BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the premiere of BodyCartography's Super Nature, the use of scale and undifferentiated space, casting as choreographic choice, new works as antidotes to past works, challenging the value of reinvention/newness, and "sensory deliciousness."
Photo by Sean Smuda
Kristin Van Loon: What have you guys been doing since Super Nature premiered?
Otto Ramstad: Oh, grant reports.
Olive Bieringa: Identifying missing cables, buying thank-you gifts that don't arrive at their destinations, booking plane tickets for New York, wondering if all of our cast is coming, which we've finally confirmed, one month before we're all due in New York. Anything else? Trying to get some sunshine. Teaching in Ohio.
OR: Re-adjusting to not having babysitting five to seven hours per day.
KVL: This is actually great, because I wanted to get this out of our systems—the logistics and the career and the fundraising and the tickets. Let’s not talk about that stuff.
OB: Great! I love it. Yes.
KVL: So that was a bit of that. And maybe to get it out of my system, I’ll say where I am. I flew out of Las Vegas today, and I feel like I’m kind of tripping. But I was thinking about where I’m at right now and how it can help us talk, because I loved Las Vegas, just the sensory deliciousness, the lights, the scale, the visual, so as I was transitioning out of that I was thinking about your show, and how you dealt with scale and space and sensory deliciousness. So there’s half—and just before Las Vegas I was at Figure Space [at Earthdance] with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson, and that felt—well, one thing we were really working with was undifferentiated space. Which for them, I think, was space on an architectural scale, and space inside the body on a microscopic scale, and working in a place where you lose track of which space you’re in. You’re nodding of course, because I think of that as BodyCartography territory, absolutely. I’m interested in surface—just what the audience saw—and how you dealt with the [Walker Art Center’s] McGuire Theater. I’m not surprised that you’re nodding to what Steve and Lisa were talking about, so I’m interested in those ideas in terms of how you made the piece. So just grab whatever part of that you want to talk about.
OR: I think with this piece we always knew where it was going to be: at the McGuire Theater. For those who haven’t been there it’s a black box theater that’s 60 deep by 60 wide, it’s pretty big, the seats go down to the floor, which I always like. The first row of seats is right on the stage. It’s a very high fly space, a very high ceiling in the theater, higher than your average contemporary dance venue. The visual artist we were working with, doing sets and costumes, originally wanted to put a drop ceiling in the theater, but we decided that it was just too much material, when we were going to tour. We’ve already done a lot of shows with set elements, so we thought it seemed really excessive. Then we went on a residency and there was a really beautiful washing line, at the farm we were at—Lilysprings Farm [in Wisconsin]—and so Olive’s idea was to crash the washing line with the drop ceiling idea, and so when people come in there’s a rope attaching to the top proscenium arch that go into a vanishing point on the upstage right side of the space, so it’s creating this kind of scale change or scale power, a dynamic change.
Photo by Sean Smuda
OB: Between the bodies and the space itself.
OR: So if you’re in the space underneath it, the rope came to about 5 and a half feet at the back wall, so it functioned like a little room. I’m just specifying the space—someone in the talkback said it annihilated the black box feel, to have the vanishing point, just disappearing behind the wall. That’s pretty evident in the first half of the piece: it’s just black, and you have this vanishing point, and the first section—or the first beginning—has a lot of interruptions, a crash between the social and the physiological. In the second half of the piece a mobile forest comes in, and there’s fog, and, at least to me, the space changes a lot because of the trees and fog and different lighting. In the more social beginning, a lot of cause and effect was happening, and a lot of seeing one thing happen at a time, and then it changes, once the fog and the trees come in, it’s really spread horizontal. There’s a lot of different things happening at the same time.
OB: And to speak to this kind of undifferentiated space, we shift from a space we know to a space that we know on a different level, we know it on a cellular level, and it’s more about biology or intuition or landscapes or things that are happening in the dark. There’s something about that horizontal space that makes it no longer about these people or this social space, it’s bringing in many other beings, creatures, landforms, and going micro in on ourselves at the same time. So I think it took a long time to figure out what the geography of the second half would be. Because it had to arrive organically, but we still had to get it there before there was a premiere [laughs], so it was speeding up the geography or the biology somehow, to figure out what the structure of that second half was.
KVL: Are you talking about the hurry to get it there in terms of what the performers had to traverse to be ready to be in that state at that moment?
