This is a conversation between Anya Liftig and Andrea Kleine about Andrea’s latest work which centers on a conversation between the two artists which refers to yet another conversation from the film “My Dinner with André” which inspired Andrea’s latest work. Time to be meta.
-Tess Dworman, co-editor
ANYA LIFTIG: Andrea Kleine’s new work, My Dinner with Andrea: the piece formerly known as Torture Playlist, began as a dance about the music deployed in the CIA’s torture program. In despair, Kleine abandoned that idea and channeled theater shaman André Gregory from his 1981 film My Dinner with André, creating a new version of the famed dinner conversation as she sought answers on how to make a dance about torture, or how to make anything at all. The piece emerged as an amalgam of fragments: fractures of complicity, futility, and desire. I was lucky to perform alongside Andrea at the premiere of this work at New York Live Arts in February.
Later, Andrea and I gathered at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central to mull over the process and origins of the piece. We talked as we ate Bedeque Bay oysters and clam chowder. Due to a set of cranky batteries, our digital recorder was a bit on the fritz.
ANYA LIFTIG: You look very tan.
ANDREA KLEINE: I was in Florida. I was at this artist retreat. I had a little cabin right on the beach. And I was trying to finish one novel and start another novel at the same time, which was difficult because I was really interested in the beginning of the new novel and sort of struggling with the final end-note of the previous novel. It’s an interesting correlation to the process of making the piece, My Dinner with Andrea: The Piece Formerly Known As Torture Playlist.
AL: What was the connection?
AK: My first image for that piece was Alison Ingelstrom’s solo -- that was still when I thought I was making this piece called Torture Playlist. I wanted a young dancer who was very technically adept at dancing to pop music in the music-video style, in heels. I really wanted someone who could do it straight up, without any commentary on it. I didn’t want a contemporary/downtown dancer/Brooklyn dancer who could sort of pull of it off.
AL: Or with some sort of irony.
AK: I didn’t want any irony. I wanted it done really well, really straight forward. And I wanted it to go on for a long time.
AL: They needed a lot of technical stamina, too.
AK: Yes. So that was my opening idea for it, and that was the oldest idea in the piece, in terms of the piece’s archeology.
AL: I know you were talking about how that song, “Call Me Maybe,” had become a conversation, through the choreography of that song, to troops in Afghanistan. Was that song itself on the Torture Playlist?
AK: I couldn't find any evidence that “Call Me Maybe” was on the Torture Playlist, but it shares some similarities with selections that were. I chose it because of a video meme where the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders made a video valentine to troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, where they danced around to this song. The choreography was very simplistic and very literal -- I’m holding a phone, I’m punching numbers on a keypad on my palm, I’m shrugging “maybe” -- sometimes they used pom-poms, sometimes they were in a pool splashing around, there’s wind blowing through their hair, they're all in bikinis dancing around the beach. And then in return, in gratitude I guess, a troop in Afghanistan made a response video where they did the same choreography but using their iconography. Instead of pom-poms they had machine guns, and they would sexualize the machine guns.
AL: And they were all men.
AK: They were all men. I found out about this video because a friend of mine posted it on Facebook and said something like, “OMG someone please write their queer theory PhD dissertation on this video.” They loved the unconscious queerness of it. Then I did some research on it and actually, the soldiers were ordered to do this video by some sort of PR firm. A contractor or someone figured it all out, directed it, and the troops who were in it were ordered to perform in this video.
AK: It was all scripted. If you watch that video, you’ll notice that it is very slick. A British troop also made one and it was completely un-slick. In the British video, they weren't the best-looking soldiers, they looked tired and the camera angles weren’t great. But the American one looked like a professional video.
photo by Paul B. Goode
AL: I was always curious about - in the piece - the role of sexuality. Particularly of Alison doing this very technically proficient but also very sexy dance. And that being connected to the film My Dinner with André and the gender reversal there in terms of the scenario of the film being reversed with you and I talking. Was there a connection with that? In terms of playing with, I guess you could say, queering My Dinner with André?
