Neil Greenberg in Conversation with Biba Bell

As Neil Greenberg prepares to premiere his latest work, This, at New York Live Arts the first weekend of December, he discusses his motivating questions as well as the shifts in his choreographic concerns during the four years since his last piece, (like a vase). Citing Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” as an enduring theoretical ally, Greenberg expands upon the complexities of meaning-making, choreographing objects, tracing the personal through the rigors of form, filling up images with body, and making dances that accumulate, evaporate, and hang in the air like weather.


Biba Bell: Let’s talk about your latest work. Approximately four years has passed since (like a vase). What has been your trajectory from that point to now? Does it relate?

Neil Greenberg: This new work, which is called This, definitely relates to (like a vase).  The four years is circumstance. (like a vase) was performed in the fall of 2010, which was my first semester at The New School; I had just returned from California. I had just started my job at the Eugene Lang College at the New School, working with Danielle Goldman. We’ve been revamping the dance program these past four years, and it’s been incredibly labor intensive. It’s taken everything out of me. I also have to note that since I made (like a vase) both my parents have died, which I’m realizing is a life cycle period during which it can be difficult to be productive. I was running back to Minnesota a lot to help take care of my parents with my siblings. I’m sure that’s a part of the piece too, somewhere. It can’t help but be a part of the piece.

The questions in (like a vase) have continued to motivate me. They keep showing up in my teaching; they keep showing up in my dance going, as I see pieces and as I parse them out.  The four-year break has allowed some shifts to occur that might not have occurred if it had been a shorter period of time since the last piece. The critical response to (like a vase) is something that is also motivating this project. Some of the critical response flabbergasted me.

Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney
Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney

BB: Can you talk about that?

NG: There were a couple of writers who said things like, “the dancers weren’t relating to each other.” I’m not talking about writers who are only from the ballet world; I’m talking about people who write about post-Judson dance. One of the writers talked about how the musicians (there was live music in (like a vase) and the musicians were clustered together onstage) would look at each other and give cues. You could watch them looking at each other’s faces, giving nods and cues, but that you couldn’t see that with the dancers. “So, why don’t the dancers look at each other?” Another critic said virtually the same thing. They said they wanted to stand up and scream, “Why don’t the dancers look at each other?” That writer also said a lot of things that I thought were really perceptive about the piece, so I have to listen to this. And I started to think Oh! Maybe for a lot of people, dance is always necessarily a representation of interpersonal relationships. Always! If there are two people on stage then there is something about their humanness that must always be read.

BB: And that this must be the content of your work?

NG: Well, yes, my work and any work.  This is what flabbergasted me, because I don’t think dance necessarily must be a representation of interpersonal relationships or of anything else.   Dance can be representational—it often is and often quite productively.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Here, though, I must acknowledge that in many of my works I think I have, indeed, played with a sort of representation of interpersonal relationships—for instance, in the inclusion of group dancing morphing into solos and back to group dancing. Or the decision to end the piece with the group rather than a solo, or the opposite. These are decisions that can resonate with ideas of group and community, playing off what’s onstage as a representation of group dynamics.  The important distinction to me, here, is that what’s summoned in a representation like this is not just pertaining to these dancers onstage, this group of dancers, but that this group functions as a kind of stand-in for other groups, or the idea of “group.”

BB: For the social?

NG: For the social. That’s what I’m meaning when I say interpersonal, the social. It isn’t that I don’t play with that kind of thing in (like a vase), but I wasn’t playing with it that much. (like a vase) went further out on the ledge away from that.

I think that a lot of people still look at dance in this way—as a representation of the social. And I get it. It’s hard not to because these are humans dancing. They aren’t marks on a canvas. They aren’t sounds produced electronically, say. Those are human beings up on stage and it’s hard not to see two people and extrapolate something about the social, the interpersonal. One might very well start to notice that they’re not explicitly looking at each other.

Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney
Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney

BB: I was re-reading your artist statement and your discussion about the conditions of generating meaning. This conversation brings up the audience’s expectations and their desire to know what the dance is about. It may be about the two people together on stage, but not necessarily.

NG: In Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994) the “not about” is the more important part of the title for me. It’s not about anything. That’s something that I’m concerned with.

