Levi Gonzalez in conversation with Heather Olson


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Thumbnail photo: Tasha Roth

Heather Olson: Okay, Levi…

Levi Gonzalez: Yes.

Heather: You just had a show, Clusterfuck. What ideas are you working on in it?

Levi: It sort of had a long meandering process in terms of where it started from conceptually and where it ended up. I started with this idea of looking at underground political movements or artistic movements. This was fueled by the political reality or, not just the political reality, but the day-to-day reality of being an artist in NY now versus maybe some fantasies or myths I have about NY in the past. It just seems like it’s harder and harder to find or maintain a sense of community here. I do feel like I have a sense of community, but it’s harder to create something outside of the mainstream culture and feel like you can do something outside of the system now in New York City. I was wondering if there was an underground left in New York? Can art still be underground? Everything is marketed these days, there’s so much media, so much management and so much professionalization of the art world. It seems like now would be a good time to have something resisting the dominant voice because I, like most artists, have been really unhappy with the way the world has been going, and the way the US has been going in particular.

Heather: When you say the dominant voice, you mean in general? Not just in the dance scene?

Levi: Yeah, like in a larger sense: government, the direction of government, corporations and the influence of money, class disparity. You know, little things like that.

Heather: The usual stuff! (laughter)

Levi: The usual! I always think my ideas for a piece come from some deep seated frustration about the world and that I have to learn how to translate that into the language of dance or performance, however you want to look at it. So, it started out like that. I was interested in, like, what are the driving ideas behind an underground movement and can they still exist? But I never really thought how that would materialize into a piece when I first had the idea. And the more I thought about it the more I was like: uh, I’m not sure if this is going to work. Maybe the content doesn’t carry over so clearly, maybe it’s just a place to start. For me, an essential part of “underground” is that it operates outside of the boundaries of rules or established order so there is a sense of “anything is possible”. I think the best underground or resistance movements have that feeling. You know, it’s just like the war protest when we started going to war in Iraq—“a whole new world is possible”. It’s this sense of people functioning together without clearly delineated roles. So, in a way it was like that idea of mess and chaos and um, lack of order… how to operate inside a set of structures that maybe aren’t so clean; that maybe aren’t so didactic in telling you what to look at in terms of the structure of a performance. That’s a huge leap from something very concrete to something abstract and self-referential in terms of performance, but that’s sort of the process I went through.

Heather: From the way you’re talking, it seems like there was a shift away from the original ideas, what did it start to shift into?

Levi: A lot of it was brought on by conversations with my dancers of course, but I started to realize, “oh, maybe political content doesn’t work so well in performance!” I just had a moment of like, maybe what this is about is taking those ideas of decentralization or resistance or, I don’t know, non-traditional kinds of structures and transferring that over to the idea of: what does it mean to make a dance and what does it mean to perform a dance for a group of people sitting in a room with you? So it became much more about this self-reflexive thing of the mechanics and nature of performance. How can we have an authentic experience inside of that format? How can we work with the established poetics of what dance and theatre are and just try to tweak them in a way so you see them differently… bring out the edges of the space in a very simple way or, gently expand the boundary of the stage space into the audience or… just these little devices. Often with dance you start to understand what you’re looking at and then you can frame it, consciously or unconsciously. I do it too, you’re watching a piece and then you’re like, “I understand that, I’m getting what parameters they’re working with and now I’m looking at it in that frame.” One of the things I wanted to do was to constantly try to mess with that frame for the viewer so that if they thought they understood what they were looking at, then we could then do something to shift it away from their expectations. Which ended up being really hard, much harder than I thought.

Heather: Along those lines, I wanted you to talk about the structure of the piece. I feel like structurally you made really, really bold choices in the dance and I was really interested in the way you used phrasing. I feel like it relates to what you’re saying about expanding the space. Especially in the dance sections, the phrasing felt really unique. It seemed like there was a lot of short phrases but they all kind of interconnected like legos or something. Were you conscious of that?

