you put into your work. It’s not bad; I think many professional situations kind of require something like that. You need to push this button [sometimes] but this is not the only way to work. I think you know after a while; after a certain age, you start to search for something else.
ZG: It’s just kind of exhausting, though. It feels like a waste of energy. You can actually reach some sort of your best.
AO: What is so interesting about your class is that it takes an uptown technique—ballet—and gives it a downtown twist. Calm. Intellectual? Ballet with less emphasis on pizzazz and flourish and pulling up and all that. But, in a way, it’s really informing more technical dance (certain companies and schools). I mean, the fact that Ailey (which is a very pizzazz-y company) has you as company teacher from time to time—you are differently informing the uptown dance scene. And then the opposite is also true. You see so many downtown or experimental dancers and choreographers taking your class and they probably wouldn’t normally take ballet. They would normally be intimidated to take ballet.
ZG: It’s very mixed now to define it in a geographical way. I mean, you could. It’s not necessarily the terms up and down. It’s not necessarily that there are definite places now. I know for a while they were colliding, but now it seems to me that they are learning to live in peace, at least in my experience. It’s not necessarily this superior to that, you know?
AO: Is that because nobody has any money anymore? Is it due to economics? Or more to style and acceptance, or?
ZG: It could be. The ballet tradition is kind of ongoing. And then there was an attempt to break through and find different approaches to the body. You can be a specific dancer without taking ballet if you want to do that. But…I would encourage you to do ballet just so you could round out your possibility of doing things. You may need it. I think there was…an aesthetic wall.
AO: Ah, an aesthetic wall. Who erected this wall?
ZG: Just because I am structured in ballet, there is no reason why my students who do ballet shouldn’t experiment in styles other than ballet. They should. That’s my take. At this festival in Vienna, there are many contemporary dancers, and there are many teachers that come and teach the contemporary dance that are zealously putting down ballet. Why do such a foot? You know, things like that. But most of them are trained in ballet. Then they discover another way of moving, of looking at the body. I think [these teachers] need to tell the students that they are coming from ballet. If they think that they just take a class and look like them, then it’s not totally straight.
AO: Right. Sometimes there is this idea of throwing away technique, but you can never throw away technique, any technique. You have a body, a bodily memory for anything you’ve done, especially if you have done it extensively. If anything, you can apply a conceptual mode to any technique, and that’s what I appreciate about your class. It’s ballet with a conceptual framework that breaks from the history of ballet. At least that’s what it feels like to me. Do you feel as though any technique can be executed through your framework?
AO: Okay. Do you call it anything? I mean I know you used to study with Maggie Black and you tend to say she was an influence, and some people throw around the term “progressive ballet.” What term do you like, if any? Or do you not like any term?
ZG: I feel like “ballet” is an umbrella for many things. It’s like the British doing it compared to the Russian and the French. It kind of gets mish-mashed around more in time. But it is still a kind of original way of moving.
AO: Yeah, I had American training that segued to Vaganova that segued to, you know.
ZG: Yes very different—Vaganova from R.A.D. [for example]. Different systems. So I call it “ballet,” but I know some people are horrified with what I do and what I say.
AO: Oh, who is horrified?
ZG: Just really gets them upset.
AO: Who is the most horrified?
ZG: I can do nothing about it; it’s not my intention. I just feel like ballet is moving forward and is being updated. This concept is being upheld by the old generation because of the nature of these great dancers and the Russian generation, how strictly it was enforced in a disciplined way. It is very difficult for many people to think about it differently. Basically, I introduce the same steps but with a different mindset.
AO: Yes, what is your relationship to “discipline?” That’s a really huge word, especially in the humanities when you think of Foucault and the stage and aesthetics. It seems that through continuous training and teaching and nurturing you are actively enacting an anti-discipline, in a sense.
ZG: When you enter the mindset of discipline, you suggest that things are undisciplined—it’s more disciplined or it’s less disciplined. The issue is control—either control of the teacher on the students, or the willpower of the student to control herself, which is all a losing battle.
