CROWDS Still from Channel 3 Photo: Sarah Friedland

Sarah Friedland in Conversation with Brighid Greene

As part of the eighth edition of the Performa BiennialLa MaMa Galleria presents a 3-channel video installation of a durational dance. CROWDS, directed and choreographed by Sarah Friedland and produced by Brighid Greene, explores the embedded choreography of our crowd typologies, imagining the slippages between them as twenty-two dancers gather and disperse, unite and disjoint. In the basement of La Galleria, Sarah and Brighid reflect on the process of making CROWDS.


Brighid Greene: I am going to start by saying that I first met you with your project Home Exercises. I fell in love with that film. I also remember when you showed it to me, I was like I love the color but the footage hadn’t been color corrected yet. You were politely like, oh, this is just the raw footage.

Sarah Friedland: It was all gray and desaturated.

BG: You were teaching me the ways of filmmaking meanwhile I was really encouraging you to think of it as a documentary, to think of your work in an expanded way.

SF: I was still calling it an experimental home workout video then.

BG: Yeah, and I was like, this is also a documentary. Because I loved how you were thinking about dance and performance and documenting that. And having it live in that gray area between being something that’s performative, but then also being something that’s relaxed and genuine and I felt like you really captured that beautifully.

SF: Thank you. In that first conversation we had I felt a sort of falling in love of sorts. In addition to having collaborated to make CROWDS, we have been in conversation with one another for about three years, informed by our backgrounds as performer, curator/programmer, filmmaker (Brighid), and a choreographer/filmmaker. Throughout the last few years between both working together and not working together, and just sort of knowing each other, we have had these conversations about how dance and film can intersect and how we can make work that challenges some of the narrow limits of what is perceived as a dance film, of dances that are simply filmed on location. You and I have been having these conversations to try and seek out what expanded forms of cinema can we play with that animate choreography in different ways. What can a broader view of moving images and cinema offer choreographic practices. And vice versa.

BG: There’s a way for dance and film to be so much about location and in the context of a dance being on a stage in a proscenium setting. And there are three walls and so the camera can only be from one perspective, from the front, or if the camera is in the wings, then the camera automatically exposes the dance. Like you see a dancer go off stage and break character, if you want to describe it that way. Or if the camera is at the back of the stage, then it’s looking out into the audience so it becomes a different way of explaining that dance. But if you want to kind of keep just the integrity of the “performance,” then sometimes what happens in dance film is that the performance is just put somewhere else, where the camera can access the dance from all angles— it can be behind it, it can be beside it, and it still can maintain that integrity of performance. But maybe this is why I often think of your work as documentary. The locations that you use in your films are very real to the performance. It’s not just about taking the dance and putting it in some other location, where it can be more accessible by the camera. Your work is really about honoring the space and the movement in the space and the relationship between those.

SF: My practice, at this point, is only filmic—not making work for a stage setting or even a gallery setting outside of video screens. I am mainly interested in the type of choreography that occurs in real spaces and the types of exchanges that are happening between bodies and built spaces, bodies and objects, bodies and environment. What I love about film, and especially filmic realism, is the presence of the diegetic world. And that you can orchestrate all of these elements in the diegetic world for the bodies to be in communion with, in concert with, and in conversation with. I guess why I get frustrated with how a lot of dance films are made is because it seems that the space is adjacent to the ideas of the dance rather than allowing cinema to establish a relationship between the bodies and the very real and tactile and sensory world around them. Part of what excites me about dance film, and part of why I have been so thrilled by our conversations, is asking what the creation of a diegetic or a cinematic world can open up choreographically that performance spaces cannot, and what elements in the production process, with crew members and camera bodies and equipment, shift the choreography and how do those mechanical and other human bodies come into play?

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CROWDS Still from Channel 1 Photo: Sarah Friedland

BG: What was your process for the choreography of CROWDS? I came into the process when you had already made that first step into assembling the clock— all the gears were starting, were already connected and had been in development for a while .

