Choreographers and dancers Juli Brandano and Kirsten Michelle Schnittker sat down earlier this month after their show Soft Edge, a collaborative performance project held at Junior High in Los Angeles that assembled a bi-coastal community of movers and makers. Juli and Kirsten are both perceptive and adventurous improvisers whose work interrogates the forms and practices of collaborative making, and while they’ve often overlapped over the years, this was the first time they got the chance to reflect together on their confluent histories. Their conversation is meandering and moves thoughtfully through questions about entrances, images, proximity, and the “dance out by the side of the road.”
Juli and Kirsten's conversation was edited for the purpose of publication.
- Tess Michaelson, Interim Co-Editor
Kirsten Michelle Schnittker: We’ve known each other for a long time, in little pieces, tangentially, through emails, or moments where maybe the timing was off. And then we've had this last six months of timing together, being in different cities but working on creating a show together in Los Angeles.
Juli Brandano: You were sort of the catalyst for this show happening, primarily because you relocated and brought together people that had lived in New York and had some relationship to LA. You were in touch with both communities.
KMS: Yeah, maybe I was. I struggle with being the sole person. I am most interested when a show is co-imagined or co-created. And it was Amelia [Heintzelman] who emailed me out of the blue, planning a trip out here -- I love when artists just ask each other for help. She was just like, what's it like out there? What's the dance like? What should I do? What should I see? I wish there was more of that. I love that that happened. And, I had all the time in the world to respond. I think that's ideal. I always want to be that person. And I've been on the other side of that, reaching out and saying, What should I do? What should I see?
So I'm curious about you reflecting on LA and having a show here. Do you feel like you came away from it with something maybe about yourself, or about the experience of performing in a different city?
JB: I think on a personal level, I've been feeling really attached to New York as this place that I need to be all the time in order to be an artist. In coming to LA, meeting a bunch of people, and seeing friends, it became more obvious that there is a way to be in community without being proximate. The pandemic turned my idea of community upside-down. I was starved for closeness, and then coming back to New York after the beginning of the lockdown, I was kind of high on the proximity, being able to see friends and dance together outdoors. In a way, this experience of coming to LA was helpful in recontextualizing that need for proximity in order to feel the support of a community. It allowed me to consider other ways of having a relationship with collaborators, though I don’t feel like I completely understand it yet. It makes me wonder about your relocating, and if you feel like you’ve found a new relationship to the life you had here in NYC?
KMS: I'm experiencing what it feels like to move to a new city when you know who you are, but you don't really know anyone, right? I'm working on it. And it's not that I don't know anyone. I came here with some idea that I had a community but since being here, that idea just keeps turning over and over.
But, there’s this opportunity of no one knows me. It allows me to be more fully myself in a way than maybe I allowed myself to be in New York. Seeing shows and talking to all these new people is very exciting and feels different here. Then, time goes on, and there are different variants of the virus, and people go inside and people go outside. It's been almost two years since I moved here, and I'm still wondering, where I'm going to find the community in which I feel held and can kind of swirl around in? There's a sense of less cohesion, and that I have to search for things and make things happen on my own. I’m still learning and I keep hearing that it takes 5 years to feel at home here.
JB: If anything, I would imagine that would benefit my work and my dedication to my practice. If I was solely responsible for making those relationships and making things happen, if there was no institutional blah, blah, blah, or anywhere to go, it makes you have to recommit yourself.
KMS: Yeah, I think you're right, and I think I'm getting a lot from that. The idea that anyone can do anything whenever they want to.
JB: I think in New York that happened during the pandemic, too. I felt this new DIY energy around classes and performances, what with outdoor shows and my friends starting “Improv Club” classes in Prospect Park. And now with assisting friends in opening a new space [Pageant], there's this heightened sense of purpose and support. I feel like there's something about the independence from institutions that allows less-established choreographers to make wild stuff, not stall out, not wait around. Of course, in the pandemic we could do this, in large part, because everyone was on Unemployment, and everyone could rehearse in the park, and now that's not a thing. Everyone's back to working all the time, so it's harder to organize. But I definitely think it was a beneficial time for artists.
KMS: The pandemic has changed so many things. I think it renewed some things. I mean, there was a lot of dance outside of the institutions even before the pandemic, but I think a lot more dance happened through the shutdown, through that experience.