AO: So, what about power? Do you think you take on a different role as a choreographer? As a choreographer you have a vision and you have an idea of how you want a piece to emerge, so what is your relationship to power and control and discipline as a choreographer as opposed to a teacher?
ZG: Choreography is a different thing and it is also not that different….I realize discipline is uncreative; so, something about it is about control….I came to a realization that you can’t repeat movement twice the same way.
ZG: It can be similar, but if you possess the drive to repeat it the same way you can’t move.
ZG: When you dance it, just go there. It’s like catching time, it’s movement, it’s unformed, it’s a flow. It is already in a different place.
ZG: So, in class, I took the discipline out and I realize that there are no issues.
AO: There are no issues?
ZG: If you want to be late, be late then. Or if you want to change an exercise so it helps you, I don’t get angry about it because in some way it’s not about me. It’s about you, and I am not doing your class. Then there are no issues. People breathe oxygen; it’s not about the teacher. I am not worried about choreography.
AO: Ah, this is fascinating.
ZG: It gets more interesting because of the creative impulses with people. It’s not the presentation. You cannot control an idea. It just kind of starts somewhere and if you want to facilitate that you…can’t repeat the regiment. It’s not necessarily that we don’t allow that….Some people, for creative impulse, need some kind of very controlled environment. But it’s not necessarily new….After meditating on that issue for a long time, I have come to a realization that, in the end, I don’t know exactly what I am doing.
ZG: And it’s kind of better that way.
AO: Do you come in with music, though?
ZG: Sometimes. But sometimes I come in and allow the dancers to select the music.
AO: That’s great.
ZG: And, I mean I kind of facilitate collaboration.
AO: So what about improvisation?
ZG: I find discipline, for me, uncreative. It’s controlling.
AO: So, it seems that both in your class and your choreography there is this kind of anti-discipline, but does that mean that the inverse is freedom? Is it expression? What is contained in this freedom? Is it the dancer’s own personality? Is it interesting movement without too much personality? You know how some teachers put across a flowery voice so that you will imitate their voice with your movement? I feel that you create this kind of blank canvas, and whatever the dancer’s expression wants to be or needs to be is valid. Do you consider “expression” a bad word or an interesting thing?
ZG: I think if you are free and expression comes out of you, it’s just who we are….I don’t require one to be expressive. It’s not something I dictate. It can happen when creating a creative environment. For most dancers, it’s totally natural. The way you shape the movement, the way you texturize it, the choices of focus [all] create an environment, a sense of infinite space or limited space. You know, all of that is totally natural for a dancer to experiment with.
AO: So you think it’s innate? Don’t you think it depends on a certain kind of training or if one has worked with certain kinds of choreographers?
ZG: I think there is some training that teaches you how to feel. It’s [also] a kind of automated thing, that you already express a certain way.
AO: When you think of Graham and angst…
ZG: I think it’s an interesting concept to experiment with. I mean, I was trained in Graham, so…
AO: Oh you were?
AO: Oh, I was too for a while.
ZG: Yeah, and I loved it. It was natural to me.
AO: And this was in Israel?
AO: After your violin career?
AO: So how did you get into Graham? I mean I know there is some Graham there.
ZG: It was a dominant training in Israel at that time, at Batsheva.
AO: And you were in the company?
ZG: And so our training was half a week Graham, half a week ballet. My training was mainly Graham and then eventually a little Horton.
AO: Oh okay.
ZG: Yeah, what would I like to say about Graham?
AO: I mean it’s really difficult not feel something in a contraction. And at least the way it’s taught in the Graham school, it comes with the mythology, and the story of the cat, and her ecstasy.
ZG: The technique is built on the position between contraction and release. But the problem is that the release is also a contraction.
AO: Oh, that’s interesting. Can you say more about that?
ZG: It’s not a release; it’s effort.
ZG: It’s the same kind of effort.
AO: Okay. And effort is…
ZG: It was actually a great exploration of intensity, of exercising [the visceral] and the body’s physicality and…surface area….I am not sure that it’s a singular technique as much as a supplementary one.