BB: Is it the thing itself or its tie to aboutness?

NG: It’s the necessary tie to aboutness that ruffles my feathers. I have a more recent take on this, why, based on my personal history, I might be allergic to about. There I was, growing up as a little gay boy in Minnesota, just living my life as a little gay boy in Minnesota. Then, that hit from elementary school to junior high school when social pressures suddenly come into play. Though, yes, in elementary school I had already begun tap dancing and I already loved show tunes, it was coming into junior high school when I began to get jeered at in the halls by other students, seriously verbally abused. To me that is an “about,” these things in Neil mean this…. not, there’s Neil.  It means something about Neil that he is a boy who loves show tunes, who dances. It had significance to these people, my abusers. In our society a lot of significance is placed on whether somebody is gender normative. And I was, in these ways, glaringly gender non-normative, which was interpreted as something bad.  I’m mentioning this because I’m looking at my allergy or sensitivity to about, and I’m thinking that it might have something to do with this part of my personal history. That about can hurt. As another example: The color of someone’s skin means something about them.

BB: That can then be used in a violent way, ultimately.

NG: Right. That the interpretation can be used in an abusive way. I think that is part of This. It’s been clear to me that [Merce] Cunningham’s work was attractive to me partly because I didn’t have to pretend to be acting a role. I was a dancer, not an actor. At the age of eighteen or nineteen, which was when I started doing that work, I didn’t have much life experience except my own. I could probably have played a young gay boy if I were an actor, but in all of the dance companies I worked with prior to working with Cunningham I was asked to be the young lover, the young heterosexual lover. I was supposed to look longingly at my woman partner, or whatever the necessarily heterosexual narrative required. For me there was a freedom in Cunningham’s work in being able to go onstage with a directive to do the dancing. Part of the directive was also to be yourself, to be yourself doing the dancing. That was very freeing. I think there was something in that not about directive, that don’t try to mean something in particular just go out there and do these steps, something that fit for the first time. I think it is all wrapped up together with my allergy to about, and the connection I’m now making to my personal history in junior high school. I’m not explaining this part well… but you’re getting it?

BB: Yes.

NG: It’s that connection to interpretation. I can jump, now, to Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” which I think pertains to some of what I am aiming for as a choreographer. I’m interested in getting something onstage that has specificity and liveliness, that attracts my eye and perceptions, and letting that live there on the stage for the audience to come in contact with—to be there with it and be affected by it but not to have to find an about or to interpret it.  It isn’t that I’m not looking for the viewer to be affected by what they see; it’s not as if what’s onstage doesn’t have any effect. It does have an effect. At least I sure hope it does.

BB: There’s a way that you’re involving a kind of resistance, in a productive way.

NG: I hope it’s in a productive way. I think that for some viewers it might not be productive. Just like for some viewers Cunningham’s resistance to connotative meaning, his resistance to directing the meaning for the viewer, was not productive. They couldn’t watch. We had a lot of people walking out of Cunningham performances when I was in the company.

BB: I think about the two people onstage or the group onstage, and if you’re not actively producing these relationships for the audience, they are still going to be there in the not producing of them, and then the question becomes: What can they be also?

NG: Absolutely. It isn’t that there is no relationship. There is relationship. There are all sorts of resonances and realities and textures that this object onstage is, which includes how this object relates to anything and everything else on stage, to the relationships.

With (like a vase) I was explicitly framing my resistance to “aboutness” by thinking about speech metaphors, the notion that dances have to say something. That’s how the title (like a vase) came about, because I would explain, “you know, like a vase,” a vase doesn’t necessarily say something. I’m not prone to ask, “What is this vase telling me?” “What does it mean?” “What other than what it is is it saying?” Sontag talks about interpretation as translation. “We present before you A, B, and C. Now the interpretive imperative requires you to translate this: A actually means Z, B actually means X.” I’m a little less prone to do that kind of translation with a vase. Instead, “Oh, look at this vase.”

Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney
Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney

BB: There’s a relationship with objectivity, maybe objecthood, in a way. I’d like to talk to you about this relationship between choreography and object. I’m thinking of the differentiation William Forsythe makes between dancing and choreographing in that choreography could potentially be a channel or vessel for producing the desire to dance but doesn’t necessarily always link to dance. So, one, choreography can be autonomous, virtually operating alongside that vitality of being onstage dancing. But also, going back, or maybe we proceed forward, when you talk about the title This and (like a vase)

NG: I am playing around with subject/object relationship in thinking about my work. I’m not sure I’m understanding Forsythe’s point about choreography, but I might be, and if I understand it I might really riff on it.

BB: That’s ok. It’s a beginning…

NG: But, subject/object… When I, a subject, read an object… as soon as I start interpreting that object, I’m interpreting it based on cultural codes. I’m thinking here that maybe the interpretive stance is necessarily a subjective stance. And that the person doing the interpreting is necessarily situated within a particular culture, a particular subject in that particular culture, interpreting the object at least in part according to the codes of that culture. So, when I see this thing onstage or anywhere in the world, this set of associations, images and referents is brought up in me. Its effect is subjective. And the object… Now this is where I’m struggling a bit because I’m coming to a slightly different, new understanding.  Part of my experience of any object, like a movement sequence, is that it does summon a world of associations and references. I think in the past I was aiming to almost divorce the object from its associations and referents. I was aiming to present movement divorced of any participation in language or cultural codes, which I now think is not only impossible, but now not even desirable. Now I’m thinking of how my experience of any object includes aspects in addition to its referents, but not exclusive of them. I’m the creator of the object and I live in this culture too, so my knowledge of the object’s referents can’t help but be a part of my experience of that object. Here’s an example: Let the record show that I am doing a movement that is like waving with my hand and wrist. If I go like this [Neil waves] I know that within cultural language this means hello or goodbye. I know that. It produces meaning. Images also come to mind, I’m thinking of a particular wave I saw in a movie, a woman waving to a man on a departing train. There’s another example in This, a sequence in which it looks to me like the dancer is in a bathing beauty pose, the body presented like a pinup, chest flung forward, like a Betty Grable pinup at the beach. By choosing to include this sequence, there’s an image that is a part of what’s performed onstage. I think for many viewers, maybe most, that moment will vibrate a bit with the reference to a bathing beauty image. I’m interested in looking at how the reference is not the only part of the thing and it’s resonance, but how it is still a part of its resonance.

In rehearsal we’ve been talking about filling up the image with body as one path for the dancer herself or himself to actually experience the movement in a way that is in addition to experiencing the image it summons. I’m equating image to language here, in that it signifies something, there’s a cultural code that says a body like this is feminine or a body like this is masculine. A body like this is seductive. A body like this is shy. All cultural codes, and all vessels we’re working to fill up with body. We start to experience it in multiple ways, which goes into the creation of what gets put onstage, which maybe changes something.

BB: It changes the image?

NG: Yes. I hope. But I do think that it changes the way I, as a choreographer, frame it. If I’m thinking of it primarily as an image I’ll use it a certain way. And if I’m trying to let it play back and forth in different ways, allowing it to be image and to be not-image, I frame it differently.

BB: You frame it differently onstage?

NG: I’m thinking of much of the choreography of This in terms of issues of framing. I try to frame the material in ways that help me, as a viewer, experience it in an open-ended way. And I notice when this isn’t happening for me. For a while in rehearsals I went down a path with a particular sequence and found that sequence was loosing this quality. I had to tear that section of the dance apart because it didn’t have the play for me that I’m looking for. It felt too directed, not open-ended enough.

BB: What are some of the elements that produce that framing function for you? That you’re working with now?

NG: I don’t know how conscious I am of all of them yet. After the dance is made I’ll look and say, “Oh! That’s why I made that decision.” I can say that one strategy is to present something twice so that the second iteration is different or can be experienced differently. It could be the facing is changed, or a part of it is taken away, or a new layer of sound appears. Or it could be just that it’s the second time through the material, a second iteration and so already necessarily different for both the viewer and the performer. I’m playing a lot with presenting a sequence more than once, which becomes a framing that exposes it, exposes it as material, as an object. Something about exposing the seams helps me see it as an object. In fact, that is the word we are using in rehearsal. We’re calling certain things we’ve created in rehearsal objects: the solo objects and the duet objects. It’s the first time I’ve started calling dance sequences objects, objects which can be arranged and rearranged onstage.

