This conversation comes from Portland-based dancer, Hannah Krafcik and choreographer, Tahni Holt. They discuss Tahni’s process and her newest work entitled “Sensation/Disorientation” which was presented by White Bird at Reed College this month.
-Tess Dworman, co-editor
This past fall, Portland-based dance artist Tahni Holt sat down with me to discuss Sensation/Disorientation, an evening-length work commissioned and shown by Pacific Northwest dance presenter, White Bird. This dance was the latest addition to Tahni’s body of work, which spans 18 years. She self-identifies as an artist, dancer, teacher, and organizer, deeply invested in the ecology of her field. Recently, Tahni opened FLOCK, an experimental dance center that nurtures the growth and process of Portland-based artists. I first met her in this capacity, and now we co-facilitate a weekly Authentic Movement Practice together in FLOCK’s space.
I initially interviewed Tahni because I was asked to write a preview of Sensation/Disorientation for a Portland-based arts publication. But, by way of our discussion, Tahni and I found we had plenty of ground to cover relating to her process that just wouldn’t fit into a preview. Tahni is a kindred spirit, and I enjoy the way she toys with the subjectivity of perception and embodied expression. For a little of what is underneath her latest work, we offer this conversation.
- Hannah Krafcik
Hannah Krafcik: While I was in your rehearsal, I wrote this note: “for me, Sensation/Disorientation offers a more nuanced frame for witnessing women and thinking about women, and women’s bodies.” Having this limited exposure to your process during rehearsal, I am curious about the way you worked with these female-identifying dancers collaboratively.
Tahni Holt: As in the performer as collaborator?
TH: Not as in how the performers collaborate with each other?
HK: Maybe drifting into that, but definitely performer as collaborator.
TH: [The dancers] definitely have similar backgrounds, and different backgrounds. They each have unique bodies, and I’m asking them to bring into the room their individual translation of what the material ends up being. That's super strategic; thats very necessary for this work. And then it’s a bit of a feedback loop, I guess, maybe. I'm not sure if that's exactly what I mean, but there is, perhaps, a prompt that gets us into an experience. Then I watch that experience unfold. How I see each of them, and how I'm experiencing each of them, working through and strategizing around that experience, informs the ultimate choreography. Its them actually being in research, and me experiencing them in research, that makes me ask the next prompt or ask the next question, or shape it in a particular way. In that way we are deeply in collaboration. Without them, it does not exist, period.
And that’s an overall way in which we worked, and how I work right now in general.
HK: I think this is also a good moment to talk about the larger conceptual framework of the work. I read the description about 20 times. And I know what it’s “about,” but the description also eludes me, perhaps intentionally. I wonder if you feel willing to offer any insight.
TH: The piece itself is very open, and one of the major functions of the work is that it isn’t pointing or trying to manipulate the audience into projecting any one particular thing onto these bodies. With that said another function of the work is fascinated with all of the individual and stereotypical assumptions and projections that are made onto these bodies about race, about age, about body type, it goes on and on. And hopefully it holds up in a way that makes you [audience] reflect on why those projections are made. One of the ways in which it tries to do this is by constantly shifting how one might see these bodies and questioning how we individually and stereotypically think about female bodies, how we think about race, and how we think about age.
HK: The feedback loop and the relational-going-into-the-individual is important. I’ve been talking with my friend who is doing a PhD in Performance Studies [Zena Bibler] about containers for things. Maybe your work is a particular container. For example: Why does it have to be the way it is? Why is the score a container? Why is it it so loose, but also with such specific guidelines? Well...maybe it’s a means of thinking more relationality. There’s always this individualism and exceptionalism that keeps us from really feeling the feedback loop. You know what I mean?
TH: Yeah, I know what you mean. To that point, I would say that there is something about this happening now...It’s not just happening because I want to produce this piece now, it’s because this process of coming here with these women is what I need. And, as it turns out, it’s what they need too. There is this generous experience that we get to have together that’s really about caring for each other, and that is PART OF THE WORK. The process is very much a part of the work, regardless of whether it gets into the product. That’s not really relevant.