SF: CROWDS looks at this crowd of dancers that’s constantly fluctuating between many different crowd types. It plays with this choreography of these typologies. I was the director and choreographer and Brighid was the producer. But, to answer your question, the process that I went through started solo. There have been all these transferences: from me alone to then me with many other people, to me alone again. So it started with me researching these typologies, making a list of every crowd type I could think of, then breaking down the choreography of those types. What are the formations, the repeated gestures, the rhythms, the textures? And, most importantly, where are the thresholds? When does the crowd stop being itself? So, for example, take a group of pilgrims. If they’re no longer moving towards or facing the object of the pilgrimage, what are they? I was also trying to figure out where there was shared choreography between seemingly disparate types of crowds that I could bring into contact with one another, and also where there were problematic slips between crowd types that we don’t necessarily see. That moved into me looking at hours and hours of Youtube videos of documentation of crowds. A big part of this process was not just annotating the choreography of these crowd types, but the cinematic tropes that exist in documenting them. What viewpoints do we privilege from one crowd to another? What faces do we seek out? What are the politics of those directorial choices? I started to make a skeleton of the dance based on playing with those thresholds, starting and ending the dance with two different queues. Then I moved into the studio with the dancers—I was working with 22 dancers from 13 different countries who were a part of a dance laboratory, Art Factory International. We would initiate every rehearsal with one crowd type. I would invite the dancers to share their own experiences with that crowd type, interpreting experiences and memory somewhat broadly, and then they would explain or restage them in some way. Sometimes that meant actually directing the other dancers in the memory they had and sometimes it meant articulating the logic of a crowd they had been in or seen. For example, there was a rugby captain who taught us how to do a scrum. It wasn’t like she was specifically reenacting a particular scrum she had been in, but articulating to us how we could achieve it. And then we would do this improvisational exercise we called “crowding”. First we would articulate to each other what we thought the logic of a particular crowd was and then they would improvise, beginning as that crowd and then mutating into others, for about 45 minutes and I would pull out elements that I wanted us to return to and bring into the choreography.

BG: When you were describing it to a curator this afternoon, you were talking about the queues going in and going out, I was like, oh, I think that’s the first time I’ve heard Sarah say that part about the starting and ending with the queue. It was also something that I had never noticed before. I’ve seen it so many times I just hadn’t really picked up on how it started and ended in such a circular way. The performers literally came from this one space that they also ended in. And I guess maybe because when we were shooting it we shot the scenes in all different orders.

SF: Right, the entire dance was completely scrambled in our shooting schedule.

BG: Although we did shoot the full performance a few times.

SF: Yeah, because the first channel was a single take. That was the only time where the dancers just did the full dance.

BG: And that was the first time that they did it, the version that you see.

SF: Exactly. The first time they were in the piazza. And you can see them in the other channels taking up more space. Which I think is really interesting that their first take they pretty much reproduced the space in the dance studio in the piazza, rather than taking up all of the space that was accessible to them.

BG: It started to become more expansive and you could feel them breathing as they started moving through the space and taking more time.

SF: And this comes back to your question of location. Part of why we did these crowding exercises was for them to develop this internal logic or coherence that dancers create together. I think dancers have a unique way of “knowing” in relationship to one another, but especially within this group because there's no score and there's no way of timekeeping. So it's a process of emergence with one another. One of the things I had underestimated was how much this collective knowledge was also in relationship to the built space of the dance studio. And that their bodies really learned the bounds of that space. So it took a few takes for them to hold on to the collective communication and perception while also acknowledging and activating the much vaster space they all of a sudden had access to. But to return to the queue, I moved into the studio with them with the idea that I almost had a script or blueprint, and that the actual texture of the movement would be created in collaboration with the dancers. But I did have certain forms and sequences, markers, gestures and turning points that were written out in advance. I drew overhead drawings of the piazza with dancers as dots within it. Having the bounds was really helpful to know: we’d start with a line. Partially because I knew this would be a looping installation with the idea that the line could almost feel like there was an endless entering and exiting and encircling the piazza, and to see the queue start as a queue of entrance -- of acceptance, of inclusion, perhaps even of citizenship -- and transform into a queue of migration or exodus or exclusion in the end. The formation of the line remains but the texture of what the bodies are doing in it really differentiates the signification of the queue.

One of the first things you and I did when you arrived in Bologna is I showed you the piazza we were gonna shoot in. The piazza is in the outskirts of Bologna...

BG: And I got stuck on the bus! [laughter]

SF: You got stuck on the bus. I thought I would never see you again.

BG: That was hilarious.

SF: And we didn’t have cellular communication. It was truly a moment of panic.

BG: I saw Sarah standing on the street looking for me as I waved from the bus window. It was very cinematic...

SF: I’m curious what your first reactions were to that space. The piazza was designed by Kenzō Tange, a modernist Japanese architect, and it has a brutalist vibe. Flying from New York and being plopped into this space that you knew was going to be our world, but you did not have access to previously.