BB: Are they always objects in the plural? Are there other ways that the objects can be differentiated? You say solo or duet, are there other ways that something choreographic can congeal?

NG: I also talk about structures, as another way of naming a sequence. I think some of this kind of naming comes out of our rehearsal process. My process involves videotaping improvisations to then learn sections of the improvisations “verbatim” – here I’ll note, parenthetically that learning the movement this way, from video of an improvisation, is incredibly labor-intensive and painstaking; our joke is that we’re forensic movement scientists, we’re trying to understand from this remaining record what happened in that body on that day.  For many years I only videotaped myself improvising, so all the movement came from me. Then I opened that up and also videotaped the other dancers in solo improvisations – but always solo. The duet objects come out of duet improvisations, which are firsts for me with this piece.

In doing these duet improvisations we came up with the rule that we didn’t want one dancer blocking the other dancer for the camera, because then we wouldn’t be able to learn the material. It was purely practical. It became a score. You had to stay on your side of the studio, or if one of you crossed over to the other side you had to do it quickly, so as not to block the dancer from the camera for long, and then you were on different sides of each other. In a way these duet improvisations are two solo improvisations side by side, but we are learning and recreating the particular spatial and time relationships between these two concurrent solos. Those are the duet objects. We also made quartet objects out of two duet objects – usually, maybe always, the same duet performed by two different couples. I’m really attracted to these quartet objects. They’re surprisingly dynamic to me. They’re something, somehow, partly because of the surprise in what these materials created. “Wow! This thing!” We started working in the studio and would try it this way, I wouldn’t get very excited, we would try it that way, I wouldn’t get very excited, then we would try another way and I started to get excited. I was excited largely, I think, because these quartets were unusual for me, I hadn’t seen anything like them in my work before. Talk about subjective! The things that excited me, Neil, on that day.

Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney
Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney

BB: It produced a kind of affect. Maybe you could talk about how affect operates in your work?

NG: OK.  To do so I’d like to refer to a conversation I had with Jen Rosenblit.  Our relationship was put together by THE AWARD, initiated by Dean Moss and Kim Bartosik. Do you know about this?

BB: No.

NG: With THE AWARD Dean and Kim paired, let’s face it, a younger choreographer with somebody old like me. There’s no monetary part of THE AWARD, but we do both get free admission to a lot of dance concerts. And dinner at Café Orlin! THE AWARD put Jen and me in conversation. We hadn’t been in conversation yet. I’m prefacing this because to talk about how affect operates in my work, I want to reference an analogy that came out of a conversation I had with Jen. I don’t know from whom this analogy originated, but we started to make an analogy to weather, how weather produces affect, but it doesn’t mean anything. For instance, today it looks like it’s going to rain. The weather report didn’t predict rain, but there’s a certain feel to me in the air of imminent rain, which produces an affect in me, the particular weather today.  Does weather mean anything? Does it mean anything other than what it is? Of course this analogy is slightly complicated by climate change.

BB: I’m thinking of the California drought!

NG: Right. But, if I can go back to a pre-climate change moment to make this analogy, I’m looking at weather as the product of a confluence of a lot of different factors, factors mostly beyond my control. There’s no way that I can change the weather today, or even predict it. Yet it has an isness. It has an effect. But also, and this is important, it doesn’t mean anything. In rehearsal I’m looking for things that are like weather systems, that have something to them, that go woo woo, oohhh ohh!!  They may induce excitement or pleasure or irritation, but each does something specific. I’m interested in putting onstage something that’s specific and maybe unlabelable, that can’t be named. And yet, it quite exists. The little quartets that came out of the duet improvisations create little weather systems for me, each different from the other.  We’ve been referring to them as the quartet objects. If I could somehow bottle the weather mood right now, that could be like an object. To me, choreography does that. Dance onstage as weather systems, that really works for me. The way the energies swirl, peak and modulate differently at different moments. And these dance-weather systems are reproducible to a large enough extent through the choreography and scores of various kinds. That’s what I’m after. And it’s also the not-meaning that makes this analogy to weather work for me.

