Performance Musings

Ariel Osterweis

Month: September, 2013

WINKING AT JESUS: THE DANCING MASCULINITIES OF CAMPO AND TRAJAL HARRELL

This review first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 17th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

http://pica.org/2013/09/17/winking-jesus-dancing-masculinities-campo-trajal-harrell/

Since the 1960s, contemporary dance has been burdened by two predominant taboos: religion and emotion. Heartily challenging these taboos today are choreographers Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido (the duo comprising Campo) and Trajal Harrell. During one evening here at PICA’s TBA13 festival, I saw Campo’s duet Still Standing You immediately followed by Harrell’s Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). Both casts are comprised entirely of men, unabashedly yet jaggedly burrowing into fraught spaces of becoming, the kinds of liminalities that reek of cohabitated dorm rooms, dried cum, and the sweat of dresses being aired out after a hard night at the ball.

Pieter Amp and Guiherme Garrido Still Standing You Photo by Phile Deprez Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Pieter Amp and Guiherme Garrido
Still Standing You
Photo by Phile Deprez
Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Entering the theater, the audience happens upon Still Standing You’s Ampe lying on his back onstage, his feet raised perpendicularly, with Garrido seated atop. Although Garrido could tumble to the ground at any moment, he addresses the audience with small talk (while wobbling a bit on the temporary seating of Ampe’s legs), asking about Portland’s rumored “vegan strip club” and its label of the “Rip City.” As Garrido nurtures this playful rapport with the audience, one detects Ampe’s fatiguing support, the increasing discomfort of the seemingly impossible task with which he has been charged. Herein lies the crux of the piece’s aesthetic: nonchalance amidst precariousness. Still chatting up the audience, Garrido clarifies, “What you’re about to see now is a contemporary dance show” and then instructs the crowd to utter in unison, “Pieter Ampe, we love you!” Encouraging a shift in tone while stretching his arms in front of him in an exaggeratedly stiff, straight parallel position, Garrido states, “Here we go. Contemporary style now. Here we go. Serious.”

What ensues in Still Standing You is the kind of dangerous play you find in many a boy-filled household. I say “household” as opposed to “playground” because Ampe and Garrido’s passages of roughhousing are punctuated by intimate moments of care and experimentation, that of two brothers who rip their clothes off like superheroes, one-up each other in absurd penis-slapping games, and tenderly nudge each other to assuage the brutality of boyhood. Here, the wild growls of lions and loud thuds of crashing robots are tamed by the domesticity of the barely detectable pitter-patter of two fingers catching up to each other across a patch of floor to indicate walking.  Such snippets of gestural storytelling appear in sharp contrast to the magnitude of Ampe and Garrido’s exaggerated risks and crashes. Finally, after an inventive pas de deux of penis-grabbing, foreskin-twisting, and Pilobolus-like body-pretzeling, the roles of support reverse and Garrido takes Ampe in his arms, generating an iconographic image reminiscent of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus in the pieta. In Campo fashion, the hold is precarious, and Ampe could slip out of Garrido’s arms at any moment.

Whereas Campo evokes the Bataillan incommensurability of the four-legged, sensory creature and the rational, upright human, Harrell depends on our recognition of the ubiquitous postmodern players known to us as supermodels. Moreover, in M2M, Harrell experiments with layers upon layers of performance, in which contemporary white dancers elicit black and Latino voguers of all genders from ballroom culture who, in turn, try on the hyper-feminized looks of fashion magazines. Throughout his series, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, Harrell has taken up gendered and racial performance, in which one gender performs another gender performing another gender, and so on. In doing so, he poses questions such as, what would happen if a voguer from Harlem’s 1963 ballroom scene went down to the Judson Church to hang out with the early postmoderns? M2Mreverses the series’ original provocation, exploring the imaginative limits and possibilities of an early postmodern (dancer) finding himself in the balls of Harlem. Drawing from the colloquial use of “giving church” found in ballroom culture—already a mix of high fashion posturing and the church-inspired lyrics of the deep house music that drives many a voguing competition—Harrell takes his audience to church with M2M. Needless to say, the aesthetic of “difficulty” central to Judson-inspired work tends to obscure the church service structure of M2M for the average viewer (at least according to my own surveying of audience members after the performance).

Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac, and Trajal Harrell  Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M) Photo by Chelsea Petrakis Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac, and Trajal Harrell
Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M)
Photo by Chelsea Petrakis
Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Like Still Standing YouM2M opens with audience address. The irrepressibly handsome Thibault Lac, awkwardly lanky and modishly coiffed enough to be—or at least stand in for—a Rick Owens model, coyly tells the audience in a French accent, “What you see couldn’t have been performed at Judson or the balls. I’ll ask you to forget this happened.” Lac suggests that the cast is merely trying out a possible beginning for the piece that they will likely discard. Yet, at no point is the culmination of the trial overture indicated, leading the audience to believe that the entire piece is a potentiality in itself, never etched into the tablets of history. Lac leaves the stage and the audience is met with the heavy bass and driving beat of a house remix of Adele’s impassioned (and widely played) “Fire to the Rain.” Unacceptable as it will seem to my academic cohort, I have lost nights upon nights of productivity to the emotional pull of this very song. An uncanny mnemonic, to hear it resonating throughout the theater, in public, is to sense a coalescence of queer community and mainstream cheapness. On the one hand, the song creates an affective commonality: conjuring a club, “Fire to the Rain” played as a danceless dance song points to dance’s potential. (My other favorite danceless opening to a dance piece done to dance music is that of Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On, in which, in a similar postdramatic mode, the lights take the entire length of the song “Let the Sunshine In” to rise on an otherwise empty stage.) Aside from an electric fan sitting on the floor, the stage is empty at this point. Finally the entire cast of three (Harrell, Lac, and Ondrej Vidlar) enters, clad in adjustable long black dresses by Complex Geometries, and sits down on wooden chairs. Seated upstage of Lac, Harrell immediately dons the pained expression of a woman wailing in church (a nod to Alvin Ailey’s iconic Revelations?). Because the audience is not privy to any emotional build-up that could have led to this moment of climax, Harrell’s expression reads as either a droplet of melodrama or grief stripped of context. Film scholar Linda Williams refers to melodrama as a “body genre,” as a film genre (or “mode”) that is excessive to the degree that its affect spills over beyond legibility (despite its recognizability).