Levi: We had a lot of material. A lot of it was very disparate and it was kind of scary how last minute this piece came together considering the fact that I was working on it for basically a year. I wasn’t sure that I believed that there was a piece in there right down until almost the end of the process. A lot of the movement material existed but didn’t have an identity inside the context of the piece until later. One of the things that I think happened for me with this process was that I tried to listen to the material rather than control it. I tried to let it lead me somewhere. There’s always some overarching idea that I’m pretty conscious of, like the part of the piece where we first kind of start stretching the space out and dancing after we’ve been still for a long time and there’s train tracks and Kayvon [Pourazar] moves over to the corner way downstage. That material… a lot of the feedback I got was, “You’re not giving us enough time to experience it. It’s projected and then its over.” So, I tried to take all the different elements and stretch them and let them have their own identity inside of the “master phrase”. And then it started to instruct me in terms of how to design it. The same with what I call the stumbling phrase, which is the unison trio at the end. It started to take on a timbre or a quality once I understood its place in the piece. That part was kind of fun. Once I was able to let go of my panic about whether I was going to finish the piece, to construct or design this movement material was kind of satisfying cause it seems like most of the moments provide their own universe and feeling in a way.

Heather: From my perspective watching the finished piece, there was more of what you would call “dance” vocabulary than in other showings.

Levi: Oh yeah.

Heather: I just wondered how that ended up happening. I found that material to be very satisfying.

Levi: We had dance material in the beginning and then it just felt like it didn’t belong. It was sort of this thing that Tere [O’Connor] talks about, you start making a piece and you have to make something just to get started and, obviously, when I don’t understand the ideas I’m working from I can still make a dance phrase. But it didn’t seem to have a relationship to the concept. And then I kept showing it and showing it and there was so little dance material in what I’d show and it started to feel like it was always a projection of an idea rather than an experiential thing and I wanted something more experiential inside of it to balance out the other stuff. I definitely… the phrase that I was talking about before, the train track phrase, I came into rehearsal one day and I was like: I’m just going to make a phrase that has absolutely no concept behind it whatsoever. I’m just going to follow my impulses while I’m alone in the studio improvising. Then I’ll look at it and then we can mess with it…and then it started to gradually shape itself and I had this feeling like if we keep trying to go with concept the whole thing was getting stuck, the whole process was getting stuck in ideas.

Heather: And in a way, that’s in direct contrast to your original concept: the concept was NOT controlling. Is that correct?

Levi: Well I would say it’s more about trying to create structures of various kinds that you could then live inside …or that you could execute in a way that still allowed for an authentic sense of presence. In a sense it was related because I was trying to create a situation where the meaning behind what it was wasn’t fixed, that the performers could inhabit each structure in a way that had some play. I don’t know.

Heather: How do you think that relates to the audience? Were you thinking…obviously you were thinking about the way the performers were going to experience it, and I’d be interested to hear more about that, but I’m also interested in if you were thinking about how the audience was going to experience it?

Levi: Definitely, from the very beginning. In some ways I think that’s the thing that’s most confusing because in a studio you can’t understand what it means to sit in a formal environment like the theatre at DTW and how that experience is going to read until you’re in the theatre performing it. I feel like it’s been really informative for me in terms of what my intentions were about how the audience would experience it versus how the audience actually did experience it. It’s the thing that I feel the least, I don’t want to say successful but, the least able to control.

Heather: Uh-huh.

Levi: Not only did I want the performers to be able to feel like they could bring themselves into the piece by negotiating a structure rather then executing a design, I also wanted the audience to feel like they were aware they were sharing an experience in the theater with these performers. For me what’s valuable about dance is that it’s not film, it’s not visual… there’s so much design in culture, we’ve gotten so sophisticated at packaging imagery and packaging experiences that one of the unique things about dance is that you’re sitting in a room with a bunch of people and experiencing it live and there’s a real sense of energy and presence in that environment. And my goal, I think it’s a continuous goal actually with my work, is to create a situation where they’re not just passively taking in the design but actively engaged in what that experience is. I didn’t want to do something where I totally alter the space. I felt like I wanted to see if there’s a way to keep the traditional theatrical structure of here’s the audience and here are the performers, and have some sort of interaction between those two spaces.

Heather: After an early showing of the piece at Springdance Dialogue, you wrote something on the CC website about art always being in dialogue with the culture that surrounds it. Could you talk about that in relationship to the finished piece?