HK: You said a lot about not caring if it [the dance] looked clean…
TH: Yes, there’s nothing that has to be polished about this work. It’s very fascinating, like any process. These women are very different in how they think about the work. The things they need are very different. So, it’s also been very fascinating within this relationality to also see individual. They’re not devoid of one or the other. One is never devoid of the other. It’s the frame that you set up. But this particular piece sometimes highlights the individual and sometimes it highlights the communal. And that’s also a part of the work, individual versus communal. What does that mean? I don’t have an answer to that…
HK: Yes, or individual in relation to communal.
HK: It’s interesting. I’m really looking forward to seeing the full work, because just in my brief experience of part of it, I felt myself projecting onto the bodies. This is another question, something I don’t think you can answer. For me, when I think about the dancers you’re working with, I think about representation. I think about how the work pulls apart representations of women to a certain degree and I think about how certain types of bodies emerge based on what I happen to be seeing. I wonder, for example, in Aiden’s case, what does it feel like to be in a process like this her age [she is in her teens]. Or what about the oldest dancer - how does she feel? Is she supposed to represent a type of body? I was looking at all of them and thinking about the ways that they become these representations, or that it’s so easy to allow them to become these representations of different female identifying bodies.
TH: Or how we choose to define that.
HK: Yes. Ok, so I’m getting like a little nerdy now, and I should probably ask more basic things.
TH: Yes, no answer to that.
HK: I mean you can’t speak for them. You can’t say what they feel.
TH: No, but there’s a couple of strategies around it. I will say that, for the most part, I haven’t tried to shape their translations. So whatever kind of prejudices, anything that they’re holding in their own body, can come out, or it can’t come out. I’m not trying to define who they are and how they express themselves in this work (which could have been a particular strategy). And, at the same time, I think that if there’s stereotypes that come out too much I definitely do try to edge into a different direction so it doesn’t have to play the same story.
HK: Mhm, so you’re not building a frame around that.
HK: So there are just a few more questions. I don’t know you’re work. I’ve watched one solo online...I died.
TH: Oh was it Untitled?
HK: Yes and I think that’s a good lead into this question. I look at this piece [Sensation/Disorientation]...I take things with a lot of weight these days, but I also wonder, just having the brief exposure to that solo [Untitled], how serious it is? I think that’s the question you’re asking: You can laugh. You can not laugh. But in coming to the work, maybe the better question is: is the approach all serious?
TH: I don’t even want to say it out loud because I don’t want you to write it [laughs]. Ok, one thing I do know is that, in all of my work, the only way I do approach humor is from not trying to be humorous. I allow there to be laughter and things that bubble up in the work because I’m not actually trying to frame it in one emotion or another. I accept that it could be possibly funny, but I’m not trying to point it in that direction. There is a levity that comes across in my work, partially because, also there’s a heaviness that comes across in my work. Anytime I try to pointedly be funny, or if I see something trying to pointedly be funny, it just falls flat, so I let go of that a long time ago. For example, that solo, I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was being very earnest with the conditions I set for myself. I set these conditions knowing that it was funny, but I wasn’t trying to be funny.
And then for this piece in terms of seriousness, I definitely have found that there is a heaviness to what we’re doing in here and an emotionality that comes up and comes out. I’m not trying to stagger that. I’m not trying to limit that. At the same time, I can get super heavy and dark, and I realize that there needs to be a bit of a valve sometimes. Then, other times, I think it’s really heavy and dark, and my dramaturge, Kate Bredeson, will be laughing hysterically. That’s always a good reminder for me. Anytime I try to superimpose a quality of emotionality, it can flip just as easily, and there’s no need for that. The conditions of the work set up the emotional landscape, and this particular piece is emotional. Emotionality is at play. That’s not always true for all of my work.