Ever challenging established historical narratives (or the way they get “written”), Harrell has a knack for jogging the audience’s sense of temporality in two distinct ways, namely, through his strategic use of pop music and by deploying facial expressions of grief that function as signifiers. Harrell and company have explicitly stated that they are not voguers and that they do not completely embody its technique. Thus, pseudo-voguing here is a signifier of virtuosic dancing (but not its complete fulfillment). As such, Harrell points to the historical imperative for African American dancers to be virtuosic, to “be fierce.” Harrell is astute in drawing our attention—however opaquely—to the way melodrama and sincere emotion are easily conflated. In doing so, he arrives at the crux of ballroom culture (where voguing emerged), namely, its preoccupation with “realness,” the ability to pass such that one cannot be “read” (called out for faking it). In focusing on resemblance over reality, Harrell utters, “Sounds like the souls of black folks.” His fellow performers are white, dancing to a soulful soundtrack of house, disco, and hip-hop. Despite racialized and gendered ambivalence, however, M2Mconcerns itself with queer belonging, evoked at one point by the longing of Antony and the Johnson’s lyrics, “I need another place…will there be peace? I need another world, a place where I can go.” The dancers alternate between pious gestures of prayer (while holding phallic microphones) and frantic freestyle dancing that lies somewhere between runway strutting, voguing, and imitations of hip-hop. Evoking the demands of ballroom culture typically uttered by voguing MCs, Harrell, Lac, and Vidlar repeatedly say, “Mama said don’t stop the dance” as a command at times and a lullaby at others. In self-reflexive fashion, the dancers also state, “Contemporary dance is over.” However, in more play with colloquialisms, they could be saying “Contemporary dance is ovah,” which is a huge compliment, meaning “fabulous!” Perhaps one of the most hauntingly ambivalent commands Harrell preaches to the dancers during M2M is “Don’t think; work.” Which, of course, could be “Don’t think; werq,” and to werq is to fulfill ballroom’s realness, to be an utterly convincing performer. Nevertheless, the danger Harrell points to is our culture’s expectations for (and assumptions of) black performance as unthinking labor, far from the self-reflexive, critical terrain of Harrell’s imaginings. What does it mean, though, that the dancer “working” the hardest is Lac, flinging his limbs every which way in a sinewy, breakneck solo that tries to defy stereotypes of white boys and rhythm? In following the command to work/werq, the dancers emerge from M2M covered in sweat. Things wind down and fire returns via a lonely plea into the mic: “Won’t you wet my fire with your love, baby?” “M2M” could also stand for man-to-man. Both Campo and Harrell remind us that, underlying boys’ huge capacity for play is the threat of violence: what risks will you take for (and to perform) your identity, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise? (Is Jesus watching? And, who’s there to support you when he fails?)

_

Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.

TRAJAL HARRELL’S (EMAIL) JOURNEY FROM JUDSON TO HARLEM

This interview with Trajal Harrell first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 13th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

http://pica.org/2013/09/13/trajals-harrells-email-journey-judson-harlem/

Trajal Harrell Interviewed by Ariel Osterweis over email in early September for PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival.

 

Ariel Osterweis: The last time we sat down to discuss your work, we reflected on Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S). What struck me from that discussion was your claim that, for you, voguing functioned as a “theoretical praxis,” that you refused to embody it. How has that notion changed, developed, or remained the same since that time? For example, does taking a voguing class (if you have) undo that claim? And how has your idea of voguing as a theoretical praxis brought you to your current work, which you will be presenting at PICA’s TBA festival?

 

Trajal Harrell: I think it is always important to say that I am not a voguer. I don’t make voguing. I make contemporary dance. I work with voguing and early postmodern dance as theoretical praxes. I am not trying to learn voguing moves and fuse them with postmodern dance moves, if those exist. I am addressing the theory and tenets underneath the two different aesthetics. Mainly, I am working through voguing’s idea of “realness” and postmodern dance’s “authenticity.” Yes, I have taken a few [voguing] classes, but class is not the praxis I speak of. When I speak about voguing, I am speaking about the voguing ballroom scene. You cannot learn that in a class. It is a form of social performance and a practice of community.

 

In terms of the two pieces I am presenting at TBA, it is the same thing—“twirling,” so to speak, between “authenticity” and realness. Too often, I think people forget about the early postmodern dance part, and they focus solely on the voguing. With the Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem piece, the early postmodern dance praxis is hard to miss.

 

AO: Twirling between (voguing’s) realness and (postmodernism/Judson’s) authenticity! (Do we want to make explicit a discussion of quotation marks here? I’m more inclined to put quotation marks around “authenticity.” I feel the ballroom scene and Judith Butler have done a pretty good job of defining realness, allowing the word to mean what it performatively means—performing to the extent that one passes and cannot be “read”; whereas, “authenticity” opens up a huge can of worms.) I’m excited about Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). How does it differ from the other “sizes” I have seen (such as S(M)imosa andXS)? You suggest that your praxis is a sort of practice-meets-theory in which a particular socio-cultural history (of ballroom culture) informs your choreography and interacts with Judson’s postmodernist explorations of authenticity. Do you even like that word, “choreography?”

 

I agree that the term “fusion” has no place in describing your work. First of all, fusion indicates a mixture of two or more elements, and when it refers to dance, it typically indicates the blending of codified techniques (or at least highly stylized forms). Whether embraced or shunned, the word “fusion” tends to emerge alongside a colonialist or exoticizing impulse, at least in common discourse (think “Asian fusion” cuisine, for example. The “Asian” is inevitably effaced or bastardized at best). And there’s something anti-colonialist or recuperative about your project, about exploring what could have happened if a Harlem voguer from the ballroom scene in the 1960s had gone downtown to collaborate with the Judson Dance Theater (famous for Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto, which declared “no to virtuosity” and “no to spectacle”). Of course, voguing’s end goal is virtuosity, specifically virtuosity that can be described as “fierce,” virtuosity so precise and breakneck that it can’t be touched by questions of realness (so “unreal,” colloquially speaking, that it is undeniably “real”). If size S served us deceleration and (M)imosa’s exploration of drag was a total gender-fuck, how might you distill “(M2M)?” 

 

TH: Church! And, yes, I like the word “choreography” and think we should indeed place quotation marks around “authenticity.”