AO: People like Kazuko Hirabayashi have taken it to a different place. For her, kineticism through Graham was so important….And what about the “untrained” dancers coming to your class? Sometimes you have incredible somewhat untrained dancers who are these really amazing experimental choreographers or movers. What is your class doing for them? They are accumulating all of this new ballet knowledge and that can be a violence of some sort, I would imagine. How do you observe that? I feel like the majority of the students are just trying to let go and not think about what ballet means to them, but what about a dancer who has never had it? What’s going on for them?
ZG: I think it’s a starting point to get into this world and see how much fun it can be.
ZG: There are values that you can play with without taking away from style (or from the overall ballerina attitude). We are not making you untrue.
AO: Making you untrue?
ZG: Yeah, I mean many people see the ballet and [think] that it’s corrupting the elementary base; in its base, it’s a lie….The idea of the “pull up,” for example, the idea that you need to be somebody taller than yourself. That’s a lie.
ZG: People internalize it….When you realize it, you can break through that. Many times before breaking through the wall, the sense of ballet is a lie. The image is a lie. But the technique itself is benign. It’s just, leg front, side, back.
ZG: Last year I was invited to a teaching conference in Hungary. Another teacher there was so militantly against ballet. And I shared all the criticism that she had about it, but it didn’t go beyond [that]….There’s a certain amount of work; there is a tremendous amount of value to articulate just front, just side, just back. Understanding the leg, when it’s straight, when it’s bent, when the foot is pointed or not. You know? How much fun it can be! It brings a tremendous amount of joy to you; [it’s] not necessarily depressing!
AO: Right! And the thing that is wonderful and freeing about your class is both the relationship to the floor and the ability to truly feel grounded in ballet, which is difficult, I think. This also informs doing contemporary choreography or wherever the dancer goes after class. Also, your great sense of musicality—you don’t really talk about it; you just create phrases that have a creative relationship to the music. Maybe you could say something about your relationship to music and how you see dance living with music. Is there a specific way you phrase your movement in class that draws out a quiet consciousness about music?
ZG: Music and dance are initiated together.
ZG: Sometimes they are separated, culturally. But I don’t think they ever totally existed separately in the beginning. When we hear music viscerally, we start moving. And when you’re moving, there is a sense of time….In class you move better when you can function with the music as one thing.
ZG: It’s not just the beat. It’s another layer that we respond to.
AO: Yes, it seems like the issue of transitions is so important. The way you phrase things allows the dancer to find and create transitions.
ZG: It works best when it is [phrased] the way you sing. It’s not just metric.
ZG: Yes, marks in time. But it’s also that the movement you create fits well, that you have time to create a momentum so that you don’t create a momentum that just goes from one side to the other and then changes. There is a logic, a kinetic logic that goes together with the phrase itself. It is movement. The movement is organic. Sometimes exercises are so complex or there are [so many] changes of direction that you cannot even realize the music.
ZG: Or the music is too fast. But in the end, I make phrases. At the barre, in one way, there is a perfect amount—not too much of this and not too much of that (to get you deeply warmed up). But also to get you into some kind of mental calmness and organization in a way that you are not too preoccupied. There is tons of information in your brain and you need to function. And the music helps in terms of getting you organized. Then, in the center, there’s a way that I make movement that feels totally natural to me.
ZG: And it has a flow.
AO: And it has a curvature.
ZG: And it has a lilt and it comes on the beat or the offbeat.
AO: And what’s beautiful about it is that you really do have to let go and come back. As a dancer doing those long combinations, I feel like consciousness comes in and out. And you can’t always be up “here.” Sometimes that has to be let go of once you have the combination.
ZG: Excessive thinking is a major block for movement.
ZG: We cannot move when we think. Many people think that when you think it you can control it. It’s not the kind of movement you can control. Thinking about the movement is totally redundant. There is another command in us that is deeper in the consciousness that is more attached to the frequency of, “move this arm.” But it’s not as if you say, “I am going to move my arm now.” You don’t need to say and move your arm. You just move your arm. The more information that you process while you dance, the less you’re able to move. It will block you….And most of the time it’s judgment.
AO: Judgment, right.