[image description: three dancers are positioned in the far left, center, and far right of an empty white-walled studio respectively. On the left, dancer Sharleen Chidiac pushes into the wall. At center, dancer Jade Manns lies on her back with legs bent, palms on the floor beside her. In the right back corner of the room, dancer Julia Antinozzi, dressed in red, stands with her back to the audience. Video still by Juli Brandano.]
I wonder if we could do a small left turn in the conversation to the entrance that you had at Junior High. It unlocked something in me. It felt like, oh, something's happening. Something is speaking to me. And I’ve been thinking about the word entrance and to entrance, or captivate. I've done a lot of solos where the entrance of either the audience to me or me to them is really important. Your entrance entranced me perfectly. And I wanted to know if you could speak about it. What that was, how you embodied it, or where did it come from?
JB: It was sort of a last minute addition to the work. We had been struggling with a beginning in which we would start far apart and sort of move toward each other with a box step or something similar. We were working with different social dance vocabularies. Then the problem of “how do I enter?” came up and I think the answer arose from working with Tommy [Martinez’s] music along with developing this character of someone slowly floating across the surface of a lake, that was the image we talked about, almost like the wooden mermaid on the mast of a ship.
KMS: From the rest of what you did, I don't think character came into it, except for that moment. My piece had a similar beginning we floated in. I thought of it as a trick. We're gonna give the audience this ethereal, theatrical entrance. We were like a creature, or three ballerinas or…
JB: I feel like it was nice we echoed that. For me, there was something about entering from behind the audience that gave the work a three-dimensionality. And then Josie [Bettman] had done a casual entrance that changed the theatrical, red-curtain space as well, as she was already in the space when the audience arrived, DJ-ing.
KMS: I'm curious if I can take this further. The idea of authenticity has a long history in dance. I think people circle it a lot; people we know and people in the past.
In this piece that I just created, I call it “Veranika,” which is my grandmother's name, but the name is also from Latin – I come from very Catholic families – so the Latin of the name is “true image.” And I am intrigued by that idea, by the impossibility of it, and I think there's a connection to the idea of authenticity that I'm searching for in my work. The piece that you saw at Danspace was called “New Performer,” and I was in the late stage of trying to strip away all my ballet training. It was the fourth or fifth dance that I was making where I was like, now the score is that we don't do anything! And of course, tons of stuff happens when you tell people not to do anything. And I feel like right now in my process, I'm fully pushing back. I'm pushing the gas. I'm like, do everything, do the thing. Do it. Do more of it. And I sense this meter that's flipping back and forth of what's the image? You know, what is the truth? What is the true image? The true image -- I see a dancer as the signal in the noise of that.
[image description: from left to right, Kamilah Udomsap, kirsten michelle, and Roxy Gordon perform in successive, suspended shapes of standing, crouching, kneeling on a strip of green grass near an asphalt basketball court. a dim, warm, evening glow surrounds them. in the distance an orange bench, a child walks, people sit and eat at a picnic table, and a parking lot. Video still by Fons Schiedon.]
JB: That makes me think of this score that was at the end of your piece, the flocking. Without knowing the language behind it, there was a clear “follow but don't follow” kind of instruction as you turned to see one another. As a viewer, I was seeing the dancers interpret form in real time, and then the failure of that interpretation, revealing the impossibility of the true image you’re talking about. What is the original? That definitely came through and was an improvisatory question I considered while watching your work.
The authenticity of improvisation is always interesting to me, the first round of executing a score always seems the best. I never want to set anything because of that loss. What is the line for you between improvisation and your visualized choreography -- when do you interfere and when do you not?
KMS: Yeah, I mean, I am an improviser. At this point, I almost cannot even do [set] choreography. But that's the process I’m going through, to question that. The entire first part of the dance was an improvisation that I filmed, and then I decided that we would all learn it. And that process was painful, and also really rewarding because exactly what I wanted to happen kind of happened. Kamilah [Udomsap] and Roxy [Gordon] expressed their questions and struggles with embodying my movement and with me asking them to “perform it the way you want to do it, but also do it this specific way.” Through their questions, and through their eyes, they allowed me to see what I was doing. So in the struggle, I defined so much more about it, clarifying where movements came from and why they are in my body. That was the breakthrough moment in the process that allowed them to really hold on to something because it was no longer uncontained for them. I think they could fill it in themselves instead of feeling like they had to copy.