 

AO: Church. You had mentioned gospel. Are we now going uptown to a church in Harlem? What does this mean for Yvonne and her Judson cohort? I mean, on some level they must have loathed having the name “Church” associated with them, as in the Judson Dance Theater rehearsing at the Judson Church. Do you think postmodern “authenticity” embraces the idea of the secular person devoid of religion? So often in concert dance training (especially, in my experience of ballet and modern—think, Graham and Ailey), one speaks of a “calling,” a “gift” of talent that one holds a responsibility to fulfill (similar to but not identical to Weber’s Protestant ethic of capitalism), and this is not far from a religious mentality. However, the Judson aesthetic seems so stripped of religion and spirituality. I’m curious to hear how you envision Judson at church. What kinds of praxes are at work in this project (M2M)?

 

I know it’s not my turn to email, but something just struck me. I was reading a Time Out magazine interview of Wendy Whelan describing her new project, and she says she found Kyle Abraham so “hot and passionate and intense” that she wanted to “feel what that feels like” and subsequently asked him to choreograph on (!) her (8/15/13). We don’t need Miley Cyrus’ recent VMA antics to tell us that appropriating blackness is one of the foundations of American popular culture. But what of high art appropriations? Claims of “authenticity” often come with charges of appropriation. So, what would it mean (and what would be the stakes of) appropriating the Judson aesthetic? What happens when we accuse (or don’t accuse) performers of appropriating whiteness?

 

TH: Ha! That is super-loaded, and here I have to quote myself a bit: “My position in all of this is not without problematization. Though I am African-American, I am not a voguer from Harlem. I am much more from the legacy of postmodern dance [and Judson Church]. I wanted to problematize this location and the space I occupy within it. Therefore, I also felt the series had to have the classic double migration. So, we go back from Judson Church up to the balls in Harlem. For this I wanted to go directly to my own personal cultural roots and see how they affix themselves between these two locations. The Made-to-measure size, thereby, activates a singular position that I needed to acknowledge in the final piece of the series.” That’s all to say, most people do not come to me to appropriate blackness. My work is steeped in post-blackness (maybe the “post-” isn’t fulfilling enough). My roots are also in “white” culture. I don’t feel at all that I am appropriating whiteness. I am aware that the Judson aesthetic was developed by white artists, but I don’t think minimalism and pedestrianism nor any of Yvonne Rainer’s anti’s are white, per se. Sure, we cannot separate the means of production and distribution from the realities of sex, race, class, and sexuality, etc. Regardless, authenticity was a fiction that Judson constructed as well. In terms of performativity, we find it very useful in the work that we do. What people do appreciate in the work is this problematization, because if we are honest, that’s where everyone sits. My career and Kyle’s have blossomed in the same historical moment. I hope one day someone looks specifically at the links and differences.

 

I turn the proposition around: what would have happened in 1963 if someone from Judson Dance Theater had gone uptown to perform in the voguing ballroom scene? What would it mean to come from Judson Church, to go uptown from Judson to Harlem? In my imagination, you would have to “give church” at the balls. In a voguing context or African-American context, “giving church” means giving it your all or taking it to the umpteenth degree.

 

AO: I appreciate your reflections on authenticity and appropriation. Because of my mixed-race identity, I am continually preoccupied with the idea of belonging. Your discussion of “roots” and your use of the pronoun “we” intrigue me. What exactly do you mean by your “cultural roots” and who is the “we” to which you refer?

 

TH: By cultural roots, I mean the topography of influences and socialization that have informed my personal identity and history: Polo Ralph Lauren, Madonna, The Flintstones, country and western music, the Clintons, CNN, Andy Warhol, Ralph Lemon, Adele,  fried chicken, South Beach, bell hooks, Andre Agassi, Mark Rothko, Marguerite Duras, the Indigo Girls, Patti Labelle, the list goes on and on. And the “we” I refer to are me and the dancers with whom I work.

 

AO: Can you tell me about your upbringing and your experiences growing up? I mean, (pop)culturally, we are urged to “own it,” on the one hand, but not to steal it, on the other. I wonder if “owning it” is only a message for the marginalized or weak, or if it gives license to appropriators at large, regardless of race or class. You and your fellow performers own it all over the place!

 

TH: I grew up in a small town in southeast Georgia. There were no voguing balls and no contemporary dance, but I did lie when I was eight years old about what time my gymnastics class got out. I said it was an hour later so I could stay and watch the girls’ ballet class. No boys took ballet, but I was always there with my head in the door, watching from 4pm-5pm.

 

AO: Ha!

 

On the one hand, you seem to point to blackness (and/as gay black men and queer black masculinity), but on the other hand, you are working with forms that you haven’t necessarily lived with for a long period of time (voguing and postmodern), relatively speaking. What I’m wondering, more specifically, is, how and when do you find yourself an insider in ballroom culture (whether or not you vogue or don’t vogue) and how/when do you find yourself an insider in the Judson tradition (and perhaps more broadly, in “Western Civ,” since you tackle Antigone and Greek mythology in one piece you present at PICA)? Conversely, when do you find yourself an outsider?

 

TH: As an artist I am constantly shifting my location between insider and outsider. It goes beyond Judson and voguing. As an artist it is important for me to simultaneously occupy that dual positionality in order to experience the world.

 

AO: I assume that these terms (insider/outsider) are problematic for you, which is why I ask these questions. Especially now that I teach in a university environment, I find the issue of education very interesting in relationship to dance. Those of us who grew up in conservatory environments (not to mention the ethic driving American pop culture) were encouraged to “shut up and dance” and the trope of the dumb dancer persists today. Nevertheless, we find tension in the dance world between those who speak and those who do not (by choice or otherwise). More “conceptual”/”experimental” dance makers rely on text, discourse, and dramaturgy in a way that is sometimes looked down upon by more traditional/presentational concert choreographers. Few compelling contemporary dance makers steer clear of such reliance on a discursive backdrop, one informed by certain bents of critical and performance theory.

 

TH: I think that relying on text, discourse, and dramaturgy can be limiting when you want to engage more than a (S)mall audience. That’s what I worked on in the series. Too often in experimental dance, that’s where dance makers stay, and it blocks engaging a larger audience. In (S)mall, the performative operation is transparent. That is what makes that work important. But after (S), [my concern is] that too much focus on the performative operations can block the experience of the work.