ZG: Yeah, like, “I didn’t choose the right muscle,” or, “I was failing to pull-up,” or, that kind of impossibility, or to try and correct yourself.
AO: So, judgment blocks movement. Saying, I am never going to be able to rond de jambe that way…
ZG: Yeah, like, “I am going to fail, I am going to embarrass myself, I am going to do those kind of things.” It puts gaps in your capacity of accepting movement. Being present in the moment.
AO: Right. A lot of these concepts have helped so many professional dancers in their practice. But what about reconciling that with real world demands of the working dance world, some of which is a little more commercial, some of which is…you have dancers from NYCB, or what have you? They might hear and implement concepts that you are giving them, and then apply them to choreography that might not want to hear those concepts.
ZG: Yeah, of course. You don’t need to hear it. In general, most dancers don’t hear anything after a while. You know.
AO: They are not open to hearing…even the ones who come to you?
ZG: No, I am not taking it as a personal thing. I mean, they are being subjected to different truths that came to them as bible, with the teacher saying, you need to do this, and another saying, you need to do that. And after a while, you just do. They are not talking, and I think it is up to us, the teachers, to make sense to them. If you have ballet information to give them, you need to find a way to communicate with them as people, too, and that is the potential of the transmission of some kind of information. Otherwise, dancers in general are too wounded already.
AO: Is that frustrating for you to see, or do you trust that over time things change? I started going to your class when I was about 22 and now I am in my late 30s. At that time I was fresh out of training and this mindset. I was ready to experiment, but….I feel like I have come to you in various phases—pregnant, post-partum, professional, post-professional. Do you enjoy seeing that journey of one person coming to you as seventeen different people over the course of their lives or is that schizophrenic for you to witness? Do you feel that your class has a different function in different phases in a dancer’s life? Is it a lifestyle?
ZG: I am a mirror of the student.
AO: You’re the mirror? Hmm.
ZG: Yes. I can do only what you want me to do.
ZG: It’s not in my life anymore. I will not forcefully go into somebody’s life and change them because, first, I can’t do that and, second, that doesn’t work.
ZG: So, I mean, they come to my class; if there is something that affects you, you will stay. If you feel like there is more information that I can give you, you will seek it, and I will gladly provide it. But, again, it’s not about me.
ZG: I danced already. And I don’t need to be smart, I don’t need to be popular or all of that. It’s more function, from that place which allows something more profound to happen. It’s not necessarily going to happen, but for some people it does.
AO: And what about the older dancer? I mean, Desmond is now dancing beautifully, but he is in his forties. How do you see the older dancer? You have a lot of older men and women who take your class. What is going on between the forties and the seventies; and is ballet, then, a lifestyle? Is there always a potential to perform? What is going on there?
ZG: It’s up to you. I mean, the aging is not necessarily bad.
ZG: It’s actually talking about an art form, not about the Olympics.
ZG: I love the acrobatics and how far ballet can go. But I am also am interested in the communication of ballet. Things get better in time.
ZG: It could get better, but it’s not necessarily always getting better.
AO: Yeah, and there is also this relationship to fitness. Aging and dance, for me, is kind of calming because I have seen things. Now I am in a relationship with my own students. There is some kind of calming perspective that comes with age. I know, more or less, how I would like to move. But then, I always wonder, when I am sixty, will I come to class for breath, for fitness? I don’t like that word.
ZG: Oh, why not? Like, stay in shape. It’s a great workout.
AO: You don’t think that’s a cheapening?
ZG: No, not at all. It’s up to you to create your agenda. When I trained, it was a religious act.
AO: A religious act. I can relate to that.
ZG: Sacrifice your life for this art form.
AO: Mhm, do you still feel that?
AO: Oh, okay.
ZG: It’s not that sacrifice is bad. I mean, if you want to do that, fine. But you can progress other ways also. It’s also opening your perception about the beauty and what’s expected. Somehow old is not beautiful. How do you open yourself into being inclusive in a way that you see that all forms of humanity are gorgeous and know that the change the body is going through is not necessarily a diminishment.