AK: I guess you could call it queering My Dinner with André, but really, I wanted to steal it. Not in terms of appropriation, even though obviously I appropriated it, but I wanted to steal it and take it for my own. To claim ownership of it. For a variety of serious and also ridiculous reasons, ridiculous ones being, well, my name is sort of the same; and the more serious ones being taking ownership of a playful, yet very serious inquiry. Currently, in my performance work, I’m interested in duration, not what we think of as typical durational performance such as, “I’m going to stand on one foot on a chair for 10 hours,” but in challenging the audience’s attention within known forms, such as theatricalized performance, things that are familiar, and then drawing it out. My Dinner with André did that in that it was a 2-hour long dinner conversation, a 2-hour long movie of one scene.
AL: Where nothing really happens.
AK: Nothing really happens. Do they come to a resolution or not? There’s this cryptic last line and you don’t really know what it means, but you feel like you are some place else. What I wanted to do in this piece was examine my own complicity with torture. I wanted to expose how we all participate in torture. I didn’t want to make a piece that directly said, “torture is bad.” Obviously, torture is bad. Torture is inhumane. But I think on a certain level it’s human.
AL: But you're also saying that the idea of duration/torture is sort of blurred, particularly in art-making. Even if it’s just the duration of time that we watch Alison repeat that same phrase, there is something that can be both challenging, perhaps productive, or enlightening about duration.
AK: There are actually all these intricacies going on in both Alison’s solo and the My Dinner with André section. It’s not just repeating itself over and over again in the same way. There are all these different little cuts and variations going on. Alison’s solo becomes more and more compressed, and it’s designed so that it could go on forever. Similarly, the My Dinner with André section, a bit of the reverse, it doesn't become more and more compressed, but there becomes more and more space within it, it becomes more and more elongated.
AL: And the music kind of feeds that.
AK: Also the text keeps circling back on itself. It runs a little course, then it pauses, then it starts over again: “One time...” “So anyway...” The audience adjusts to this segmentation and never knows when it’s the last time or if we are going to pick up again.
AL: Another subject of your work is reenactment, and I’m thinking in Screening Room, or The Return of Andrea Kleine (as revealed through a re-enactment of a 1977 television program about a ‘long and baffling’ film by Yvonne Rainer), that was a film about a film, it’s a show, a cultural product that kind of goes nowhere about a film. Wait, I’m not going to say it goes nowhere-- it goes somewhere but it’s incredibly baffling. But I think that aspect of duration is really interesting in terms of the text, not just the length, it’s also so autobiographical that it felt like it was going into a durational element of mirroring your life.
AK: All of the stories in My Dinner with Andrea... are true, by the way.
AL: There was nothing that I know of, that was said in the production that wasn't true.
AK: It was all true.
AL: There was a sense of being embraced by the text, but then this deepening that was also durational. When you listen to the story, it almost seemed made up, and the fact that it was true–I’m still kind of getting over it. That’s what I’ve really always been fascinated about in your work–the thread that you pull. Because it feels very delicate, but it’s there, it’s actually very taught. It’s a thread of connectivity of seemingly completely disparate elements.
AK: I’m always very confident that no one will ever rip off my performance works because of the wacky things I combine.
AL: Starting with Screening Room... - the character of Yvonne Rainer - there is a personal trajectory that you have that is similar in some respects to her career at that specific point, and certainly with André Gregory, the sense that you had kind of left this world to go on a quest and are now kind of digesting it, kind of coming back to it. There’s that profoundly autobiographical aspect, which doesn't feel self-indulgent. It never feels that way.
AK: Both of those pieces were very intimate but for very different reasons. With Screening Room..., because I had this long break from performance, I felt that the first major piece I made coming back had to be about myself. I had to address my own absence. Who are you? Where did you go? Why did you come back? That was probably the most directly revealing piece.