OB: Both—they have to get to a point where they’re in that state, but also we have to come to an agreement because most of them are in sensory deprivation for most of that second half. It’s really hard for them to make good improvisational choices around timing and space, because they’re not able to perceive everything going on in the space. Some are stuck inside other’s bodies, and somebody else’s full weight is on them, so they can’t move quickly, or they literally can’t see, they’re under a blanket, they’re in the fog [laughs], they’re under a tree, there’s something limiting their ability. A structure eventually formed itself but it was a long time coming, somehow.
Photo by Sean Smuda
I also want to back up a little bit. In the history of making site-based work, it’s hard for us not to go into the theater and use the theater as a site to really play with everything that’s in the space. But the work started with this installation piece in the gallery, this research, which was a super intimate space with one audience member. So to then go into the McGuire and say, how can we take that intimacy and that level of moved-or-be-moved by whoever else is in the room and bring it into the theater? How can we super-actively work this space to affect and be affected, as performers, and affect our audiences? To really feel and allow ourselves to be seen on every side of our body, but also to really create transformation in how people are watching. That was a question that came up and informed lots of the structural and choreographic choices.
Arwen Wilder: Do you think there was something to learn from the McGuire Theater?
OB: Well there’s something about an indulgence in it. Because it’s so lovely to work in that space, to have that kind of fly space and that kind of wing space and to have that kind of intimacy, that compressed space with the audience. I feel like that will be hard—to put the work in different spaces and see how the work changes because it was so constructed for that space, so I think we learned a lot of things from that space.
OR: What I mentioned about the first row of seats going all the way onto the stage—not all theaters have that construction and at the McGuire we were really able to use that, there are two aisles and we were able to have people move between the house and the stage, a lot. That kind of zoom-in was something that was really helpful with what Olive was talking about, with having some people being close, or knowing that there were people around you—it kind of knocked out a degree of passivity. I didn’t see the piece, so I don’t know the effect on the audience, but I imagine, and I know from people that saw it, that the first sections, a lot of the times, break expectations. We’re watching the stage, and then something is happening in the house, and now it’s just on the stage, but then someone comes into the house—it’s a lot of interruption of space and interruption of activity, and we learned the ways that we wanted to do that from the context of the McGuire. Zeena [Parkins] didn’t make the score to relate to the space but she spatialized the score specifically for the McGuire, in terms of speaker placement. The whole score implemented behind the audience, or at the proscenium arch, or on the speakers on the stage, and she also had a speaker set up in the pass-through, in the back hallway, and she had people doing live Foley up in the balconies. So she was using different sounds and different speaker placement to try to do the same thing that we were doing with proximity and affect.
OB: But I did learn what fog does in that space, when you have an audience, and where the fog goes. It leaves the theater really quickly when you have an audience. So that was another thing, on a super practical level that I learned about that particular venue [laughs].
AW: Did you learn anything from working with Zeena again?
OB: Interesting question. I feel like it was a more fully articulated development of ideas from Half-Life and also Mammal, our previous collaborations with her, so in some ways the ideas weren’t new to me, but it was a fuller manifestation of those ideas. For me, being in an audience, I’m just focusing on being in the work, and I’m not tracking which speaker the sound is coming from, but I do have this—woah…woah!—thing going on… I learned from what Zeena did in terms of the audience, that people loved that combination, or there was this live sound, and then this recorded sound that was moving in the space. They loved the physicalization of the sound. And that’s why we were working with her, because we love that too! [Laughter]
OR: I was on the stage, so I didn’t ever really get the final, full, effect of what she was doing, which is sad, but it’s just the way it is.
AW: Well I’m asking because you’re talking about working with space, and undifferentiated space, and about what she’s doing, which is sending sounds from different parts, and really shaping the space. What’s interesting is that there was this huge difference between the audience space and the dancing space in terms of how the sound was perceived.
OR: And how you can perceive when you’re doing your work, and when you’re dancing.
AW: Where your focus is.
OR: Yeah. Some sections of the show, I could really feel what was happening, and some sections it took time to hear what it is. All the sound stuff got finished near the end--Zeena is in New York and we’re in Minneapolis, so it wasn’t like she was playing along with the rehearsals.
KVL: The real compositional choice-making was in deciding to work with Zeena again. Because we [HIJACK] so often use found sound, it’s striking to me how different that is—it’s like a big saying yes, working out the deadline, and I’m sure however rich the negotiation is of little details at the end, it’s just something you said a big “Yes!” to—you’re excited to see what it’s going to be.
OR: Well, Zeena did come here twice before, and then we had sound Zeena had recorded that Olive was playing during rehearsal, and at showings.