BG: I had seen the space through Google Maps, through 3D imagery, but my first impression of the space was the scale of it. How big and round everything was. We would have lunch in this little cafe that everyone who worked there would come use, and it felt like time travel, like being in the ‘70s. This very streamlined way of going to work and going down to the cafe, and the food was pretty good, and the coffee. There was still this kind of restfulness in culture of taking lunch, taking a break, and I could feel that in the space. I also remember, because we have this overhead shot and we tried to get access to the roof but couldn’t because people had committed suicide by jumping from it, feeling the heaviness of that. Knowing that from our phone conversations and then seeing the space and feeling the severity of it. But then as we started filming there, it rained. The first day was terrifying because we were trying to get this one shot where we ended up hiring a crane for just one day because we couldn’t get the roof access and just being like please don’t rain… But after it rained, all this grass started growing up in between the brick, and you can see that over the course of the film, you can see in certain shots, the green coming up in the stone. Some of the shots from earlier on don’t really have it, so it really does kind of emerge. I remember there was a sort of mesh up on one of the buildings...

SF: ...For suicide prevention.

...

Dancers On Location In Piazza Renzo Imbeni, BolognaPhoto: Zakir Sheraan Baloch

BG: Yeah. So it just all started to soften over the course of the time we spent there. And it was Easter weekend and it was really quiet. It transformed from this severe work environment into this softer space, and the dancers were laying on the ground, people were laying in the sun, including Giorgio, our grip, who was the oldest member of our crew. We set up this tracking shot with three different sides, and he had to pull the camera for 40 minutes. It was only supposed to be about 20 minutes but he went so slowly it lasted 40. You asked him to move as slow as he possibly could. It was incredible. He went so slow it barely looked like he was moving, it was amazing.

SF: You could only tell he was moving if you clocked his position and checked again and realized he was in a different position.

BG: And, at the end of it, he was smoking a cigarette, like Oh no big deal. And then he said, “If it’s a good idea, it works.” It was the sweetest thing ever.

SF: He was very humble. Remember the dancers gave him a standing ovation? That was one of the most amazing moments in the production for me. You and I had talked a lot about how we think about the bodies of crew members, the embodiment of operators and grips and focus pullers, and the minutiae of their choreography producing a film. The embodiment of other crew roles are often underestimated. What was so beautiful was that he had this incredible solo performance. There is a part in the dance where one dancer slowly encircles the rest of the crowd, and it sort of felt like this mimetic thing where he was echoing that. Afterwards we went out and told the dancers about the feat he pulled off, and they all started whooping and cheering for him. It was a really nice recognition of the performance of the crew.

BG: When I saw the crew laying in the sun, relaxing and resting, using the space in that way, in a piazza way, I felt really proud of that.

SF: I really like you calling it a softening. I think for me the big transformation, and this comes back to the question of location and space, was when you and I first went to the piazza, I felt like we were scouts, there was this entire environment ordered by certain conditions of capitalism, and we were these outsiders that went to spy on that world. Over the course of 3 days it became our set and our world that we created. That said, it was interesting to see what elements of that non-filmic, working world remained. We shot over Easter weekend, partially because that’s when the dancers could, but also because that’s when the city of Bologna, in a Catholic country, could let us take over a major piazza for three days, because no one works.

BG: And because it was a work piazza, not like a piazza near a church.

SF: The piazza complex (Piazza Renzo Imbeni, Fiera District) was built to emulate the medieval towers of Bologna. It was commissioned in the outskirts of the city in this period of migration post-WWII where many Italians from the south were moving north for work. The expectation, when the piazza was commissioned in the 60s, was that Bologna was going to swell in size so much this would be a second center. But it didn’t. So it’s sort of this eerie workspace, kind of like the piazza in Jacques Tati’s Playtime but without the crowds. It’s like this work park where no one’s passing through unless they are working in the corporate towers around it. But the remnants of that working world that remained in our set world, were visible in the behavior of the security guards we observed on set. Everyday we had several different security guards who were there, largely because half of the piazza is owned by the Region — it’s the headquarters for the state of Emilia-Romagna. Each security guard that we got to know had a completely different personality and relationship to the production. One was completely flustered by our presence and did not know what to make of the dancers. One of them would go to the top of the towers and watch us, which was amazing because we were advocating to get access to the towers to have that viewpoint and they wouldn’t let us. He wanted to privilege the god’s eye view that we have in our first channel. But then there was one who tried to walk through and our PAs had to stop him. So there was very much this sense of being watched. I never felt that the space was ever entirely our own.

BG: I feel like maybe more was at stake for you because your name was on all of our permits. [Laughter] I didn’t have that same feeling. I felt like it was really our space. Maybe because I was thinking how unfamiliar this all must be for them, and we’ve gotten this far so that’s a major accomplishment. So much has already been accepted in order for that to take place. That was one of our favorite times, when they came to help us get access to our holding space where we had all the equipment, there was a keychain with like 50 keys. We had been challenged all weekend trying to do it all, and then they too were struggling, to find the right key, when I thought it would be an easy ask of them, and so we just waited and had to be patient. It was this moment of levity, things aren’t always laid out and that’s okay...