Levi: I feel like this piece is a total response to, not only the larger world or the larger situation we’re in, where this idea about media and design relates, but also to the use of the objects. I was trying to create a sense of clutter and noise, and—how do you find authenticity inside an environment that’s visually busy and has actual obstacles, while you’re trying to execute material that doesn’t account for those obstacles. In that way it’s sort of like a little metaphor of life: like our day-to-day subway commutes and money anxieties and questions about the meaning of why we’re here. I’m also really influenced by all the ideas that are floating around in the dance community and I feel like there are a lot of questions around performance. What is the meaning of all of us coming together in a theater and having this experience together? What is the theater? What is that space about and how many assumptions do we take for granted when we walk into the theater, and how can we kind of subvert or re-see those things in a new way or see the assumptions exposed? I think that is really big in a lot of the work that I’ve seen around me and I’m really influenced by that. I really feel like it has something to do with September 11th because I think it’s made people question, it’s certainly made me question: why even make a dance piece? What’s the value of it in relationship to all these larger really heavy issues going on… like the war. My sense of things is that a lot of dance work has become really pared down, really distilled, in a way, to look at the value in this experience in relation to a larger cultural situation that we’re in.

Heather: Yeah, well we’re in an unspeakable situation right now.

Levi: Yeah.

Heather: And that fits really well into dance.

Levi: Yeah.

Heather: Because dance can just… well, it can kind of distill down to just an emotional level or just an experiential level.

Levi: Yeah, and it doesn’t have an agenda beyond the experience itself. Were not trying to get someone elected into office or sell something.

Heather: Yeah.

Levi: Experimental dance is not a commercial enterprise. It’s a really open space in that way. I think dance is a form where you don’t have to pin it down, which is not to say, “I’m just going to do whatever I want onstage.”

Heather: Well, you have to take responsibility for it.

Levi: And you have to craft it. You make decisions all the time when you’re making a dance, so it’s not as if you’re being passive, but you’re not necessarily… it’s not in the service of anything other than itself and that’s another one of the powers of dance… maybe. (both laugh)

Heather: You had mentioned a little bit earlier something about the questions being asked of you by your collaborators, by your dancers, and how they helped shape the piece. If you could just talk a little bit about working with those people, both the dancers and the composer.

Levi: Part of the interest when I’m “casting” a piece (giggle) is to find people who I already relate to as performers in terms of their aesthetic choices, not necessarily that I make those same choices but that they have a strong sense of choice making. And these are all people that I felt that way about for sure. And I also liked that they all made really different choices. I thought it would be helpful in terms of this idea of… if we’re all doing the same thing but we’re all doing it slightly differently it actually emphasizes this sense that it’s not about design but about how the design is inhabited by presence or how much the person itself contributes to the way a form finally takes shape. So that’s something I try to encourage usually; we create a structure or shape of something and I try to find a situation where they can navigate that in their own way. It helps to have people that are confident about that, which they all are. So they are able to make those choices and I don’t have to hold their hand because I don’t think that’s something I’m good at. I don’t think I‘m a born director. I feel like it’s a really hard role for me and I’m sure they’d agree with that if you interviewed them… You’re making a dance and you’re kind of like a misfit family that has sort of weird hierarchical roles. Hristoula [Harakas] is the one who when I tried to make them write a political rant she was like, “Why? What does that have to do with everything that we’re developing?” Isabel [Lewis] at one point had said something like, and I’m paraphrasing her of course, “You’re imposing a certain formality that seems from the outside of our process.”

Heather: It seems like she was accusing you of being a poser! (Laughter)

Levi: Yeah! Well I mean, she said it and I was like, oh yeah you’re right!

Heather: Do you feel like you took a step forward with this piece?

Levi: Definitely, yeah I mean…I asked for a full evening gig at DTW and I got it, and that’s what I naturally thought I wanted as the next step in terms of continuing my work. And then you create a structure to make that happen. My structure was like—I’m going to hire three dancers, I’m going to get a sound designer or composer, I’m going to get a lighting designer and we’re going to do the press for this and I’m going to market it way before I even know what the hell the piece is about, and get residencies and apply for grants and so that whole system of what that is to have a show, and the pressure of that, and how much it actually influences the decision making process. How hard it is to resist the panic of feeling like it needs to be a successful piece, people need to like it, I need to get a good review so I can keep making work. There’s this panic to succeed that is really strong in New York and I really felt that. And then later in the process, I feel like I got to a place where I let go of worrying about whether it was good or not. And I tried to make something that was reflective of our process, you know, tried to kind of listen to what I was doing and why I was doing it and make choices from that place. I was surprised at how hard that was. But I really felt like I actually went there more completely than I ever have before. So, overall I feel really happy with that in particular, that I really let go of a lot of my neediness of what will people think. Will it be successful? Is it pushing the envelope? Because it was for me so that’s sort of all you can do. It also made me feel like… this is something that Luciana’s [Achugar] talked about a lot too… maybe I don’t want to be part of this constant grant cycle, production cycle. Maybe what I need to do right now is think about some of the questions this project raised and address those from the beginning in terms of how I am negotiating this system of dance presentation. How do I enter into that in a way that allows for more space for me to make choices? Maybe it’s less pressure; maybe it’s less about financial anxiety, less about hierarchical roles in terms of director.

