Claudia Rankine & Will Rawls, What Remains, Danspace Project, NY, 2018. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Tara Aisha Willis, Leslie Cuyjet, Jess Pretty, and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste: What Remains

In September, What Remains -- a collaboration between poet Claudia Rankine, choreographer Will Rawls, and performers Tara Aisha Willis, Leslie Cuyjet, Jess Pretty, and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste -- premiered at Danspace Project. Through movement and language, What Remains invited the audience into an immersive environment where the performers stirred up "ideas of an entombed imagination, and responded to violence and disappearance." The world was created for and by the performers, the audience was their accomplice and witness. With the performers agency so clearly activated and the line between choreographer and performer so wonderfully blurred, we were interested in hosting a conversation between the performers, inviting them to reflect on what remains once the applause settles. What follows is a conversation held before the show travelled to the MCA in Chicago. 


Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste: What is it to build a work that is largely collaborative and that is partially established and is shifting because someone new has joined us? I was always trying to negotiate when that decision was made. When are we re-collaborating with this new person, or when are we trying to reinstall? I don’t think that was clear for Will, either.

Jess Pretty: I feel like that happened during the audition process. I think that was a moment of figuring it out. That was when this newness was coming into the work. Being a part of the work means collaborating as a part of the work with a specific set of skills. We have prompts, we do this exercise, we do this thing, everyone has a specific way to enter the thing. It’s like adding waves to the pool. So the collaborativeness started again in this audition process, like an opening of the gates.

Tara Aisha Willis: Some of that collaborative dynamic started to emerge in the original rehearsals. Will was trying to figure out what that pool was and we were shifting the idea of the pool, but that shifting also meant that we were navigating how we’re figuring out what that pool was. We were anxious. What is the piece if it’s not these people? What we were making wasn’t totally clear yet, so then we could say, of course this new person can come into the pool.

Leslie Cuyjet: I would talk to Jess about how the process was going and you would talk about how you were all so tight knit. It was a thing, it was a life thing, a marker. There was a before and after. This was the dynamic between you all. It made me think okay I don’t even know which side to get in the pool. I understood that it was a molecular bond that I didn’t know how or which way to approach.

TAW: It was such a group dynamic, but it also was really new.

JP: Especially since we left it alone for a year. What remains? It took me three minutes to say the name of the show.

LC: You said the name of the show! What Remains!

TAW: And our sense of agency, not even just in the sense of collaboration, but in the sense of literally what we were doing onstage. The piece reinforced and supported the agency of the performers.

JTB: I thought of something interesting that we could speak about. Once it became show mode, no matter what we did, we brought a sense of intentionality or consequence to it. Before we opened the show, before we got into show mode, there was a lot of sculpting going on from the outside. Ater opening night that sharply shifted. There was a sense of utter trust in us and this space for agency. The audience needed to be involved. We started taking risks and having fun, like, really really really having fun..

JP: I think that becomes a really big part of it. There’s something about building our world and trusting each other and going there. The choices change and the thoughts change as people enter the room, our room. I think that there’s something about Will and all of us seeing it land on an audience that was like going driving alone for the first time. You drove the streets with friends but now you hit the freeway by yourself, you’re a little nervous. But then after time, it’s just like okay, I’m doing this. The thing that we built in rehearsal -- so diligently and so sweetly and so adamantly -- is so concentrated and so specific and with all these intentions. To see that land and sprinkle on people night after night, it’s just like, okay we can do this in front of people and be fine. Being able to make last minute choices in front of people, how to think on your feet.

JTB: I’m thinking about having no audience and still supposed to do the thing. Without the audience, I felt I didn’t trust myself in that space and couldn’t even take the agency because I didn’t feel it in my gut.

LC: Will said, “don’t be scared of the piece.” He was encouraging us to have confidence, to keep confidence in our choices. There’s no in-between. Just go for it. The three things he told us right before opening night were: “1.yesterday was yesterday 2. it’s a performance 3. but fuck that, we’re here to play.Those are the three things he said; yesterday was yesterday, performance, and play. I was like damn. That’s the best opening night speech I’ve ever gotten.

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Claudia Rankine & Will Rawls, What Remains, Danspace Project, NY, 2018. Photo: Ian Douglas.

JP: Will Rawls, rise up to the stars. Tara, what do you think about agency in the work? There’s something about the your traveling back here for this.

TAW: I’ve only been in this piece by really departing from my life in Chicago. I’ve been realizing that I want my ability to be in the work to not be so predicated on living two lives. It’s spatial, like you said about the travel and that transition to a different place, and navigating how to be on the work side of things (as a curator at MCA where we presented this work) while also being on the performance side of things (as a performer and collaborator in What Remains). When I travel to be with you guys, I am not in my house. I’m on tour. I’m staying on someone’s couch or I’m in a sublet or I’m in a hotel. It is not a big deal, but for me that’s such a just specific part of what the show has become. But it is also about navigating how I actually fully get into the show and really do the show, apart from all of that.

LC: It’s interesting that you’re in a role between curator and dancer especially with this idea of the murky space between dancer and the choreographer or the dancer and the dance.