I know I’m really invested in the “not-about” issue because I can get really irritated with the way I hear people make meaning out of pure coincidence. “The subway came so God really loves me. I am blessed.”

I’ll throw this back to something really personal. My brother Jon died of AIDS. I’m HIV positive. I don’t think my living and his dying has any meaning. I just can’t believe that. But this turn of events sure does produce an effect in me. Jon’s death was a pretty profound event for everyone in my family. But it doesn’t mean anything. This goes right back to Sontag again, her essays Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, and to Rosa von Praunheim’s film, A Virus Has No Morals. There can be real consequences to this compulsion to always trying to find the meaning of a phenomenon. I have a real stake in the project of experiencing life, taking it in and being affected by it, but without always jumping to what it means, the conclusion or the name or the label.

BB: So detaching meaning from its object. Because it feels like it’s still…

NG: Detaching meaning, not detaching meaningfulness, or significance. This might be a way to look at affect…

BB: It’s still in the room. It’s there; it’s participating but it’s detaching or deferred. The question that I wanted to come back to in this relationship between choreography and object, and how you are working with that, is the process or the living out aspect of dancing. Which does begin to be that thing. It’s interesting that we talk about framing and repetition because through repetition a differentiation can be made of, first of all, that section or that material, but also in the differences in the living out of it.

NG: Right. Differentiation. Specificity.

BB: The living out somehow messes with that attachment.

NG: Yeah. Because when it’s living out, when it’s right in front of you, you see how it doesn’t fit the label somehow. Is that what you’re saying?

BB: Yes, also the complicatedness of going to the theater, getting a ticket to see a show that night. We don’t really talk about this relationship of dinner and a show, going out on Friday night with your date and being entertained, which isn’t necessarily what a lot of audiences are looking for but… also, yes! And what does it mean to go and sit in the seat and live through this process of untethering the desire for meaning. That difficulty of the critic comes up. That kind of anxiety or frustration comes up.

NG: In the viewer?

BB: Yes.

NG: Yes. I’ve been seeing a lot of dance performances lately. I’ve been able go to more shows because I’m on a sabbatical leave, and I’ve made seeing more performances a part of my sabbatical. I’m thinking about how some of the shows I’ve seen lately have really enlivened me because of my subjectivity, what I’m bringing to it, and also because of what the artists onstage are hoping it to be. Sometimes I go to the theater and something gets jarred, pried, or nudged open and all of a sudden I’m experiencing what I’m seeing in a different way. This happened to me recently while I was watching Jodi Melnick’s piece. I was having one set of reactions to what I was seeing, then something happened in the piece and I started watching the piece differently. The piece was right there in front of me, and when this something happened I couldn’t ignore the actual piece in favor of all the things going on in my mind about the piece. I had to actually watch the piece. Something happened and I went Oh! I felt the weather change in me. Something opened. It wasn’t a huge statement in the piece, but it was a subtle but significant weather change for me as a viewer. There is something about going to the theater and being in the seat. If somehow the alchemy of this piece, and these performers, on this night… if the alchemy of all that with that particular viewer can produce a moment of the viewer seeing the piece in front of them, a moment that actually jars the viewer away from their subjective thoughts to seeing what’s actually in front of them, well I think that can be truly valuable. Maybe that’s something going to a performance can do.

Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney
Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney

BB: In these past four years have you been teaching choreography?

NG: Yes.

BB: How has teaching inflected your process and thoughts about making work?

NG: At its best teaching can be productive for me because it can let me know what my investments are, what’s at stake for me. As a teacher I want to allow the students to have their own stakes. One way to do that is to let them know that I have my own stakes, not to ignore that.  This is also helpful so the students can know what my prejudices are in case I’m not seeing something that’s of concern to them. They actually have some personal ammunition. They can say, “Neil’s into this and this, it makes sense that he might have some trouble with this very different thing I’m doing.” “Neil’s invested in ‘not-about,’ it makes sense he might have trouble with my narrative work.” I want them to have that ammunition, to be able to defend themselves in their own mind if I’m not seeing something, if I’m not responding. But it also tells me what my stakes are.