JB: I love the idea of them filling it in themselves. I’ve been aspiring to make material on other dancers’ bodies instead of on my own for similar reasons. Really at the heart of that research is related to what you’re saying: when do you try to codify something into an image and when do you prioritize the interest in translation, from my body to your body? I definitely was thinking about that while I was watching your piece and thinking about how different you all were as movers, but that there were still echoes of some “original” aesthetic form that was translated, replicated.
KMS: Yeah, thinking about you and Amelia who are almost twin-like in the work, and also in your bodies, and presences, and movements, but still different. I think when I watched the two of you, I'm searching for those differences, for that individuality. Were you thinking about that in the piece? My experience of it was very textural. I was looking at almost an object or a sculpture that was evolving. And I was looking for you. And I was looking for both of you in it, which is just something that I like to do, to find the performer. I like to locate a performer and feel something for them. But I feel like you were pushing me back.
JB: Yeah, I think I am. I think my work is really different from Amelia’s work, and I've been in her work and she has been in my work. In this process, we were trying to experiment with letting go of authorship, and make something spontaneously together in the studio. Both of us would come in being like, what do we want to do next?
I made a piece in October that was really playing off our twin-like nature. People had told us for a long time that we were indistinguishable when we were moving, but when we weren't, they could clearly tell us apart. There was something about that that I was interested in. And I made a duet called “13 False Starts” in which there were several entrances in a row where the performer’s back was to the audience, and I was hoping that there would be this confusion: is it Amelia or Juli? That information was all there in the studio this time around, even though we had a different intention. I think it was an interesting process for me to try and let go of some of the desire to control aesthetic or quality and see what emerges in an improvisatory collaborative space. But yes, the twin thing was big!
KMS: You were improvising. It was a scored improvisation, so you were really instinctually moving together.
JB: It was mostly improvised. It was a collection of really tight scores. It was a lot of distilling certain things from improvisations that felt funny or interesting to us and then saying, let's make sure this comes back, but not knowing if it would.
KMS: Yeah, my original question or thought was: I was looking for you in the work and I felt that you were not letting me see you. In listening to you talk about the process, I feel like that becomes clearer because it sounds like you were more interested in the communion than in the individual.
JB: I think it's interesting that you look for the individual because I do think that -- maybe it's over the last year or so -- but I feel a turn toward that desire in my own work too. I do think that my obsession with form has erased or obscured the possibility of character and performativity. But I feel my choreography shifting toward a more dramatic or character-based approach. Maybe that's what that entrance was. There's a clash between those two desires right now for me. The distinction between individual performers through the face was a clear part of your piece. Your face, in particular, was very activated and open, and that there's a really clear sense of “I am performing” -- I am open and alive and here is me. I don't know if this is what you intend or not, but I felt that there was an openness to being seen, whereas I think in my work I'm like, please don't look at me, just look at the form, the relationships. Don't ask me who I am, it’s not important.
KMS: I think you're right. I am aware of that, for better or for worse.
JB: It sounds like to you, though, in trying to erase myself in my work, I'm making myself more seen.
KMS: I think that deep down asking to be seen is asking to be loved, right? And that's what I always want from my audiences. I'm like, yeah, I'm gonna make you love me. But I was recently reminded by another artist’s performance that people “destroy'' what they see, just as much or maybe more than they love it. That idea renewed my imperative to push back at audiences, like pushing the gas, instead of my previous dances, which were much more about stripping down layers of vulnerability. Now, I'm just like, no, I'm giving this to you. And we're gonna work this out together, we're gonna figure it out.
JB: And when you say “pushing the gas,” are you talking about a virtuosity? Like you are dancing bigger or more in some way?
KMS: That's how it's coming out right now, yeah. I think it is an intention more than it is a “big movement” thing. But right now it does feel good to move big. And I've been dancing outside a lot, which is the biggest movement, right? I felt like I was really big outside, and then when I brought it into a studio, suddenly I thought, oh, no, it's not going to work at all. I actually cut a lot of things that I ended up bringing back. There's a moment at the beginning where we just stand and stare at the audience and kind of scan, and I thought, oh, we can't do that. You can't stand in a small space and just stare, but it feels better outside because you're beholding, right? It was so theatrical once we brought it inside, but then somehow, I felt it needed to be there, and I brought it back subtler, smaller.
I'm really into what you and Amelia are doing. And what you're doing with that entrance, it pulled me right into it, and maybe that's why I was searching for you because I had seen you, and I was searching for you.