 

I have never heard someone say, “I can’t wait to go read that dance.” My work is founded in theory, but I work to build on the theory, not to rely on it as a status symbol. So both sides have a point—the presentational and the conceptual. I’m interested in making Art with a capital A; and for that, I must always remember that theory and discourse are tools, not the thing itself.

 

AO: It’s interesting to hear you discuss size not only in terms of a piece’s scale, but in terms of the size of an audience in relation to a piece’s reliance on (or exposure/concealment of) theory.

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Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.

APPARITIONAL TOOLS

This interview with Karen Sherman first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 12th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

http://pica.org/2013/09/12/apparitional-tools/

Artist Karen Sherman Interviewed by Ariel Osterweis over email in early September for PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival.

In anticipation of PICA’s TBA13, Karen Sherman and I exchanged several emails about the role of dance, gender, and carpentry in her performance work. Because emails can quickly blur boundaries of style and appropriateness, some shuffling and excising took place. What ensues may appear to be an arrangement of words following other words, but our exchange was, in virtual-reality, temporally and visually fragmented, punctuated by roving, unreliable returns. (A dance?)

Karen Sherman, One With Others. Photo: Jeffrey Wells

Ariel Osterweis: Hi Karen. Your new piece, One with Others, proposes a set of questions: Can movement be a refuge from words? Can objects be language? Can words be visuals? Can we, in our groping toward self-realization and being with others in the world, do without even one of these? How have you gone about exploring these questions over the past year? Did you begin with them or did they emerge from observing your own process?

Karen Sherman: Perhaps some of both….I didn’t ask myself those questions in that language at the time, but we experimented with all of those ideas….The piece we made is one arrangement of material, one troubled response to those questions. There is choreography, text, talking, conversation, music, crude carpentry, but I’m not sure there are any answers. I’m interested in space and objects and design and all those things that are part of art-making, but I’m more interested in how people are together. I think the things that pulse from project to project for me are presence and feeling.

AO: Of course, “dance” is such a tenuous term. I should ask you, what does “dance” mean to you in your own practice?

KS: I used to say that the dance world was the only one that would have me. (I shouldn’t presume the feeling is mutual, though!) There is definitely dance in One with Others….and we do talk in the piece about what a dancer is supposed to be and if any of us fit the bill. I should say that while we [do] address it head-on, the piece is about more than Dance. I have a pretty open-minded idea of what dance is, including that it can be a tool and not a product. Sometimes I make pieces that don’t have any dance in them. That being said (maybe especially with that being said) I do like to see that tool wielded by those who know how to use it. (Depending on the day, I may or may not include myself in that club.)

AO: In a description of One with Others you relay your troubled relationship to dance, that you came to it late and found your experience of dance-making in conflict with the comfort you felt with language. Are you referring to language’s capacity to signify, a certain correlative reliability (or lack thereof)?

KS: It’s not so much that dance was in conflict with a reliability of language (and in fact, I can think of fewer things less reliable than language). It’s that dance was causing me pain—not physical; psychic, emotional, artistic pain. One of the things I find fascinating and horrific about dance is that you are the in-person representation and embodiment of your artwork. A painter doesn’t have to stand next to her painting in a gallery for the entire run of the exhibition and endure critiques about the painting as critiques about her body, brain, skill, etc. Here is the unique locus of judgment in dance: you are physically scrutinized, assessed, and evaluated, and this is inseparable from the conclusions made about the artwork itself and the art-maker’s skill….I think I was drowning in the frustration to separate, not even drowning in the judgment of others. The abstract nature of dance—the way you have to start over every day because the dance doesn’t exist unless you’re doing it—all that was wearying. Words on a page stay until you change them. I always talk about that in regards to building physical things, that I find relief in how, say, the cabinet you’re building (or even the painting you are making) doesn’t change overnight when you leave. Your opinion of it or plan for what happens next may have changed, but ithasn’t. You can see it (and in the case of words, read it) and go from there. But with dance…well, it’s a constant apparition, especially if you dance in your own work. I think a few years ago, words were not only offering a kind of tangibility but they suddenly felt so much more accurate and efficient. I didn’t need many of them and the ones I did need already existed. I didn’t have anything to say with movement. It was all a bunch of babble. White noise. I was forcing myself to use it because of a sense of obligation. But after a while, I realized that my untrained dancer-ness and my weird movement and my physical failures were a language of their own.  In this way alone, dance has changed my life. It has changed how I see everything in the world. It has reordered my brain.

 

AO: In looking at your images from One with Others, I notice that you name objects after sex toys: “strap-on,” “clamps,” for example. You seem to remove the fetishistic aura of these sex toys, imbuing them with the everyday use value of DIY woodwork. While a strap-on typically conjures a rubbery faux cock and leather belts, your strap-on consists of a couple of unevenly matched wooden planks (about a foot long or less) that have been haphazardly drilled into, held together by a metal hook and, well, strapped onto the performer’s hips with a bungie cord. What has been done in your dance to arrive at this point of being strapped into the strap-on? Similarly, what is going on with your “hand clamps?” Any nipple involvement? If not, why not? Why the hands? How does gender function in this de-clamping of the nipple fetish and novel clamping of the hands? Will the audience know that you have called these items “strap-on” and “hand clamp?” Do you want to evoke sex? For you, where does sex live in dance…or does it?

KS: Regarding the objects, no, the audience will not know we call them strap-ons and hand clamps (though, er, maybe they will now). I wouldn’t say I named them after sex toys. The strap-ons, yes, that’s pretty much a perfect pun because they do indeed strap-on and a couple of them are sexually suggestive. Joanna does wear a big broom handle. But Jeff’s is more of a chastity belt. The clamps are called “clamps” because that’s exactly what they are. “Clamp” has more of a hardware/woodworking connotation, I think. And they literally are clamps that tighten down over the hands. There is a sexual component to them in that they evoke torture (a bit of BDSM) but also in that with them on, you cannot use your hands or feel anything with them.