SF: There’s definitely the language element too. I speak Italian and Brighid doesn’t and she was using Google Translate on her phone. There was an element of translation with the dancers too. They spoke several languages and while we spoke English in our rehearsals, there would be these relays between dancers who knew different languages to help each other out. One of the other places I really saw translation in the process, was in your coming from a dance background to producing. I’m curious how you felt about your own embodiment in the production process, being a dancer who makes films.

BG: Maybe I didn’t admit this to you entirely but I was definitely terrified because I didn’t know the lingo, and the ways things should work, how a film set is run, and wanted to make sure we could create an environment that was not necessarily professional but that had a clear line of communication. And some of the protocols in film, you know who calls lights, camera, action, I didn’t know those things and was worried that it would just be messy and frustrating. I was online getting free spreadsheets on how to create a call sheet. I remember the moments of overthinking the week of, wanting control in an environment that was unfamiliar to me so I didn’t totally embarrass myself. And at some point, you were like I think we could let go of that. I don’t remember how we got there, but I remember getting to a place where I felt so confident in what I could do as a producer. And being able to be on set, and be present, and be able to communicate with people, and be able to express what needed to be expressed, and get coverage on everything we needed, making sure everybody felt good.

SF: The schedule went out the window.

BG: The schedule went out the window. [Laughter] But we let go of a lot of things, and not in a way that there was any contention around. I felt like I could communicate just how things felt, and be able to be like, Ok this isn’t feeling right, that didn’t quite feel right, and not be so concerned about sticking to the script or sticking to expectations and since we were able to get to that point of like Oh this doesn’t feel like it’s quite working that felt super successful. I think I credit that to being a dancer, not that I’ve necessarily been always able to exercise that in a performance environment, because I can definitely think of times when I was like this doesn’t feel right and I would still do it, but at least developing that sense. I don’t think that’s specific or special to being a dancer but that is where I learned letting go. In this case it was being able to let go of what it’s supposed to mean to be a film producer and be like I’m just gonna trust us and trust this, and that was really important to me, and I was terrified that it wouldn’t happen.

SF: I totally respect your terror, but I had such faith that you were going to do an amazing job.

BG: Thank you for having faith in me.

SF: All of what you were saying felt very manifest in how it was run. Part of why I wanted to work with you is that a crew has a logic of operating, partially based on protocols, that is similar to how a group of dancers moves together: there’s this sense of trust and proprioception that is not only physical but emotional. I thought it would be great for the dancers to have someone on the other side to share their language and to have that be the role of the producer. I think that it was clear in your producing style that it wasn’t a matter of regulating or regimenting protocol but of feeling out the crew in the way in which dancers might feel and move in relationship to one another. I think that allowed the group to perform the best way they could because there was this sense of moving in concert with one another rather than a rigid orchestration.

BG: Yeah, and I guess that’s some of the principle of crowds.

SF: Absolutely.

BG: And maybe some of the desires of our world was to make it less about orchestration. So there’s a sense of trust.

SF: That’s one of the questions that I hope we’ll continue talking about together, not just how cinema can open up other ways of creating, finding, or documenting choreography, but the ways dancers can know together, and can shift the methods and means of production.

BG: It was really special, that experience. This might be deeper in my psyche than anyone wants to know, but I remember thinking about all the cool professional cinema people that were on our set, who I admired for the work that they’ve done, and I felt like I was able to prove myself not based on all of the rigamarole, but prove myself with ideas and with laughter. I was having so much fun with our sound person, there were all these amazing sounds that were appearing and we kept bouncing off one another like did you hear that?! There was so much curiosity in the process, and that was so fun.

SF: So much curiosity. And that is what I want all of the film sets we’re on to be like.

BG: Implying that there’ll be more.

SF: I hope so, I hope we don’t stop making films. That’s not my intention.

BG: This was really special to me to be a part of this because, as a behind-the-scenes person, I don’t get to talk much about what I’m thinking, or what I’m doing, so it feels really good to be able to express that. Thank you Sarah so much.

SF: It’s a privilege to hear your thoughts. All the conversations we’ve had about how you think about embodiment on a set -- we actually got to practice that.

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Shooting CROWDS Photo: Zakir Sheraan Baloch

CROWDS is an Art Factory International production and was made possible with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts in Partnership with Wave Farm: Media Arts Assistance Fund, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts, Electronic Media and Film Program, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant.

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