BB: How?

NG: The very stakes we’ve been talking about. I’ve been bringing Susan Sontag’s essay into class and the more times I read it, the more times I go, Yeah! That’s it, that’s right! That’s for me too.

BB: I want to revisit it.

NG: She writes about “sensuous surfaces” and this whole thing about interpretation as a kind of translating, which I just reread. Reducing the thing onstage to a code, to a meaning, to language.  For me, it isn’t that this thing onstage doesn’t participate in any language, or have any referents, but there’s also something there that can’t be reduced to a code.

BB: It’s interesting to differentiate dancing from language. That becomes a conflation, dancing as a language or I dance because this is my means of expression. These ways we begin create this structure that ultimately supports a semantic structure in a work.

NG: Right. The conflation with language. My perceptions of time and space, my perceptions of the world, I perceived the world before I had language with which to frame my perceptions and organize them. There are ways of organizing experience that are non-language organizations.

Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney
Neil Greenberg's 'This,' photo: Frank Mullaney

BB: Is that what you’re getting at when you’re talking about being young and dancing around the living room? Is that different?

NG: I think it may be different. By the time I was six I was already strongly enculturated. There’s this home movie that I’ve unearthed recently of my dancing around the living room at age six, which is why I’m talking about this so much. Have you seen it? I posted it as part of my Hatchfund campaign.

BB: Yes!

NG: In this footage I look startlingly like my current dancing self. I think I looked less like this footage of six-year-old Neil when I was in the Cunningham company and taking ballet class everyday. After ten or fifteen years of that training I looked less like the home movie, but now that I’ve been focusing on somatic approaches and improvisation I look more like it again.  But I’m not claiming this dancing as “natural.” It’s not as if I wasn’t already, at six, quite enculturated. I had seen Juliette Prowse—who was a famed hoofer, really fabulous—on television. I’d already been watching a lot of television, I’d seen dancing. Something in me probably knew something about straight legs, locking my knees. Or maybe I was imitating the Rockettes… I don’t know. I think at least in part I had learned these locked knees by imitating my mother’s stance, and my mother, of course, was an adult and thoroughly enculturated.

But back to this whole thing about language, as adults we organize the world largely, maybe primarily, with language. I think that there’s something really valuable to be gleaned by tapping into ways of organizing the world that predate that in each of us individually. The experience of near, far, me, you—what were these experiences to us before we had “near” or “far,” words and language for the perceptions. I think tapping into these ways of organizing the world that don’t rely on language are particularly valuable in big life moments. Like when my bother died, that necessitated a huge reorganization of the world for me. Everyone has these moments at some point, moments when mortality becomes vividly real. Another related example: I’m now an orphan, both my parents have died in the past two years. I think this is one of those big moments when I need to find a different way of being in the world. I have a need to reorganize. I’m sure that some of that work is going on in this choreography process. That’s probably why some of these weather systems are resonant for me now, why I’m seizing on them now.

BB: Is there anything else you want to say about the project?

NG:  Hmmm.  Maybe that for This I’m working with mostly new collaborators.  For over twenty years I’ve worked with Zeena Parkins and Michael Stiller. Zeena is a composer and Michael is a lighting designer. Just about every piece I’ve made since 1991 has been lit by Michael, and had music by Zeena, or at least guidance from Zeena in my use of music. Zeena wasn’t available for this project because she has a fellowship in Germany. So when Zeena and I were talking about this project, it began to feel like an opportunity to shift things up. For This I’m working with Steve Roden, whom Zeena recommended to me. He’s a visual artist who also has a sound art component to his work. I’m working with Joe Levasseur, who is a well-known lighting designer in New York dance, but I’ve never worked with him before. And I’m working with new dancers in this piece. I worked with Mina Nishimura before, but only in one work, (like a vase). Molly Lieber, Omagbitse Omagbemi, and Connor Voss, I’ve never worked with before. I’m doing this by design, to open up new possibilities. I’m going further away from choosing dancers based on my own dancing. Not as far away as some other choreographers and dance groups go, but further away for me. I’m interested in decentering things. For years all of the movement in my work came from videotaping improvisations of me. This changed only beginning in 2006, which is for me relatively recent...