One with Others is a trio: two lesbians, one gay man, and all pretty identifiably queer. I find it interesting how in this piece we are freed from certain restrictions and readings on our interactions because of our sexualities….The three of us can touch each other however we want because of it (technically, I suppose Joanna and I should have some restrictions but it doesn’t function that way)….We do address the fact of a trio—and in sex, a menage a trois (or polyamorous situation) is fraught with potential pitfalls. Whereas, in carpentry, a tripod is always stable.

AO: I want to pick up on this because in your thoughts on dance/Dance/”dance” you seem to accept a certain amount of failure, and this failure (at least in relation to codified techniques of concert dance) seems to be part of your aesthetic. Because your coming out and your foray into dance occurred simultaneously, I get the sense that your audiences have been privy to a kind of stumbling onto the scene on your part, that you have made visible the imperfections of the process of skill acquisition—a grappling with grace? You also indicate an embrace of the messy with your term “crude carpentry.” Why is it that you are comfortable revealing to us the hangnails of imperfect/failed Dance and carpentry but you, as you say, are interested in streamlining the awkwardness out of otherwise awkward sexual scenarios onstage? Do you value expertise differently on and off stage? In your estimation, what kinds of intimacies demand what kinds of expertise? On the one hand, there is the intimacy of a lover (or lovers), which the audience does not experience, and on the other hand, there is the intimacy of the audience (the audience-performer relationship), especially as found in smaller performance venues such as blackbox theaters, spaces that aren’t threatened by the blinged-out distance of the stage-lit proscenium. Well, do you even consider the audience to be in an intimate relationship with you in the first place? Or is the audience always abstracted, at an arm’s length?

I like the idea—especially in relationship to the “crude carpentry” in your work—of dance as a tool. I think many artists still haunted by classicism (and even modernism) think of the arts (and dance) as a tool of expression; whereas, you seem to indicate that dance is a practical tool like a hammer or drill or…language (?). I noticed that you worked at Judson for many years. Would you say your work is at all influenced by the legacy of Judson and its eschewing of its predecessors’ concert dance spectacle and virtuosity? Is that kind of what you’re getting at with the idea that dance is (just another) tool? I don’t think you mean another object, per se, as you say so beautifully that dance is a “constant apparition,” a wonderful recasting of the idea that performance is ephemeral (as discussed by Peggy Phelan and others). Whereas ephemerality is fleetingness, an apparition conjures the sense of an absent presence (or a moving-toward absence), like a ghost. It is there, but we cannot quite grasp it, hold onto it. Slippery.

Speaking of slipperiness, you astutely locate the dissimilarity between the instability of the trio/manage a trois (choreographically and sexually) and the stability of the tripod. I mean, sure, with actual humans (as opposed to tripods) we are dealing with sex and jealousy, but as I paused to more fully consider your observation, I realized it all comes down to movement. People move—physically, psychically, emotionally. They don’t always support. Tripods always support.

Do you want to talk about support? You overtly discuss your queer identity in (and around) your work and you claim that you and your performers read as gay and lesbian. While you find that people are compulsively trying to read sex into dance, I find that in the scholarly pursuit of dance studies, sex is often brushed under the rug as the field incessantly tries to legitimize itself. I also find that it can be difficult for queer-identified artists to find the same kind of support for their work as closeted artists or those who present a heterosexual aesthetic. Sure, many queer artists receive funding and may even benefit from discussing identity in their “supporting materials,” but I’m wondering about scope and type. Because you have worked on virtually every side of dance, from admin to scenic to choreographic, what have you observed in terms of the support you (and others) receive and queer subject matter in the work (performed by queer artists)?

You said you “didn’t move at all” before your simultaneous coming out and dance beginnings. Well, surely you moved! Sports? Walking the dog? Anything? I’m hearing from you that dance really opened something up for you. I think that some practitioners use dance as a hiding place or an escape. Does dance make you more you?

KS: I was very physically shut down before I started dancing in college. I did theater all through growing up and worked professionally in theater while in high school. So I did have a basic relationship to my body (“the instrument!”). But I had a few really awful experiences with dance when I was little and again in my teens, where it was glaringly clear that my version of femininity did not pass muster. I felt shamed, shunned. I stayed far away from dance and certainly from any kind of activity where my body was on display. Theater, for some reason, was the exception to this rule. I didn’t play sports (except with my brother and friends when I was really little). I do recognize now that when I was little I was very physically engaged with the world, even at ease with it on that level. That left me during most of my youth, but the facility came back immediately in college. Thank god! Dance made me more of who I once was but also asked so much of me I became someone new.

Within contemporary dance there is such a range of “technique”—and aesthetics. I’m not making work that seeks to show mistakes all the time or to cover them up. My work is…actually fairly structured and considered. I also like nuance and keeping things a little shy on dial, not too far in one direction….“Crude carpentry” isn’t about messiness; it’s about making the thing instead of being bogged down in perfection—using the materials and skills at hand. I usually call it “cowboy carpentry.” The objects themselves are a bit crude. They aren’t apologetic even as they are sometimes incomprehensible. There is a desperation in the objects, as if it had been urgent for them to come into existence. They are like the visual manifestation of a grunt, maybe. I love the hangnail image, too.

Ironically, I absolutely value expertise. I love to know how to do things well and to know information. I’m pretty fastidious in my approach to most work-related things, whether it’s dancing, choreographing, building things, or doing production work, which is what was so freeing about those objects when I started making them. I used to want to build something but wouldn’t have the right piece of wood or the right tools and so then the thing would never get made. I’d stall out before I started. But one day I just said fuck it and grabbed two pieces of scrap, put a hook on them. That became Jeffrey’s strap-on. All of the history, scars, mistakes, and missed targets on them (I had used them as backing boards for another project) exemplified so much of what I was already thinking about the dance. I had no idea until I’d made that object. This is typical for me: I’ll be working on a dance and will start making visual work or objects as a kind of distraction or downtime activity, usually thinking they have nothing to do with the dance at all, but in the end they are entirely related to the dance. This has happened enough times that I just let myself make things and try not to get in my own way too much. But I am the most anal stage technician ever. The crew I work with at the Walker Art Center’s theater will attest to that. I care a lot about straight tape lines. And one time I literally ironed the floor.

You wrote, “I think many artists still haunted by classicism (and even modernism) think of the arts (and dance) as a tool of expression; whereas, you seem to indicate that dance is a practical tool like a hammer or drill or…language (?).” I think of dance as all those things, but its deployment can change from project to project. Dance can be a tool to make something else entirely. It is a language in this piece (one of several).

