Lisa Nelson in conversation with Nita Little


Tuning Scores

We take the opportunity of Lisa Nelson’s upcoming Tuning Scores workshop to publish a public interview with her conducted by Nita Little during the Side Step Festival of 2005 in Finland. Lisa’s own remarks on Tuning Scores is also published.

The fifth international Side Step Festival was held in January 22-30, 2005 at the Cable Factory in Helsinki. In their own words: The biannual Side Step Festival is a topical and active contemporary dance festival. The theme for 2005 is Dance, Perception and Bodily Thinking. Side Step Festival 2005 offers alternative views based on bodily knowledge and movement understanding, and questions the usual ways of performing and perceiving. The festival focuses on the question of how reality is revealed through bodily perception and how it is transmitted in the performing arts.

We are thankful to Otto Ramstad, who was a participant in the workshop, recorded and transcribed the interview, and offered it to us. Also, to Lisa who agreed to its publication, and gave her valuable time and skill to fine tune it, and to Nita Little for making it happen in the first place.

Lisa Nelson: It's very useful for this talk that Nita and I haven't seen each other for a long time and actually have been developing what we've been developing from a common base in some ways. The common base was a college in the countryside in New England [Bennington College, VT]. My first years there ('66-'68), I was studying traditional techniques, and by the time Nita reached there, a couple of years later, there had been a shift. I will try to say what the shift was.

A dancer named Judith Dunn arrived at this college in 1969 when I was on leave. She was working with improvisation with a black musician named Bill Dixon. She came from a group working in New York City in the early '60s. She was tangential perhaps to this group-the Judson Dance Theater. At that point, many of the group were former or current Merce Cunningham company members and they were studying composition with a composer named Robert Dunn, who at that time was married to Judith. These dancers, in their exploration of composition, started to dismantle some of the conventions and the expectations that were laid out over a long period of time in the modern dance arena, and it was a very lively time. I was a child in the early sixties, and was studying traditional dance uptown at Juilliard in New York City-Graham and ballet. What's interesting to me is that I had heard of these wild happenings happening downtown, but I never saw them. Bill Dixon was a jazz-based musician.

Lisa: At the time he emphatically called his music "Black music," [but] in any case, he was an improvisational artist. For me, this was the first formal implication that improvisational dance work stood next to choreographed work. This was very nice because I had been making improvised dances for years before entering formal training. Judith's proposition at that time was somewhat like the Cunningham/Cage proposition where the dance and the music worked independently of one another. The musicians worked in the room, and there were anywhere from five to ten of them, very, very incredibly high energy sound that created an envelope of sound within which the dancers worked independently.

I don't know how the doors got opened for you, Nita, but it didn't seem like a big deal. Improvisation and fixed choreography were existing side by side, these working methods and these forms. But over time it's gotten marginalized and kind of either/or. Is that not true in Finland? I'm just curious because maybe I can pass through this comment. Do both kinds of work exist in equal value?

Audience: No.

Lisa: So maybe the conditions here are the same as the rest of the western world. I'm locating this around 1969-70. I had an interest in music so I worked with musicians a lot and that was a very natural interaction. I found that the language we used to talk about what we were doing was musical language. We didn't talk much about the details of the dance experience. We talked about interaction in terms of harmony, or line/melody, or unison, or cannon, energy, tonal quality. In my next foray, in 1970-72, I worked with a theater-based improvisation dance company called Daniel Nagrin's Workgroup that transposed the work of Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater to dance. You might be familiar with Chaikin. They were doing explorations with non-text sound communication-without text or with transforming the delivery of text. It wasn't "physical theater," whatever that means, but it had to do with encounters, how human beings encounter each other. In the Workgroup, the way we assessed what we did used more of a psychological language.

And then shortly after that, I met Steve Paxton, and he had been developing Contact Improvisation with some people from Bennington, including Nita. Contact Improvisation was very radical to me, because it was the first dance improvisation proposition that was talking about the body. In a way, it related to technique-the technique of the body, the way the body organizes itself. All the other work I had been doing while making improvised dances had borrowed from other disciplines, other languages. Contact combined for me an idea about training the body-which I had a big question about from my own traditional training-while giving the dancer something to apply it to and a way for the body to learn.

Shortly after that I quit dancing and I entered a new zone-video-where my work became more oriented toward how we look at dance. One of the aspects is working with the senses and in particular the organ of vision because dance is more or less taken in with the eyes. It's also taken in with the ears. I was very interested in vision as a set of instructions that come from a physical experience and the effect of that physicality on how I see things. So, not just how I see dance but how I look at the world. This has been a passionate interest for these many years, and I'm still stuck there.

Nita: You're interested in the doors of perception, but what you're looking at has more to do with making action in the space, or changing the space, or changing yourself to perceive more or differently.