BB: In Really Queer Dance With Harps?

NG: It was actually Quartet with Three Gay Men. That was the first time I videotaped the other dancers’ improvisations and used some of that material in the piece. Really Queer Dance with Harps was in 2008 with eight dancers other than myself, and we used some of everyone’s movement, but also a lot of mine; the same for (like a vase). In This I think the majority of the movement is not from my improvisations. I did, though, participate in the duet improvisations, even though I’m not performing them in the piece.

BB: Are you dancing?

NG: I am dancing. The plan is that I’m dancing. I keep taking myself out of the piece, though. I was in it more a week ago and it just wasn’t making sense to me as I watched it. It felt almost overdesigned. I watch Project Runway a lot and that’s one of the critiques for a garment. Too many ideas! In watching video of a run-through I started to think, “What’s he doing there?” So, with some sadness, I’ve taken myself out of most of the piece, and I might only be involved by doing a short solo. But we’ll see where it will end up. Even if I take myself out of it completely, I’m in it, because I was part of these improvisations, and of course I’m the organizer. I’m still working in that old-fashioned model. The dancers generate a lot of the movement, but I’m still the organizer of it all in the end.

BB: When you’re filming the improvisations between you and one of the other dancers, does that dancer necessarily learn the material that they were improvising or does it start to shuffle?

NG: Both, actually. I really enjoy watching the dancer dance the material that came from their own improvisation because of the relationship they have to the material they themselves generated. But also, every one of the dancers are dancing material that they didn’t originate. They have a different relationship to that material. All of these relationships live inside the work. And still, viewers will probably come and say, “But they aren’t looking at each other!”

BB: They don’t? They don’t look at each other?

NG: They’re not directed not to look at each other. We’ve been talked about this issue in rehearsal. Somebody came to see rehearsal and made that comment… It started to seem to this viewer, a friend of mine, that the dancers were consciously not looking at each other. The dancers seem mystified by this comment. We had to ask ourselves: Is there something in the way we’ve been learning material that’s precluding the possibility of looking at each other?  Or does it seem that way to some viewers because we’re so invested in the specificity of the material, and we wouldn’t negate that by arbitrarily turning our heads. But we are working with each other. We’re taking cues off each other. We’re very aware of the spatial relationships and the temporal relationships, it all exists there. That’s a question for me, just what exists in the material.

When I used to watch Cunningham rehearsals, I used to love watching the dances I wasn’t in. I had such rich experiences watching these dances, and at some point I started to think that maybe some of that has to do with knowing the dancers and their backgrounds. So in Not-About-AIDS-Dance I put projected text up on the wall that gave information about the dancers. It was an attempt to frame the dancing so some of that background material could live inside the dancing.  I hasten to add that the dancers were never acting out what was in the text. Their dancing was not generated by the words. For that piece, I resorted to using words. I still love the gap between these different kinds of presentations, different kinds of meaning making, between the dancing and the text. There’s a real gap. And in this piece it was also a spatial gap. It was words up on a wall, and which exist in time in a different way, so a temporal gap too. It’s the same five words for twenty seconds. The dancing changes a lot in those twenty seconds. They don’t necessarily connect, the dancing and the words, and yet we connect them. How does all of this live inside the material? What is in this material? Is the way the material was made a part of the weather system of the material? Post-Judson dance has been looking at that question a lot, both Judson and post-Judson: Where does the process come in?

BB: And what are the possibilities for that material? It opens up possibilities for the material of dance. I’m thinking about dealing with the disciplinary aspect, that question of what you bring in to the theater. I’d like to return to the issue of the dancers not looking at each other. It seems to me more frequent than less in dance. Are dancers going to look at each other onstage if not given any direction?

NG: They will often decide to.

BB: Will they or will they not? Certainly, if the material is saying you are shaking each other’s hands or having an interaction, but if not? If that interaction isn’t framed or spelled out in a specific way? Are you going to look at, are you going to look past, are you going to look out and around? How does looking happen in dance on a stage, an empty stage often, with an audience and lights? You know what I mean?