ZG: And I think great strides have been made over the last few decades. The whole concept of aging has changed immensely. I thought my parents in their 50s were pretty old, and now to see people in their seventies [seeming] totally young…
ZG: And I am reminded that if you think of yourself as diminished, you are diminished.
AO: This is similar to the concept of disability. Our friend Homer [Avila] used to take class before he passed. I had the privilege of doing an improvisational show with Homer shortly before he passed and I remember when he would take your class and Christine [Wright]’s class. The whole energy in the room changed because you had to accept his situation. You couldn’t sit there thinking, “Oh my god, I am so fat, I am so turned-in, I am so hunch-backed” because here he was with one leg creating his own technique out of your technique and working with his own agenda. And I felt like the attention was totally different in class when he would take class. I would love to see more of that, especially in university environments. There is still this idea of, “Oh god, what if someone in a wheelchair falls in class; or, how are we going to accommodate this person?” And I feel like disability culture actually opens classes up. The actual dance world (especially your open classes) is a lot more open to disabled performers than institutionalized environments that don’t know what to do with the “other” body. But, in a sense, to be dancing with a disabled artist in class is like an exercise in acceptance, and that’s what you are teaching.
ZG: Yeah, because there are a lot of people, like beginners. Humility. It’s all kind of doing ballet without doing it, and it works perfectly well. There is something inspirational for the principle dancer from City Ballet to be with another person in class that is struggling with movement in some way. [Let’s] open ballet from this exclusive club [from which it was] functioning for a long time.
AO: Right. And my last question would be the question of the institution. Do you see teachers inspired by your methods moving into institutions like Ailey, Julliard, SAB (and these kinds of schools) and teaching ballet with this new approach? Is there some compatibility between undiscipline and the institution?
ZG: Hm, I don’t know. I want to believe in all that. But I can’t know for sure. It’s also not the material for defining my success.
AO: No, I don’t think so either.
ZG: I can’t control it. So, I’m just busy living my life.
AO: Do you like to know who your protégés are? Eric Hoisington teaches for you sometimes. Are there any others who teach in your style?
ZG: I think you know—a few others. Kenny Larson….I think of my teaching as similar to making works. But I realize that other students are making works and teaching, and teaching something very different. And some of them are saying that we teach the same thing, but I feel like…each one puts something different in there. What I have heard [is that] the generation of people that has studied with me would say I had a [large] effect on them, but that they discovered whole new things on their own, a kind of revolution of this art form.
AO: And do we like the label “progressive ballet?”
ZG: It makes no difference to me, that’s fine.
AO: Okay. “Organic ballet” also?
ZG: That’s fine also.
AO: Okay. Well, this has been amazing and I can’t thank you enough.
ZG: What’s the time?
AO: It’s been an hour.
Zvi Gotheiner interviewed by Ariel Osterweis on July 30th, 2012.
Many thanks to Anastasia Eckerson for transcribing this interview.
Edited by Ariel Osterweis.
My Article, “Public Pubic: Narcissister’s Performance of Race, Disavowal, and Aspiration,” is published in the Winter 2015 issue of TDR/The Drama Review. You can read it here:
My chapter, “Geo-Choreography and Necropolitics: Faustin Linyekula’s Studios Kabako, Democratic Republic of Congo,” is forthcoming in the edited collection, Choreographies of 21st Century Wars. Stay tuned.
Here is a Vimeo link to my discussion with John Jasperse before the premiere of his 2014 piece Within between at New York Live Arts. It was a pleasure working with him as a dramaturg. In 2014, Jasperse was awarded a Doris Duke Artist Award and a Bessie Award for Outstanding Production.
I have contributed a chapter, “Disciplining Black Swan, Animalizing Ambition,” on Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film, Black Swan, to The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen (2014). You can find it here:
and on the Oxford website, Amazon, and Google Books (links below).
I wrote these context notes for John Jasperse’s Within between. Premiere: May 28th, 2014 at New York Live Arts.