Anyone making dance today is influenced by Judson, I think. I recently saw In Creases by Justin Peck of City Ballet in NYC….You could clearly see the influence of the past 50 years of experimental dance in that piece but it was very much a ballet….I didn’t know anything about dance until I started going to downtown work in NYC in the late ’80s, so the Judson influence was really all I knew for most of my career. But working at Judson for 10 years was fascinating for far more than its dance legacy because it included that dance legacy without being limited to it (visual art, theater, and poetry, not to mention social justice). The Judson dance legacy has been held in the amber in many ways, especially by the dance world…but it has a whole different dynamic within Judson itself. Social justice work has been at the core of everything Judson has done since its founding in the late 1800s, so its reasoning for giving itself fully to experimental art (not just dance but theater, poetry, and visual art) comes from a wholly realized sense of its mission and the power of the radical….To me, that’s what Judson is (that and the building itself, which I had to take care of for so long). The arts were only one place where Judson facilitated radical change. I really encourage dance people to learn more about the other aspects of Judson’s work in the arts and progressive politics.

While it’s not “eschewing predecessors,” I do feel something related living in Minneapolis. I lived in NYC for almost 20 years and when I moved to Minneapolis it was partly to shake up my process. NY taught me great rigor in my work and it serves me really well in Minneapolis where I can actually make my living as an artist (meager a living as it may be). I go back to NY a lot and can clearly see trends in dance. There is tremendous value placed on originality and yet, having some remove, it’s so apparent when everyone is being influenced by the same thing when a trend is happening. Not that I’m immune from it but working in a smaller city like Minneapolis, you can really turn your attention to how you want to say what you want to say. Most of my Minneapolis friends and I see enough national and international work to know what’s going on in our field, but a city like Minneapolis lets hear your own voice in a particular way. There are drawbacks, to be sure, but that is not one of them.

AO: As someone who spent her entire childhood (and subsequent adulthood) raised by queer mentors in an otherwise aesthetically “straight” dance world (ballet and modern dance), I became increasingly aware of the disconnection between dance company aesthetics and the identities of its makers. I think a lot of us take for granted the fact that much experimental dance is practiced by out performers and choreographers, but dance (more than performance art, perhaps) grapples with that delicate brew of identity, aesthetic, and funding. We thus detect cultural dynamics of passing, on the one hand, and announcing one’s identity, on the other. From what I can tell, you address this in the Tyra Banks section of one of your pieces in which a voiceover of an artistic proposal is juxtaposed with a panel of assessors on Tyra’s show. Hilarious. You point to the need for the artistic judging panel (I assume for a grant) to hear more about community engagement (a huge imperative as we find the arts having to do the work that the educational system should be doing in terms of teaching kids and “communities”).

KS: What you say about the gendered environment you grew up in is really interesting to me. I’ve almost never been perceived as straight. Makes me think of an op-ed I read the other day: “Why It Matters that Diana Nyad is Gay.” The argument was that if we don’t acknowledge that she is, she will be perceived as straight. That made me laugh because I took one look at her and I knew she was gay. The Tyra Banks [excerpt] is an actual panel review of one of my failed grant proposals (it was a state grant so the audio is publicly available). But the video is of a group of gay men giving fashion and sex advice to straight women on Tyra’s show. The politics of that—gay men as the arbiters of art and women)—in a piece that was partly about the gay man inside of me, felt a little dangerous!

I absolutely agree that dance is often de-sexed. Although to brush something under the rug entails giving it a lot of attention and energy. I think you’re right that legitimizing is probably a part of it. With the recent hubbub around major institutions like MOMA presenting (curating? appropriating?) dance, the field’s need to come off as intelligent and scholarly has come at a great cost to the languages and logics that make dance what it is, which are already so exceptionally sophisticated on so many levels….One of the things dance has to offer other fields and forms is its unique vocabularies, which can describe, embody, and posit all at once. It’s a gorgeous intelligence that has been mucked up by a lot of silly verbiage. It reminds me of the whole gay marriage fight. I think it’s great to have the option to get married but I really think we as a society can do better and gay people could have led that charge. Instead, we’ve pushed to be part of a problematic institution. Dance has at least as much to offer the visual art world as it stands to gain. Maybe even more. I think some of this is due to the smell of money, which, talk about apparitions, is an olfactory one.

_

Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is  dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.

INSIDE SPACES, SPACES INSIDE

This interview with Nacera Belaza first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 10th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

http://pica.org/2013/09/10/inside-spaces-spaces-inside/

Choreographer Nacera Belaza Interviewed by Ariel Osterweis, August 27 for PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival.

On a respite from the heat and humidity of the New York City summer, I tuck myself into an air-conditioned corner of my bedroom to call choreographer Nacera Belaza in Paris. She tells me she is “outside.” I sit at my mirrored desk, barely noticing my fingers and palms reflected back to me whenever I poise my hands atop the keyboard or reach for a pen. Instead, I try to see the sounds I begin to hear on the other line, realizing over the course of our interview that Nacera is in transit, being transported from stop to stop on a public Parisian bus. I come to find out that moving inside small spaces is where she is most comfortable. When she told me she was outside, she did not (at first) tell me that she was inside outside—inside her body, inside a bus that was, in turn, outside in Paris, outside New York, outside Algeria. Nacera claims her English is terrible (it is not!), I admit my French leaves much to be desired, and we chat over the phone—ears and mouths (no eyes).

Photo: David Balicki

Ariel Osterweis: It’s a pleasure for me to have the chance to interview you. Can you please say something about how you started dancing and how you envision your choreography today?

Nacera Belaza: My work comes from my personal experience. I couldn’t practice dance as a “dancer” because…I had to study; my family didn’t want me to dance. I used to think [dance] was going against my freedom….When no one’s telling you how to do it, you have to find your own way….You open a path between you and the “other,” and the question is how to stay focused on this inner life and how to share it with the other. And I’ve worked on this without any concessions.

AO: When did your personal dance practice begin?