OB: But it’s always different when she’s there playing live. It’s totally different, because she’s playing harp and then she’s conducting the Foley, and she was really calling the cues, even at the Walker, for various reasons. It’s a completely different thing than just playing her music. The spatialization of it makes sense in a different way. Some people have felt previously when they heard stuff in a showing context that it was disjunctive, like “Oh, I can tell she’s not here working with you all the time.”
OR: One person said that.
OB: But it was interesting feedback. I’ve never heard that feedback before. That’s an interesting, different perception. “What do you want music to do?” would be my question back to her, but I wasn’t in that conversation.
Photo of Anna Shogren by Gene Pitmann
OR: Also, what you’re saying brings up casting.
OB: Casting is a choreographic choice.
OR: Casting is the biggest thing.
OB: For us, in our work.
OR: For theater, performance, film—I read something once, a review of film, that said something like “Casting is 75% of the work of the film, or of what makes a film successful.” I wouldn’t put a percentage on it, but for our work it’s very important. Who doesn’t [think casting is important?] Well, I’m sure there are some people working with dancers who don’t generate their own material, some people probably don’t do that, or some people probably still do that [laughter], some people are still Martha Graham or whatever, but if you’re going to have people making the dance with you…
OB: …Better love ‘em!
OR: Better love ‘em. What you brought up with the sound—if you’re not controlling it, you want to trust the person that is.
OB: Within the sound itself, too, there are layers of history with Zeena, where we’ve done recordings with her that she used from Mammal, with the Lyon Opera Ballet, with the recordings we did out at Theodore Wirth Park, here, and at the Walker. I don’t think we used any of them in the show—
OR: —I think we used the breathing—
OB: We used the breathing, but there’s this collection of sounds from us that she’ll use somewhere, or that will come back in another piece we make together, that sort of history of collecting is interesting, too.
KVL: I’d love to jump on the idea of continuity of your past work. I really wanted to ask you about Super Nature, and how successful you thought it was, how it’s timely, how it’s a contemporary statement from you and the culture at large. I was thinking about how much in making a new piece we, Arwen and I, have been thinking about old pieces, and how much I’m getting out of that, how much I’m enjoying saying, “Oh, that thing we made eight years ago, that was the sweet spot. And then we made some transitional pieces…” We’re poorly equipped to assess what we’re making now, but making work now is a way of distancing from the past work and being able to have a really strong opinion about past work. I wonder if even the ones you’ve mentioned that you’ve done with Zeena, if you’d be interested in talking about Half Life or Symptom. Having made Super Nature, what do you know about those pieces?
OB: I can speak back to Holiday House in a way. [Laughter]. I can say that Mammal was totally the idea of taking all these great moments in our work, because we didn’t have enough time with the Lyon Opera Ballet, and I think we talked about it the last time we were doing a Critical Correspondence interview, but I’ll just say it again: we don’t have enough time to invent a whole new thing, to get to know these dancers and develop a whole new piece—in eighteen days. How can we pull what we know and what we know we can teach and what we know will work and is exciting? So we pulled a whole bunch of stuff from Holiday House—scores, not choreography—and then reframed stuff. Really, that was the seed, the new things that started happening out of that piece, that sort of birthed Super Nature, in a way. That feels like one tangent, and then it feels like Half Life was a whole other one…it feels like it speaks to this piece in the sense that both works are speaking to the environment in some way, but they’re speaking in completely different languages. That piece was really dark, and bogged down by research, and bogged down by trying to figure out how to make it manifest and how to get a visa and how to get the dancer we wanted, and it was a real struggle for it to manifest. This piece has a kind of magic and levity around it--it manifested what it needed--and with everything about it. And then Symptom is just a completely different thread. It’s two people--a visual artist and a dancer onstage together--really addressing this conversation between the gallery and the stage, and the visual art and dance worlds, so that feels worlds apart. But I guess each piece that you make you’re kind of like, “Oh! I want this piece to be really physical!” Everything bounces off—
KVL: —it’s like the antidote—
OB: —right, it’s the antidote, somehow, from the last experience. Symptom is the piece we made before Super Nature, so we knew this piece would be super physical.
Photo by Sean Smuda
OR: The experience of doing Mammal and going through our previous work and taking out scores that we knew worked in other pieces and that we could effectively direct—
OB: —with people who don’t improvise a lot—
OR: —or who don’t know about our work, was very interesting and validating. Just to try to start with something not new. You’re making something new out of things, but it’s not like you feel like you’re making something old because you’re using things you’ve used before. Something else is happening, because of the different casting, or just the way you’re organizing stuff, or the extra space.
KVL: The extra space for shaping the final product, because not as much energy is invested in inventing the process.