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photo by Paul B. Goode
AK: In My Dinner with Andrea... it was intimate in that all those stories were true. I was telling you these very intimate stories about my internet surfing habits and ways in which I waste time, internet rabbit holes that I go down, strange memories and ethical decisions I had to make. In My Dinner with Andrea... the piece has a sense that it never arrives anywhere, it’s constantly arriving but it never completely lands. I was also trying to expose my own personal process of making the piece, not the rehearsal process, but more what my brain went through trying to figure things out.
AL: To me what was impressive was the way in which I witnessed your process with the piece unfolding, new crevices and creases appearing. In both those pieces, you are the central character but then you are also contending with the other performers. What was really remarkable being part of it was the sense in which you always seem to be drawing from me, my true self, and not my performing self. I think of this part in Screening Room... where we use the Catherine Lacey book, Nobody Is Ever Missing. You didn't select the text, you said, “Read this book and recount some part of it that you remember, you know maybe from the beginning just tell the story.” But the way that once I started doing that it, it kind of magically fit in. But it was my memory of it, my telling of it. After awhile, when I had a little bit more objectivity, I thought actually that has an amazing resonance with the narrative of Screening Room..., the narrative of you, the narrative of where you’d been. It was almost magical. How did you know? How did you know that the part that I would select would fit perfectly? How did you pick that book? And how did you know that there was that part of that book? Why did it work?
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AK: The ethics of appropriation. I’m interested in how these limitations can spark other avenues of inquiry.
AL: That’s interesting. Where do you think that desire to appropriate comes from?
AK: I’m sure that somewhere it’s connected to the same thing as reenactment, which I think is a primal idea of theater. When you’re a kid, you're reenacting things you see on TV, etc.
AL: Theater in and of itself - you're putting up a play, you're doing Oklahoma in your high school, it’s always about imitating, in some respects, that which came before, doing it like the movie, doing it like the famous star, or not doing it, making different choices. There’s also an aspect of which it’s also like you’re contending generationally with the history of the genre that you're in, or you're rebelling. I do think of Harold Bloom’s book about poetry, The Anxiety of Influence. There is wanting to replicate whatever that newness was and also wanting to cannibalize it.
AK: Exactly. I had similar experiences as André Gregory did, even though I’m a very different person. I don’t come from the wealthy, cultured background that André Gregory comes from. But I crossed paths with similar people, and some of the same people, but at different points in history and at different points in my life. It was a way to claim that history and claim it from a different perspective.
AL: Would you describe My Dinner with Andrea... as a parasitic performance?
AK: No, although I really like that word and that idea. I think I was really trying to take it all, rather than just trying to live off of a piece of it. It’s a weird thing to say, “I was trying to take it all,” but I think I really was. With the Lucinda Childs derived material, it worked the same way. Alison’s solo was constructed very much like a Lucinda Childs piece but with a completely different vocabulary. I, of course, don’t have the mathematical, geometrical genius that she and the hardcore minimalists have, but having seen her work, and maybe this relates back to the idea of reenactment, I wondered what it would be like to dance a Lucinda Childs piece–these pieces that are very precisely counted, which is not the usual way that I work with movement material. Alison’s solo might have seemed, on the outside, very simple.
AL: I watched it be rehearsed, I know it wasn’t simple.
AK: It was not simple at all. But you're recognizing things that she does over and over again, and it might seem simple because it’s material that we see a lot in media, but actually it’s kind of a mindfuck to memorize in that there are very subtle variations going on. When she starts going through the audience, the song starts getting imperceptibly cut up and she has to know when there’s a bridge and when there’s a chorus and which version of the chorus she’s doing, and then the time between the repetitions become less and less and less.
AL: It contains very literal gestures, but it’s the way that it’s composed, and the counts and the way they are changing, that create the contrast of her finger phone.
AK: Likewise, your movement section is on a repeat but it’s very sensual, and yet I’m asking you to keep count of how many times you are doing it, counting those very long slow turns of the head and dives forward, and holds, and counting the holds, but still making it look very sensual and very indulgent in a way. And the text was the same way. I had to have a cheat sheet, not because I couldn't memorize the words, but because I would get lost in the sequence of it.