HK: I like that - the way that you phrased it: “This piece is emotional. Emotionality is at play.” You can can take either side of that.
TH: Yes, I think it strikes at people’s emotions - not everybody though (that would be silly for me to think). I’d have to be super pointed for it to really drive home for everyone. And I don’t do that in my work. I’m not interested in being super pointed.
HK: Well you aren’t dealing specifically with a charged topic, like sexism or sexual assault or war. It’s like, how do all those things come up within the work for people.
TH: Yes, exactly.
HK: And then just in the context of your body of work...where does this sit? You’ve been making work since the 90s!
TH: I mean, there’s a couple ways that I would answer that. I have this strong desire to be in the studio with other people, moreso now than ever. As a parent, it can be incredibly isolating. And so it is necessary for me to create work with other people. I’ve made very few solos, and the solos spring up because they allow me to perform. I’m not always performing in my work anymore, and that’s also necessary, it turns out. There’s a solo happening simultaneous to this big project.
HK: It’s so interesting, this idea of wanting to perform.
TH: Yes, and it’s not “wanting to perform.” It’s being in relation to people.
HK: It’s the container! I want to perform too, and it’s not because I want to get paid to perform or be in a dance. Its because I want to be in process and relation to people.
TH: Exactly. For four years, there was really not a desire to perform. And I know that, for this piece, it’s best that I’m outside of it. So there’s that...
And then, in terms of the conceptual energy behind it or the process, when I think about it, kind of meta, I’m always following my deep curiosities about things, AND THEY CHANGE. And they go deeper into places. When I think of it that way, this is absolutely the next dance I’m supposed to be making. It is bringing in some qualities of Duet/Love...the piece that was before this one. This [Sensation/Disorientation] is just a continuation with the subject of the female body that I’m super interested in. If you track the work, it really has to do with following my own curiosity and, in that way, it doesn’t always look the same. If I go back 10 years, my work does not look the same, but there are certain elements that are very similar.
HK: I think that’s important, and I think it’s amazing you’re able to do that. I’ve encountered artists who are tapped out, who aren’t following their own curiosities anymore, because they are just used to generating material that’s pleasing to people. That’s a hard trap to fall into.
TH: I think I figured out early on that this field, in and of itself, is pretty impossible to make a living off of. I can’t actually tie anything into money. So, therefore, I might as well be fucking making shit that I’m super invested in. Because I don’t know if it will actually ever get seen outside of Portland. I don’t know all of these things. I think people get trapped, especially if they’ve had that kind of success before. They know the momentum that is needed of them to have that success. I think that’s super trapping. That can be very challenging.
HK: So, my last question is not a nerdy question: why you did you decide to stay here?
TH: In Portland?
HK: Yes. I think I have a sense of it, even though I can’t name it.
TH: For a long time I had one foot here, and one foot in other places. That was really helpful. In the beginning, when I was 23 and came home from New York, I needed horizon, period. I needed to have more space that I couldn't have in New York, and I mean that psychologically too.
HK: I know about that.
TH: Yes. And there was something about Portland that was generous enough, that really truly allows me to fail. I think that's incredibly necessary for artists. If you can find a place that allows you to fail, then you're going to get to succeed sometimes. So that was really important for me earlier on.
And there is something about what I do that’s really attached to place. I want to believe, and I do believe, that my work is in larger conversation. I also believe that I make this work because I’m here. And the mountains, and the ocean, and the desert are all very important to me, in my own experience of myself.
HK: Well when we talk about your work, your curiosities deepen. And as we talk about the trajectory, it has a lot to do with relation. And I think there are investments that aren’t financial. And there are investments in community. Investments in landscape. Investments in local politics. Investments in family, that you make.
TH: Yeah, totally.
Sensation/Disorientation was presented as part of White Bird’s Uncaged 2016-17 Series, January 18-22, 2017, at Reed College’s Diver Studio Theatre in Portland, Oregon.
Photo Credit: Kamala Kingsley