NB: I started dance very early, at 7 or 8, in my room. When I started to dance, it was like when you start talking or singing or walking; you realize it’s a way to express yourself….But I was in a context that didn’t allow me to practice dance for many reasons, so I had to find a way. For example, in Le Cri…we are stuck in the same place onstage…digging inside of us, trying to find a very deep energy to throw out. This is how I did it in my life. I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t travel, I couldn’t explore, so I said, okay, I will dig inside of myself. It’s another way to find freedom.

AO: Can you say a little bit about your family background? Were there religious reasons for the restrictions?

NB: A lot of families in the ‘60s and early ‘70s came to France to work. My father came first, and then he brought us with my mom and my oldest brother a few years later.

AO: From Algeria, yes?

NB:  Yes, I was born in Algeria in the countryside. My parents came from the countryside, from another culture, another religion, and found themselves in a totally different world, and their first reaction was to protect themselves, to protect their children. [I hear a baby on the bus crying in the background.] So, they wanted to protect us and they closed everything around us. They are Muslim. They were afraid. That’s why we couldn’t have a normal life here. Every summer we went back to Algeria and realized people were changing there, but we were not changing because [my parents] brought with them a kind of schema that they kept the same, and we kept on living that way. When you protect, it’s not always a good thing.

AO: It sounds like it felt more like sheltering than assimilation. Were you ever encouraged to adopt “white,” French culture, or was it always more of this protection you speak of?

NB: It was more protection; it was a kind of contradiction because [my parents] went to another country but did not want to be open to it. So, we came here [France] and closed ourselves, to culture, to everything. It was like living life in a box. It was heavy. I felt it going against a very strong, deep desire. This might come from the studies I did in literature: freedom is not doing whatever you want, going anywhere. It is a deep, inner feeling. I realized very quickly that I could be free everywhere.

AO: What kinds of studies were you doing at university?

NB: I did French literature. I used to love (and still love) poetry and literature, but I think that behind that, the main thing I was really interested in was philosophy, the main questions of life and death, the human condition.

AO: Who is your favorite French (or non-French) poet?

NB: Baudelaire. Hold on, I’m just getting off the bus now.

AO: Were you just on a bus in Paris?

NB: Yes! I was really in love with Baudelaire’s work. His old work was exploring life and god and women, but it was really about the human condition….This was very important for me. I realized that the human is really a balance between many contradictions, not just one thing. And I had to deal with those [contradictions] because I am woman, Arabic, Muslim, and at the same time I want to dance.

AO: Speaking of contradictions, I’m interested in the paradoxical nature of your practice. You claimed that when you were a young girl you found this “digging down” into the ground in your room, in your personal space. But then you indicated that that practice changed over time, that you sought to negotiate your regard for the other. I’m wondering what your rehearsal practice looks like now, and in which spaces you prefer to spend time dancing (when you’re not onstage). For example, where do you improvise and create, and what does your practice look like today? What kind of process do you go through?

NB: You know, very early I read this sentence from Aldous Huxley who said there are two ways of being free: either you explore the world and travel or you just dive into yourself. This idea helped me to live in a certain way. I’m convinced that the [fate] we meet in life we meet because we are already convinced of it. It’s not just by chance. I think I will always be convinced that the freedom is inside. It’s not something you can see from outside. You can observe that in this kind of society: everyone can do what he wants to himself the way he wants to, speak the way he wants, and still say he is not happy and not free. He still looks for freedom. I had to deal with a very small space and try not to feel limited in it….Now, even when I’m in a big space, I have to rebuild this [small] frame around me.

AO:  How do you do that?

NB: You have to build the content. I always say my work works well on a very small stage or on a very big stage because the [environment] is pushing you to build up the right space. I’m not going to try to “feel the space” by running around on the stage. I have to feel a way to get connected to this whole empty space around me. In a way, I have to go back to the same point I was describing (same thing with a very small stage). When you go inside [yourself], you have a feeling of infinity that you cannot have just by feeling the space around you….Once you have this feeling, you realize that you create the space. You create the consciousness of the space. It’s not the space as it is. You transform the space with this consciousness. I know when I look at some dancers who learned dance in the school, in a very big space, you can see that they don’t have this consciousness about the space. They cannot have this dialogue with the space. It’s impossible because they don’t feel it as something that can go against them or with them. It builds a lot of aspects of my work, this question of can I move, can I go out of where I was?

Photo: Philippe Laurent.

AO: You place yourself in opposition to those who have trained in dance academies. Did you, at any point, take formal dance classes?

NB: I did a dance class when I was 23 years old. It was my first class, a jazz class. And I remember I didn’t want to learn things, I just wanted to dance. I wanted to hear the music and such because I was looking for that, and I never took contemporary dance because I knew I didn’t want to learn anything from outside. I had no choice. I had to find my own path.

AO: So, you still only do your own movement?

NB: Yeah, I think it’s an obligation for any artist to feel that, to feel that he has no other solution but to find his own path. You cannot follow someone, even if the one you’re following is very good. Finding your own path means you have to face yourself all the time.

AO: How did your sister get involved in Le Cri? Does she normally dance?

NB: She was in the same room, of course! She started to dance the same way, with me. At the beginning she was not looking at dance the way I was looking at it. As soon as I started, I started looking at it as work, as hard work.

AO: Labor?

NB: Yes, labor. There is a French word that means hard work that you do on yourself your whole life, to find answers. [My sister] Delila has worked with me for more than 20 years. She shares with me all those questions. It was also very personal for her. I asked her two years ago to do her own solo; she wanted to do it, and I think she also had to go through another experience – we built the main idea by dancing together.

AO: Is she younger than you?

NB: She’s five years younger.

AO: Which pieces are you presenting in Portland?

NB: We are presenting Le Cri and the two solos I was talking about. We have almost the same dancers onstage, almost the same costumes (which are not costumes, they are the clothes we work with in rehearsals), the same big empty space. The question for me as an artist is, how can I go further? And what does that mean—go further? Does it mean doing another movement, pushing this experience further? It is very interesting for me to find myself in this very tight space. I’ve always worked in tight space. When it’s really tight, I know that the solution doesn’t come from my mind, doesn’t come from me, but it has to come from a very strong emergency.

AO: It sounds like you find that your pieces are connected or come from the same impulse.

NB: Yes, this is why in many places we perform two or three pieces. It’s really a kind of journey, and you go through a piece and another and another. It’s very important for me to share this with the audience because it’s a way of telling them, it’s not what you’re looking at that’s important; it’s what you’re going through from one piece then the other—are you looking for something new from one piece to another, or are you really letting yourself go in it? That also changes the way they are looking at us.