OR: There’s such a high value in contemporary dance—or whatever you want to call this field we’re in—or such pressure to create something new, to do something different.
OB: To reinvent your whole process.
OR: But no one’s trying to say that to Robert Wilson!
OB: Or Mark Morris!
OR: Mark Morris?
OB: Or even Bill T. Jones! [Laughter] Just to name a few…[more laughter]
OR: Why is that of such high value? Why not redo what you’ve done before and see what other things come out of it? For instance, I was trying to direct this thing we’d been doing, which was a one-on-one score, responding to the changing space between two people, and they really weren’t getting it, so we just did it as a group of people instead. And that new thing was the basis for a lot of this piece, or at least the first half. For some reason, out of that, the second section is just really different, so different that it took me a really long time to accept that it even was something. It wasn’t until we got into the theater and I finally got to sit and watch and take myself out that I could realize—a week before it opened—oh yeah, this second section is really interesting. [Laughter].
AW: I’m interested in the translation from score into movement, the manifestation of that, and then the translation here from movement into language, and then maybe audio into typed-out words, and I’m just wondering if either of you would be able to describe the movement in terms of movement. Like, pick one section and talk about the dance. And not from a score, but what did it look like? How were they moving?
OB: A traveling, evolving individual of multiple species.
AW: Keep going! [Laughter].
OR: You stole the one I was going to say [Laughter].
OR: There’s a solo in the show that looks like a crash between someone who is enacting dance vocabulary that is recognizable, but they’re doing it in a social manner, and at the same time their breathing pattern is disjunctive of what they’re doing, and then matching what they’re doing, the breath matching the movement and the movement changing the breath coming out.
OB: There’s a solo into a trio of shooting planets or stars that are imploding or exploding.
Photo of Otto Ramstad and Anna Shogren by Sean Smuda
KVL: Although I’m sure it’s hard to detach from the savvy of the intention...
OR: That was not the intention, at all.
AW: But it also makes sense that you’re in a different position, being in the piece, seeing the breath score. Of course! You’re still doing this piece.
OB: Piles of bodies like complex jigsaws.
OR: Or just piles of bodies where it’s hard to discern whose body parts are whose.
KVL: I love the body puzzles. And I realized in our last rehearsal that we essentially re-choreographed your show. [Laughter] So, look forward to seeing your material on the McGuire stage in a year! [Laughter]
AW: I hadn’t recognized that till now. I’ll put “move 562 and 563 courtesy of BodyCartography” in the program.
OR: Didn’t that happen in Fetish?
KVL: That we stole from you? Oh yeah, that was a quote! Arwen and I had to make some moves, each of us, and the score was “telling each other what we did last weekend.”
AW: I had cleaned the house, and Kristin had rehearsed with you! [Laughter]
KVL: When you referred to the space-in-between score, it just makes me laugh, in the way that it’s like the albatross, it’s like “the Score” that’s always going to be in every piece and is maybe the choreography that you’re making, always, and of course it could be a great model or metaphor for what your collaboration is, how you’re combining two people’s voices. And if we had another half hour—or another three hours—Arwen and I would grill you on your collaboration!
I could describe us, a little bit—we’ve gone through phases of emphasizing for others or for ourselves that it’s a single, united voice, an authorship obscuring that it’s made of two people, and maybe now we’re in a phase where it’s more sensitized to how it’s crashing two individual authorships in the process and onstage and not necessarily unified. What are you all doing?
OR: We’re making the same thing, but we’re both approaching it in our own ways—we each have different roles within the chronology of time, or different parts within the process where one of us is adding more. In this piece, it’s pretty different because Olive was watching, and directing, and I was in it, so that made a big difference. Just to speak grossly, I was mostly generating scores that would either stay as improvisational or become fixed, and Olive’s doing all of this more structuring, organizing—
OB: —figuring out what the whole thing is. Otto’s bringing in all those initial seed parts, and manifesting them from the inside, and then I’m directing from the outside, and figuring out how all those parts speak to other parts of the piece.
OR: I also work with details, cleaning details, like “don’t look to the right, look to the left”—that kind of directing.
KVL: Do you think you’ll use a setup like this again? Or do you think you’ll seek an antidote, like Olive inside, Otto outside?
OB: No. I think it’s what we do. I think it’s what we’ve been doing for awhile now, we’re just getting clearer about articulating that.
Arwen Wilder, BodyCartography, HIJACK, Hijack!, Kristin Van Loon, Olive Bieringa, Otto Ramstad, PDF, Zeena Parkins