As far as I can tell, John Jasperse doesn’t do small talk. Yet, he isn’t afraid to make himself small, vulnerable, always one to cite failure in his own work and to let out an anxiously knowing laugh in response to the absurdity of millennial life. In contrast to his aversion to discursive drivel, Jasperse immerses himself (and his dancers) in small movements. But such kinetic minutiae couldn’t be further from empty gossip; instead, it is the choreographic equivalent of the refinement and experimentation of the American postmodern poets. Jasperse possesses an uncompromising commitment to detailed investigation of micro-movements, down to the directional gaze of a single eyeball.
What had stood out to me from his previous work was a consistent engagement with objects that moved—things with agency. Recalling players such as jeans, leaf blowers, sculptures, penises, mattresses, emptied water bottles, and inflated pool rafts, I was continually struck by the way Jasperse was able to create choreographically political ecologies. Without disregarding the formal precision of a nuanced tilt of the head or the spiraling energetics of a connected trio moving across stage at 20mph, he maintained an undertone of socio-cultural critique. In Misuse liable to prosecution (2007), Jasperse brought to our attention the desperate financial mechanics of putting together a dance performance, commenting on the scarcity of resources for artists working within a commodity culture of waste, investigating capitalist materiality through corporeal materiality (money through the body).
Working with Jasperse in a dramaturgical capacity, I have had the opportunity to talk with him, watch videos, and attend rehearsals and showings over the course of this year. Where did the objects go? No rafts, hangers, orange cones, or boxes! I noted a shift from the ecological to the cultural. What do I mean by this? Whereas Jasperse’s stages were once littered with animated things, they had been stripped down to bodies—people! Just people. He told me he wanted to try on culturally foreign movement styles. (This worried me; did he mean appropriation?) As opposed to mimicking a new dance style, he wanted to translate dialogue about such styles into movement, which is a type of abstracted praxis, a “doing” of theory. Such abstraction skirts around embodiment. Rather, it means to embody an idea about a dance form instead of embodying a dance form itself, privileging the affect of translation over the integrity of precise replication.
But when Jasperse’s dancers play with an abstracted version of, for example, stepping, what are the stakes, culturally, racially, and economically? How do we as audience members perceive movement passages that allude to such cultural experiments (if we perceive them at all)? Jasperse could be commenting on Eurocentric classicism, race, modernist abstraction, “high” and “low” culture, or the idea of “America.” At the level of choreography, what qualifies as “American?” We encounter stepping in black colleges; both entertainment and competition, it is a performance of aspiration. Jasperse contrasts and integrates culturally disparate dance techniques and evacuates them of their aspirational qualities. For example, in one section, the four dancers (the exquisite Maggie Cloud, Simon Courchel, Burr Johnson, and Stuart Singer) execute methodical tendus and port de bras you might find at the beginning of the “center” section of ballet class—fifth position, croisé, etc. There is a creepy nonchalance to this sequence of movements, a restraint you wouldn’t find in a ballet class in a classical ballet academy, but the kind you might find in a “ballet-for-modern-dancers” class, like a rejection of épaulement’s reach, its aspiration. Then we come into a collegiate section with allusions to cheerleading, and the dancers barely crack a smile, a far cry from the plastered, patriotic glee of televised cheerleaders or effervescent frat boys. Is this Jasperse’s way of rejecting America or of refiguring its commoditized affects and rendering them banal? Who owns these images? How are they felt in our bodies?
Recently, a thing has reentered the studio. Within between now features a pole dance. Instead of the transparent, light-catching attributes of clear plastic bottles and blow-up pillows, this piece begins with a nudge. A pole threatens to penetrate the audience. Contact? A probe? A rifle taking aim? Initially weaponized by a dancer, the pole becomes a structure of support, and two dancers lean on it while somehow keeping it suspended atop their toes and shoulders. Ultimately, Jasperse has reintroduced his penchant for the ecological to the otherwise cultural landscape of Within between, creating a meeting point between political things and social people. We might ask, then, where does identity reside in this work—in the dancers, in Jasperse, in the pole, in the idea of “America,” or in the choreography itself? It has been said that movement is fleeting, but what, then, of the way we attach ourselves to a dance? It’s mine, isn’t it?