AO: In the concept of self-labor that you have, how do you like your body to feel at the end? Do you like exhaustion? Do you like pain (does it mean something)? Or do you like to leave a piece feeling something other than pain or exhaustion?

NB: I’m not sure I understand the question.

AO: Well, you talked about the importance of your practice as a kind of labor, so I guess what I’m wondering is, how do you feel at the end of one of your pieces? How does your body feel, and does that hold meaning for you in some way? What does the labor do?

NB: You know, the only thing I’ve said since the beginning is, what’s going on inside? The body for me is like a small room where I have to work. I don’t care if it’s a small room. I don’t care if it’s a small stage or a big stage. I stay focused on what’s going on inside. So, I always say something that is a bit shocking for dancers: I tell them I don’t care about the body. You have to give up the body to experience things the way we have to experience them.

AO: Like a trance?

NB: Yeah, but it’s not just, “give up the body.” I always give the image of a container. It’s not a physical attitude onstage. It’s not material. It’s really about mentally focusing on what you feel—all the little movements and events going on inside of you. Once you feel that and forget about the body, you create the same kind of thing in the audience. The audience starts to (instead of looking outside of themselves) looks inside themselves. When you create this strong bond between the audience and the dancers, I feel like they don’t care about what they are looking at; they just want to stay connected. We all want to stay connected. I think I create pieces just to reach this point.

AO: Do you feel that your personal politics—your concept of a kind of non-body—contains a spiritual dimension?

NB: I think so, yeah. You know when you start to work on your body, you realize that 95% of the body is the spirit, the mental. The body’s nothing without the mental. But we are all stuck to the body because it’s the only thing we can see of us. Because I have faith, I have always looked at the body as something unlimited, in terms of energy: what makes it move, what comes from inside (not from the material things from outside)? I had to forget the body to reach this other reality.

Photo: Philippe Laurent.

AO: How does this kind of transformation or spirituality coexist with your own religion and religious practices?

NB: The same way. And I often have this conversation now because a lot of people are talking about Islam in many manners, and I feel like they are talking about something I don’t know. I’m not interested in what people can see. The believer has to work very hard on himself, and shares this in common with the artist. You really have to explore each second of your behavior, each of your intentions. Why is it good, why is it bad, etc.? Introspection. Looking inside yourself all the time. It’s the same way an artist works. For me, it’s the way to live religion, to live it from inside. This is the most intimate thing. And it’s not something you have to show. You know, I read a book when I was around 20. The man in this book left the city for the countryside and he lost himself in the countryside just to be connected to nature. He said something that was very important for me. He said, if I didn’t know about religion, through this connection with nature, I will find the deep meaning of religion, the inspiration for religion. Humans want to talk about what they see, and to talk about it means to know it. He cannot talk about the things he cannot see because it’s too abstract for him or it’s too abstract to share with a lot of people.

AO: So maybe that’s what your dance does.

NB: For the dancers, it’s hard work because they have to believe in this. They have to go against the human tendency to look all the time—how to repair myself, how to fix myself, how to settle myself.

AO: Yes, we find this especially in the mentality of classical western dance training; it’s always about correcting yourself.

NB: Yeah, I’m surprised to find how far the dancer is from dance, really. I can feel people closer to dance who are not dancers.

AO: Speaking of dance, non-dance, and dance-away-from-dance, do you have any favorite choreographers, living or dead?

NB: I appreciate some choreographers now, the ones who reassure me [through their] very high expectations. When I was younger and I was building myself, I was more by influenced literature, cinema, and theater than dance. I didn’t look at dance at all because I knew I came from another culture; I had to find another way to live in my body, to make it move. I really closed my eyes to a lot of European things.

AO: So who are some of your current favorites?

NB: I like Japanese work a lot. Sankai Juku, butoh—because it is really strong internally.

AO: A lot of what you say about freedom and the body reminds me of Faustin Linyekula from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

NB: Yeah, I know him a bit. We have to talk about that one day with Faustin because I think he’s talking about freedom in a more political way.

AO: I think so, too. I feel like he’s talking about the idea of the practice of the arts as a mode of social healing and imagining. But some of the things he says about the body (as his country) resonates with some of the things you have told me about your own approach. Where were you going on the bus?

NB:  I’m going to meet a friend. I’m going to see a movie!

AO: Which movie?

NB: I see a lot of movies. I don’t even know which one we are going to see tonight! I read a lot of film criticism (just as used to read a lot of literary criticism): I feel like they are talking about art the way I want.

AO: Hm, my partner is a film scholar.

NB: They are not talking about dance, movement, nice things. They are talking about the dramaturgy, the meaning, the way images are built. I feel close to that.

AO: You must have a favorite film, then. Do you?

NB: I have a few favorite films: the Italian new realists, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Korine…

AO: Have you ever been to Portland? I’m in New York City, and I’ve never been to Portland.

NB: I’ve never been to Portland; I’ve never been to San Diego. I know LA quite well, New York too. We were supposed to do a big tour two years ago but we didn’t make it, and I’m really fascinated by long roads (such as those in a Wim Wenders’ film) and the dimensions of the country, the dimensions you give to everything.

AO: Yes, the proportions!

NB: Proportions and the question also of the journey, traveling. I think it comes from America. You find it in many movies, many books, and you cannot travel like this in, for example, France, because it’s too small. You cannot lose yourself. About Portland, I really have no idea; I’m just always curious to see how people from a different culture can be interested in my personal work. Even in Japan last October, people [connected] to my work. That shows me that when it works, it’s a very simple thing: what we have deep inside of ourselves is universal. I’m not coming to show you my difference, but to show you what we have in common.

AO: People (especially Americans) will look for some exotic difference. It’s a very habitual way of viewing here. Nevertheless, I think you will have a special audience in Portland. Hey, did you know that Portland is in (or near) a rainforest climate?

NB: Um, no. Okay. I’m sorry for my poor English. I put a lot of attention toward using the precise words, but in English I’m really poor.

AO: No, your English is great! I’m sorry for my almost non-existent French!

NB: Thank you!

AO: Thank you and enjoy your movie!

Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research JournalWomen and Performancee-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is currently dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.