Heather: To try to find a space to just work on process? Just be an artist?

Levi: Yeah, and it’s not… for me process… I don’t really like going to the studio and just being really free and open. I like to make performances and I like to have that sense of goal to it, to some degree. I get lost if I don’t have a sense of terminus point or a sense of shaping and crafting towards an end. But, there’s also this translation process of choreography. You have an idea, you start making stuff and then, usually the ideas are not so interesting and what you make is more interesting and you get more ideas, and it’s this kind of dialogue with the thing itself that you’re making. That process is what’s interesting of course, but it does have a little pushing from one end, and the other end. It’s a constant back and forth, a constant negotiation between giving yourself freedom and giving yourself limitation. So maybe that means my next project is a solo. Maybe that means it’s not a full evening or I start playing with ideas and do little showings until I feel like I’m ready to make a larger piece. I’m not sure yet but I think maybe not just jumping into that career trajectory pattern of like: the half evening, the full evening, the next venue, getting international touring. This sort of established ladder would be interesting to step back from and question what that system is and whether that actually serves you.

Heather: Especially since, for our generation—and we’re the same age—that system might not be a reality at all anymore for us.

Levi: Yeah.

Heather: So we kind of have to find our own solution or way of doing it.

Levi: Yeah, and that has to reflect what your interests are as an artist and what you want from your work. Maybe I’m not the artist that wants eternal fame or that wants to be internationally recognized. It’s hard to know.

Heather: You don’t want to be too hopeless, we don’t want to be like…

Levi: Bitter (laughs)

Heather: …or “it’s never going to happen, no one is ever going to know about us.” But on the other hand, there is this undercurrent of feeling. It seems like a lot of people, like you mentioned earlier in our talk… kind of identify with this idea that we’re talking about, of not having expectations or something?

Levi: Yeah, totally. Then I feel like there are the people who’ve come to NY in the last 5 years or so. They don’t have any expectation of: “oh, I need to get into a company” or needing to establish this sense of infrastructure. I’m really impressed by the people who’ve started making work in the last four or five years that are younger and just not afraid to stake out on their own immediately and figure it out from there. It’s not to say I don’t like some people’s work more than others, and there’s always a value in experience. But the system hasn’t sustained itself so why should we buy into that system. I almost feel like an “in-betweener” in a way. I’m seeing this new movement away from institutionalization, but I’ve spent a lot of my life inside of those structures so now I’m trying to understand what my articulation of that situation is. How do I relate to it?

Heather: It’s interesting because it seems like this piece was your articulation of that. When we first started talking you were talking about discourse, frustration, rules and structure and how those things interlock. It seems like a lot of that kind of internal thought or subconscious thought… sub-linguistic thought came out in this piece. So, that’s pretty cool! (laughter)

Levi: Yeah definitely. Thank God.

Heather: We should probably wrap it up soon.

Levi: Okay.

Heather: So, is there anything… else you want to say?

Levi: There’s something, just responding to what you just said. It’s funny because the funny thing about art is everything you’re thinking or experiencing ends up becoming part of your choice making or designing process inside of making work. Even when you’re not conscious of it as you’re making it, it just comes out.

Heather: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Where is the line between art making and therapy or something?

Levi: Sure

Heather: Maybe the line is structure or something, I don’t know.

Levi: And there’s so many takes on structure too, you know.

Heather: Yeah. I think if, like you said earlier, you’re going to get rid of coming at it from just an idea, keeping with the idea, and hammering in the idea by using a set of rules that maybe we learned in college… If you’re going to let go of that and let things bubble up from underneath; then of course what’s going on is going to have to come through. So you don’t really have any choice. And that’s the “ah-ha” – that’s the experience! Thank you!

Levi: Thank you! I feel dorky.

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Levi Gonzalez

Levi Gonzalez is a dance artist from Los Angeles who was based in New York City from 1998-2016, and is currently Dance Faculty at Bennington College. He collaborates regularly with luciana achugar, an...
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