NG: Like these duet improvisations. I’ve been talking about them as if they were two solos side by side, but they really are duets. The two dancers were in the room together, and the direction they were working with had to do with noticing connection and articulation, noticing the continuum between more connection with each other and more articulation away from each other. The dancers are clearly creating all sorts of relationships with their dancing, requiring that they be aware of each other, sense each other, but only occasionally in these videotaped improvisations do you see the dancers explicitly looking at each other. Yet you can still tell there is connection and relationship.  All of a sudden I start jumping just after Molly starts jumping, or Omagbitse starts vibrating, and I do the opposite and get really still. Improvisation 101 about relationship, maybe, but it’s all in there.

I did want to talk about the dancers, how working with these dancers is decentering things away from me. It’s getting just a little less subjectivity onstage, so I, as a choreographer, am dealing somewhat more with objects—things that didn’t emanate from me and I couldn’t predict, like a weather system.  When I take a particular duet, these two dancers and the specific timings they created in this particular improvisation, and another two dancers learn those specific movements and timing. Then you put them together, these two couples performing the same duet, and you give them different facings, perhaps stagger the timings, or give them the same facings and the same timings, in each case, what does that do? It’s like a weather system you can’t predict. We hit on one and Wow! I start to make a face, “I don’t know what that is but it’s something!” This feels like a productive thing to put onstage. If I don’t know what it is but it’s something then maybe the viewer will have an interaction with it and go “I don’t know what that is…”

BB: But it is something.

NG: Yes. That’s what I’m hoping.

BB: It’s This.

NG: Thank you!

Neil Greenberg has been making dances since 1979. He came to New York from Minnesota in 1976 and danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1979-1986.  He formed Dance By Neil Greenberg in 1986, and his choreography has since been presented in twenty New York City productions and on tour.  He is known especially for his Not-About-AIDS-Dance, which employs his signature use of projected words as a layering strategy that complicates the performance moment while also opening doors into potential meanings in the dance. His most recent projects - Really Queer Dance With Harps (2008) and (like a vase) (2010) - continue his investigation into the nature of meaning-making.  His current project, This, will premiere at New York Live Arts December 3-6, 2014.

He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two Bessie Awards, as well as repeated fellowships from the NEA and NYFA, a fellowship from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, a National Dance Project Production grant, a Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Creative Exploration Award, and repeated support from the MAP Fund and NYSCA.  He has created two commissioned works for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project and two works for Ricochet Dance Company of London.  His works have twice been cited as among the Ten High Points of the Year in The New York Times: his dance/video work Two in 2003 and Not-About-AIDS-Dance in 1994.

Greenberg is currently a Professor of Choreography at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, and has previously taught at Purchase College, Sarah Lawrence College, and UC Riverside.  He served as dance curator at The Kitchen from 1995-1999.

Biba Bell (b. 1976, Sebastopol) lives and works in Detroit and NYC. Bell’s performance work has been shown at Times Square Arts and the Clocktower Gallery NYC, Insel Hombroich Germany, Visual Art Center Austin, Detroit Institute of Art, The Garage for Contemporary Culture Moscow, The Kitchen NYC, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Human Resources Los Angeles, Centre Pompidou Paris, Henry Miller Library Big Sur, PaceWildenstein Gallery NYC, Jack Hanley Gallery NYC, Movement Research at Judson Memorial Church NYC, Roulette NYC, The Garage San Francisco, amongst others. Her current performance and video project is a three-part dance in a Mies van der Rohe apartment in Detroit (funded in part by The Knight Foundation). Bell also performs internationally with choreographer Maria Hassabi, will be defending her dissertation as a doctoral candidate in the department of performance studies at New York University in January 2015, and is on faculty in the Maggie Allesee department of Theater and Dance at Wayne State University. Her areas of study include contemporary choreography, site specificity, para-studio practice, theories of the body, and dance’s domesticity and immaterial labor within a culture industry. Her article “Slow Work: Dance’s temporal effort in the visual sphere” was published in the current issue of Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts.

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choreography, dance, improvisation, Jen Rosenblit, language, Merce Cunningham, Neil Greenberg, New York, New York Live Arts, Susan Sontag

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