Lisa: I'm interested in dance behavior. And I'm very interested in what people would probably think of as incidental movements. I'm most attracted to movements that don't seem to be important. I'm very interested in how the organism relates to the environment. And I see that very clearly when I'm looking at dancers on stages. I'm not talking about fidgeting nervousness. I'm talking about how we carve out something from what we look at to simplify what is before us. We choose, we shape, we reshape each other in our seeing of each other and that seems very efficient both for surviving and for getting very, very distracted from having an original experience or seeing something new. I am interested in the movement of attention.

I'll watch a dance performer, and I don't care much what they're doing, whether they're doing ballet, or someone else's language. I love to see something moving in people and some dancers can do that no matter what they're presenting and others don't do that as successfully. Or maybe they're not interested in it; they're more interested in design, or telling a story, or being looked at. So, observing is what we all do. In terms of presenting a performance on stage, whenever I feel like I have something organized enough that might resonate with this underlying behavior, I feel like presenting it. Though I don't know if you'll see it.

Nita: The key word is organized. Can you talk about that? What does that mean to you?

Lisa: Composition or organization. I think that organization for me comes from the inside. It's like I create filters in my own seeing. I organize through my own seeing. I observe things and try to find what's predictable about their nature. And if I find something that's predictable in a way that I'm interested in, then I can look for a way to frame it so it can be seen by other people. And frames can be many things-they can be sound frames or visual frames, etc.

Nita: Can you give me an example of something that is predictable?

Lisa: Yeah, okay, it may be hard to imagine. For a while I worked with a score that I had made relating my breathing to the activity in my visual apparatus. I made a frame of sound that placed an idea of breathing in the space-sounds that had a certain organization that was recognizable, like laughing or pigs breathing. Somewhere along the line most people have heard a pig breathing, so even though it's an odd combination of rhythms, it has an associational image. It also affects your own breathing when you listen to it. I tried to start this dance very small so that people could tune into small events without a big distraction around them. What was predictable about it was if I worked with it for a certain length of time something extruded, it got bigger, it manifested more and more into space. Actually that was a decision I had to make, so I had to intend to push it out into space over a twenty-minute period of time.

Nita: Push it out into space?

Lisa: I mean it's not just me going through a personal process. I have to make it visible to others. Much of this is artifice. I'm very interested in the artifice. We're full of artifice, but there's an animal in here and it's busy surviving. Culturally I've learned…for example, I would like to talk to you like this [Lisa begins to gesticulate more wildly and use extreme facial expressions, opening and closing her eyes and stretching her mouth]. This would be much better for me. I could articulate much more clearly; I could think more clearly. It just doesn't work culturally. There is a level of composure that I think of as artifice. I've learned it from everybody; we all teach each other what it is. So, I relate that to theater and to composing myself to be seen. I don't want to get in the way of you seeing something. I can use it, rather than say 'that's artificial, I don't want to go there'-it's a very positive thing. Perception is interesting; perception is organization. The way the senses operate is fabulous for a dancer because we have access to it as movement. We can observe it in ourselves; we can observe it in other people. It's been a very cheap education. I don't have to pay to study. There are wonderful books; there are people to observe constantly, animals to observe. And this is kind of socio-economical. Where do you go to learn what you're hungry to learn?

Nita: So, you end up teaching what it is you're interested in seeing. What is the relationship between that and developing material that you're interested in performing?

Lisa: A lot of my performance work has had to do with creating inhibitions. For example, for a long period of doing performance work where the movement kind of streamed endlessly-you know move, move, move, endless, endless, lots of movement, I didn't want to do that or see that any more. But it was a habit. So I had to find out what was underneath all of that moving around and I started looking at what is stillness. I mean this is just so obvious. To do this, I started looking at one image at a time, not just stillness, but one image at a time. And I tried to construct a dance where whatever was the first action, that was it.-That was the whole dance-end. And this is too hard to describe but anyway… Wherever the first organization came from, as soon as it started to extrapolate, or transform, or become something else, or go on to the next thing, end. That was the beginning: seeing what a single image is.

Nita: And that's a movement image, or a visual image or a sound image? What were your parameters?

Lisa: Well in the body, all of the images, everything is a…

Nita: A kinesthetic image…

Lisa: Yeah, well, no. It's a synaesthetic image. It's made of all those things, the kinesthetic, the visual, the auditory, touch, etc.

Nita: Sometimes you speak of an image as a singular modality or a single perceptual form, and now you're speaking of an image as synthesis.

Lisa: I'm going to call it an action image-how about that-because I'm really talking about moving. I've never called it that before, but I think that might work. And an action doesn't necessarily have to be a movement either. We recognize action in watching each other's attention. When I became mobilized to make an action, I didn't know what the action was going to be, but when I recognized it as organization, it was an action, and I would either repeat it, if it was repeatable, or if it was a singular image that couldn't repeat, it just happened once.

Nita: This weekend you will be performing a new dance with Steve (Paxton), and that's another collaborative process, in which I'm sure that some aspect of your end of the collaboration will be informed by all of this that you've been speaking of.