AL: It felt like one episode folded into the next episode, or they were ingredients in a recipe and they had a very precise order to them and they needed to be blended together. I was curious, because it was a question that I was asked, in my movement sequence, were you envisioning that I would be the uncooked lobster?
AK: It didn’t start out that way, but that’s what became underlined in it. Some of that material was from Alison’s solo. And as much as Alison can do one sort of vocabulary, you have a very refined technique in another kind of movement vocabulary. I really liked that the three of us, and also Matthew Mohr when he was involved, approach “dance” from very different corners. I really liked seeing the experience of the moving body from these very different points of view coming together in the same space.
AL: Also different historical backgrounds too.
AK: Exactly, very different historical backgrounds. For awhile I was unsure if Alison really clicked with the movement that was based on Grotowski’s plastiques exercise, these rotations of the joints. And then one day I said to her, “What I’m interested in is the connection between the rotation of the joint in the plastiques exercise and how you might articulate the joint in a sexual gesture or in heels choreography.” And then she was like, “Got it.”
AL: That was interesting to me too, having the experience of working with her and the process of working together. I remember there was a point where she was talking about being under the piano and how difficult it was to stay still for 30 minutes, and I just had to giggle. I thought, “That’s easy. Staying still, I got that, no problem.” But imagining myself doing two milliseconds of what she was doing, technically, was impossible. What’s wonderful about dance is that it can embrace all of those different factors, different places and points of origin and training.
AK: Also different types of sensuality and sensual experience. André Gregory talked about how he was trying to have this body-mind-spirit experience that would lead him to truth or authentic existence or lead him back to himself because he was totally lost. And I think Grotowski’s search was also in a similar vein–What is theater? What’s the core of it? In terms of torture, bringing it back to an earlier question you asked about sexuality and queering it all, there is an element of torture, of course, in sex. The structure of torture–the repetition, the endlessness, these moments of release, you feel everything and then you are released from it–these are archetypical sexual experiences
AL: Even when you say too–the section about “Rawhide”–that they would play this song so that the prisoner would know what was about to happen to them–sexuality works that way too.
AK: “Rawhide” has all these queer connotations, too. Rawhide was the name of a leather bar.
AL: The experience of listening to that beginning in the lobby where Bobby Previte and Michael Kammers are playing “Rawhide” -- it seems it’s a joke. Oh, here’s a man playing coconuts, and my initial remembering it from The Blues Brothers, remembering, wasn't this on TV somewhere? -- to that moment when you describe what it was used for in the Torture Report. Alison’s solo has that too -- people watching it in the lobby thought, “Oh, isn't this fun, there’s this girl dancing around, she’s making eye contact with me.” But by the time she finished that section, people were thinking, “Oh dear god, please let that end.” And then she repeats it in silence and it becomes something else.
AK: If you listen to the words in “Rawhide”–don’t try and understand them, just rope and throw and brand them–they’re saying this about other human beings.
AL: In that initial part in the lobby when they’re singing “Rawhide,” it seems like it’s a pop culture reference and you are not even hearing the words. Even when I listened to them sing, until you had that part in your monologue, I was unconscious of what the words were actual doing.
AK: In the lobby, Michael is on sax and Bobby is playing coconut shells, and then towards the end of the lobby section, they have a whip. It’s not a leather whip, it’s these two wooden clackers that make a whip sound–and that instrument is brought back later near the end of the piece, in The Forest section when Alison starts circling again.
AL: What is The Forest for you?