JB: I think that I want to make a piece addressing that sensibility more directly, and see the performers’ intentionality and character -- no matter what that is -- more clearly, without there being this disengagement from audience or space. I'm going to try to make a dance in a single month -- this month -- on six dancers, and I want to see the individual performer a bit more. And so it's helpful to hear that there was a distinction between the entrance and the rest of the piece. It helps set something up for me. I'm definitely curious about performers being both available and elusive, making the audience work harder and then less hard, you know?
[image description: four dancers, from left Sharleen Chidiac, Julia Antinozzi, Amelia Heintzelman, and Jade Manns, stand in a rectangular formation in an empty white-walled studio. White curtains are drawn closed behind them while the silhouettes of audience members intersect the foreground. Video still by Juli Brandano.]
KMS: Yeah, I'm curious about it, too. I have a lot of questions that need to play out on a stage.
Another question: Does anything matter? Or, what matters? Something I confront is a tendency to let go of everything, metaphysically speaking. I'm always trying to contain a meaning to my emotions and thoughts so that I can keep going....
JB: I think that it's very easy to go there, too. For me, when I'm not plugged into my dancing body -- that sounds corny -- but when I'm not in a regular practice, I get a little lost. Shaping something with my friends -- that really matters to me. It's kind of all that matters to me. When I'm just, like, day-jobbing and feeling separate from that sense of responsibility to community or to the work, then I feel what you’re describing.
KMS: I feel very similar to what you said -- when I'm engaged in a practice, when I'm connected to the question through my body, I don't feel like it doesn't matter. It matters the most. I think it's more the expression of it outward, like, where does it go? The venue for the containment is a problem. Where does that happen? I wonder how to do it effectively.
JB: Maybe I misinterpreted your question to be a question of like, does the work that we put into something matter? Whereas maybe what you're asking is, does dance matter, in a larger sense? And to be honest, right now I can't even bother myself with that question. What we do is so small. I mean, I don't think that art can or should say it can change the world. I don't think that what we're doing is breaking ground or solving problems, but on a smaller level, it's totally saving my life. And it's really nice to know that other people also like this thing, and choose it intentionally every day. And you literally do have to choose it every day because it never is going to pay your bills.
KMS: I think when I ask what matters, I’m including everything and nothing at the same time. I've been watching Prehistoric Planet -- it's David Attenborough, but it's dinosaurs. Animals are born, they move towards food or warmth or safety. They practice being an animal, and then they go do life, and then they die. Sometimes, like, really immediately. So I think it's useful to remember that we're just doing the thing that we practice doing. Now we're doing it, and then we'll stop doing it.
JB: Yeah, I agree. I work in visual art and some of my closest friends are sculptors and painters and their relationship to their work is just so different from a dancer’s. It seems they contend with a more pervasive sense of competition because there are artists, many artists, who can pay their bills making paintings. There is no dance market in the same way -- we're just doing it, like you're saying, the practice of doing it and doing it and then not doing it. I think it makes the small number of people who choose it that much more insane and invested, and so sometimes I think, thank god you can’t pay the bills with dance.
KMS: Ralph Lemon put together this book called On Value, and in it --
JB: I was just with someone two hours ago who was telling me about this book. Coincidence! Sorry, keep going.
KMS: It's a compilation of essays, poems, and conversations, and in one there’s a quotation in which Lemon describes a performance that happened near a road, at this time and place, but no one was there. It was just him. And I finally really understood this during the pandemic – when you're performing because there needs to be a performance and there's no rehearsal, no preparation for it other than you are just living, and then suddenly you are performing. What you said about how dance is different than other more tangibly commercial art forms -- there's a softness to dance. There's a give. We can all have it at any time. Finding that dance out by the side of the road, I think, is a very spiritual thing for a performer or choreographer to realize. That maybe it's just for you. So maybe in some way that helps me answer my own question.
JB: The side of the road dance for yourself feels so important in this moment. I think it matters.
KMS: Yeah, I think it matters. I think it does matter -- definitely.
[cover image description: kirsten michelle dancing (taking a floaty big step, arms swinging front and back) on a sloping sidewalk overlooking the sun setting over the LA skyline. There is a black metal wire fence behind them. The sky is orange to light yellow to pale blue. The earth and buildings and palm trees are dark grey. kirsten michelle wears a white sweater and white wide leg pants, brown clogs and a black mask. In the foreground, very bottom right corner, is a sliver of the tail of a silver vehicle driving by.]