Lisa: I'm going to describe a dance that Steve and I made in '78, called PA RT that we performed for 28 years, until last year. It had a structure. I don't call it a score because it simply delineates entrances and exits. The structure was solo-duet-solo-duet. There was no other directed material, other than a recorded opera by Robert Ashley (Private Parts) that provided an environment in which the dance occurred, and we had costumes that tried to stay the same for the 28 years. It was the only dance I've made where my personal score was dancing. Within that score there was a period when I utilized another inner score I call "reading out loud." In the dancing, I was reading the space, myself contained in the space. In a way I would be making visible what was touching me in the space. But basically my score in PA RT was dancing. I never really wanted to dance in front of people. Even making dances when I was very young, I never thought that was worthwhile. I thought dancing was more private. Choreography was a creative opportunity.

Nita: Do you have any questions for Lisa?

Photo: Raymond Mallentjer, Thumbnail photo: Gil Grossi

Question: What is your relationship to time? I'm interested because you talked a lot about space.

Lisa: Well, they are inextricable. Time also is measured in the body through all the different senses. Probably I'm much more interested in time than I was long ago. When I talk about the space, I talk about how my body reads and takes instructions from the space. Much of the time, we're reacting to the architecture and human beings. We're reacting, we're not really responding. We don't have time to respond for one thing. But time-how long does it take for an image to organize in the body? I think the eyes are the fastest sense to name things. We can name something the second we look at it. But we don't often take the time to actually look at something. The longer you look at movement, the richer it gets. But culturally, there's a rejection of taking the time it takes to look. We want to keep getting change, food, change, food.

Question: (Otto Ramstad) You briefly touched on this in the workshop, but I was sort of interested to hear more. You were talking about how a lot of what people call improvisation you call dancing. I think maybe one of the reasons the improvisation word is loaded is because the definition is assumed.

Lisa: The implication for me is that you're making something when you're improvising. I notice that people are dancing freely and calling it improvisation. I was very sad that the word "dancing" left the whole arena. Nobody talked about dancing once they were talking about improvisation. So it felt like there was no longer a place for dancing as an unmediated flow of the body moving or, even sitting still you could be dancing. Improvising implies to me there are limitations, there's something to solve. Improvise a picnic, improvise a table-there's some need, there's some objective, to make something. There's a level of mind involved-an application of mind-involved in improvising. Mind in the sense of filter or a way of making choices-a way of limiting the number of choices, so that something happens as a result of that. Those are useful differentiations on a spectrum-many choices you could make or fewer choices you could make. Or choices you could make with your skin, and choices with your eyes, or choices you could make from different systems of the body.

It's said that people don't want to produce improvisational work because it's not predictable, dependable. I think it's very dependable. I mean you may not like the results. That's much clearer. Say 'I don't like the results'. Or 'I'm not interested when things are organized in this way'. But you can't put improvisation in one container.. Maybe when people say choreography everybody thinks of people doing something in a line in unison. But that's not what I think of when I think of fixed choreography. I see no image-it could be so many things. Same with improvisational work, it could be so many things. It tends to not be, that's part of the problem. People imitate what they see. Also because there's not a lot of exposure, people don't get to see a lot. Seeing helps you get new ideas, or have an opinion, or take some inspiration, or get some anti-inspiration. But without exposure to lots of examples, there's not a lot of growth in the field-everybody appears to be doing the same things over and over. I think it's a pity. I feel that if there had been more exposure over the last thirty years, there would be a much more critical way of looking at the work. Critical, meaning you would get more from it-see a lot more in it, there would be more layers.

Question: I'm very much interested in improvisation and I love to talk about it. But what I hear a lot, I don't know if it's a semantic or linguistic issue, but improvisation has become loaded with some other meanings, which we don't have to get attached to. And therefore I rather use choreography, dancing, instant composition, and a number of other alternative words to describe more or less the same thing that me or you are doing. So what comes to mind is that can we reclaim that word. Is there a way, through exposure maybe, through putting it out there in a way that's closer to what we do?

Lisa: I remember years ago when I asked a black musician friend about the term improvisation. He said "it'll never be acceptable because it's associated with black music and black culture". We were talking about the U.S. Even though it's highly valued, there's still something in the culture that says, 'oh, that's just playing around.' If somebody says 'what were you doing?' I would never say, 'well, I was improvising.' I'd say, 'I was working on dot, dot, dot.' I wouldn't use the term to say what I was doing because it's too vague. Although I couldn't deny that I was improvising.

Nita: It's very political on some level.

Lisa: Yes, it's interesting to be in a field that the very idea of the method that you're using is political.

Nita: It sounds similar to the undervaluing of our own living that is going on, the undervalue of our own intention-all the work you're doing. It is bringing value to and awareness to our seeing, our perceptions.

Lisa: Well, I hope also it brings value to action. I'm interested in action more than the perceiving part.

Question: So, do you think it's possible to compose improvisationaly?

Lisa: I think that I'm improvising choreographically because that's the tradition my work evolves from and I can sense and talk about my choices in the terms of western choreography. But I've added more to the idea of choreography besides appointments in space and time. I think it's more inner dimensional, multi-dimensional-making inner action visible.

Shall we?

photo: Scott Smith

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