AK: I think The Forest is someplace where you want to go, but there’s a fairy tale darkness to it, a place of danger, a place of sex. I think it’s a place where all those things collide. When I was originally talking with Madeline Best, the lighting designer, and I was trying to explain the piece, I said that there was a conscious stepping in and out of the theatrical illusion–we go really hard, really committed into something, and then it’s as if we were on a movie set and someone yelled, “Cut!” and the lights came back on and everyone shuffles around waiting to reset for the next thing. I think The Forest is where we go back into the illusion, we go back in very full and very committed. I originally came from theater, so my first training was in acting, and there’s always this thing where a young actor wants to lose themselves in a character or scene, and that crossing over, of other-body/other-mind experience equals good. When really that’s not true at all.
AL: Like your friend in the exercise who is in a trance.
AK: Right. Achieving the state of trance equals good, equals A plus. That’s very seductive. When I was working on the piece, I talked a lot with an old classmate of mine, Erica Fae, who teaches Grotowski technique and I went and observed some of her classes. She said something to one of her students about how it’s a quandary for an actor where you want to really be present and inhabited in something, but you know that on the next page of the script you have to get up and answer the door, or you have to cry on the next line. You always have this overview of the piece running in your mind while you are trying to be “in the moment.” And she smartly said to her student, that never goes away. That voice never goes away. You will always be thinking that next the lights will go out and in the next moment you will have to be crying.
AL: It’s true you never lose consciousness of it, but as a young actor you feel that you should lose consciousness or awareness, or you should be so immersed that when the doorbell rings and you have to answer it, that you didn’t know that the doorbell was going to ring, you’re just totally living the moment, but that is fundamentally at odds with any type of--
AK: rigor, technique...
AL: You have to be anticipating what’s coming next because if you're not, how could you possibly know what’s coming next? You have to somehow get from the beginning to the end. It’s kind of a bizarre duality between the, I guess you would call it the character, and who you really are. Your real self.
AK: Whoever that is.
AL: So…...What are you doing next? In the piece, the answer to what you are doing next is, “I don’t know. Torture Playlist, I heard a podcast, I read an article,” you're kind of just compelled towards it. Is there anything that you have a feeling about now?
AK: Well…...I’m working on this novel. And in this novel–I really liked this word you used–parasitic, because it is a bit parasitic. It’s about the parasitic within relationships. I recently read this book by the writer Ann Patchett, her book about her friendship with Lucy Grealy called Truth and Beauty. Lucy Grealy was a writer who was disfigured from cancer when she was a child. She had a very successful memoir.
AL: It sort of defined creative nonfiction.
AK: Yes, it sort of did. Lucy Grealy’s book was called Autobiography of a Face. She tried all her life to have corrective surgeries on her face that didn’t work out and then she became a heroin addict and she died of–whether it was an accidental overdose or intentional no one knows, or I don’t know. Ann Patchett published a book about their friendship and it was kind of fascinating in and of itself, but it was also fascinating as a missed opportunity in terms of what Ann Patchett got out of the relationship, what she got out of trying to save someone. She didn’t really go into that, specifically. She went to great extents to say, “I was a good friend, I was a good friend, I was a good friend.” And we get it. You were a good friend. But you sort of didn't admit that perhaps at some point Lucy Grealy was manipulating you, as drug addicts are wont to do. She didn’t really talk about if Lucy Grealy had any other underlying mental health problems. It was just, “She was my great friend and I was a great friend to her.” And I thought there was so much more there. But then I thought, maybe it’s interesting that she didn't write about it. Maybe the negative space of that book is more telling.
AL: One thing I remember so specifically about Autobiography of a Face when I read it, I read an interview with Lucy Grealy and someone at a bookstore asked her, “How do you remember the dialogue? How do you remember what people said to one another when you were a kid?” And she said, “Basically, I don’t.”
AK: She said, “I didn’t remember it, I wrote it.”
AL: For me when I was reading that, I had never written “memoir.” I had never written about myself, but it seemed when she said that, it wasn't that she was dishonest about it, but perhaps the story of one’s life is dishonest. It is actually just the way you remember it or the way you write it. I’m trying to say that it opened a door for me. Maybe that was the way to think about these things. That one could write it. That in remembering it, one could also be creating it.