TAW: I feel like I’m still figuring out how I can do the piece, how we can all do the piece. We have to really do the piece. There’s so much that’s up in the air until it’s happening. I think about when I go into my solo with the speech, I truly don’t know how that’s gonna happen until I am doing it—done with it even. Every little moment that happens before, it adds up to something completely different every time. What is this all gonna add up to? What happened in the piece thus far? How is my voice is feeling? How out of breath am I? How weird it is that someone is looking at you.

JP: What strikes me about your solo is how the lunges effect it so heavily. That heavy, cathartic release that is the lunges. It conjures something that is always powerful but is very different and lands very different in the body every night. So then to have that moment and go into your speech. It’s a very interesting thing to navigate but I think that that’s the balance. People will wonder how much of the work is improvised and how much is set. Every night it’s the same to-do list, give or take, but you put on different clothes every day, you may drive a different car, you may forget your keys and go back, it’s a different dailyness of getting into it. Will saying “Don’t forget to play”, allowed us to riff so much more. If you brace for a fall you’re gonna fuck yourself up. But if you’re open to it and release into it, then you’re going to be able to roll with it so much more.

TAW: It’s one thing to be like I have to go back and get my keys once I’m already out the door. It’s another thing to be like, I have my keys but look, I just found a quarter. Noticing it. I could do the things and meet all the needs of what is expected but, what am I bringing and what am I finding in a given moment? Am I attuned to moments when I maybe need to hang back and witness?

LC: That’s what I think I learned most in this process. I don’t know everything and I can’t know everything. That was a hard lesson for me to take hold of. Thinking of this connection between dance, dancer, and choreographer; this building of trust, this consent. I consented to the dance, I am allowing myself, I’m giving myself over because I trust Will and I trust this thing that we’ve created to take me where it needs to go. When you said, being present in the dance, it made me think of that analogy of blacking out that we’ve joked about it. One minute we’re in the dressing room saying, okay Merde, love you, have a good show, and the next thing I’m like oh, it’s over. We’re back in the dressing room. I think it’s because we’ve conjured this trust. Consent is the word I keep coming back to. Take me where it needs to go. I’m on. I’ve said yes. Yes means yes.

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Claudia Rankine & Will Rawls, What Remains, Danspace Project, NY, 2018. Photo: Ian Douglas.

JP: This makes me think about doing the show for different audiences every night. Every night we see the people walk in, literally walk past us. We see what percentage of the audience is white. The work can be so tailored to who is watching. We have the chance to bond with the audience as they’re walking in. The work depends on the audience, period. The audience conjures a different space every night. I’m thinking about the work of getting into the work in front of a different audience and inside of a different energy every night. We drop into the audience as they drop into us.

JTB: In those opening moments, the back-and-forth with us across the space, the way that we’re addressing them as they come into the space, the way that we’re watching them behave or misbehave, or act like they’ve never been to the theatre before, that creates a foundation on which we exist throughout the work. There’s something in the way that it changes the dynamic between the four of us that feels subtle and delicate and explicit and heavy at the same time.

LC: We were already inside a practice when the house opened. There is this moment when they are coming into our space and that pool has a lot of ripples, you know? It’s disturbed waters. I did feel like I had to conjure it, really put an effort behind holding that space with the audience. Usually you’re at the point when the doors open, you’re ready, you need the audience. When we opened the house I could have given two shits if the audience was there or not. I didn’t care. I did not care.

TAW: It’s a certain kind of theatricality, the way it gets set up, but it’s also a power. In a big way. No matter what we do, no matter what they do. We create the world and they’re looking in on it, and it’s about that. Which is what theatre is, but we’re creating a very particular world and it’s not an illusion world. Theatre is often trying to create an illusion world. In the proscenium space, that’s the thing, the image.We’re actually creating a world and—this is something Will said, I think—we’re more comfortable in that world because we’ve been there already. It’s new to them. They don’t know the rules, and it becomes about that. It becomes about how we’re being seen, how they’re reacting to us.

JP: What Remains is happening whether the audience is there or not because this is an everyday practice at this point. It changes when the audience is there, that amps up certain things, but also y’all don’t matter. You do, but you don’t. I’m thinking about the audience members who were just walking in and traipsing all over the space. I’m thinking about what it means to be black and reclaim space and reclaim viewership and reclaim the gaze on the body. Oh, that white woman, literally walked over me to get to her seat even though the ushers told her not to step on the steps. Ok. So now, you think that you know Danspace, but actually like this whole things gonna flip upside down and we’re gonna tell you about yourself. The space is ours. We build that world when we walk in for call at 2:30. The balance between their importance and their inconsequential-ness is interesting. Going back to what Leslie said about blacking out in a performance and not giving a shit. The audience is there, but it’s not about them.

LC: Jess, is what you were saying possible because we were there for ten days, 12 hours a day, before we performed? We claimed that space because we were living in the space for so long. Do you have anything to add about your experiences with the other spaces and the time you inhabited them and how that affected how much you were really in the world that you created?

TAW: Should we talk about the racism at Bard?

JTB: We can definitely talk about that. That’s something.

TAW: I mean it wasn’t the people we were dealing with at Bard.

JP: But Bard really is like an expanded Gilmore Girls set. It’s Stars Hollow in super zoom. Bard in particular was hard because at times we were the only female identifying bodies in that space. Being around a great deal of white brawny paper towel men who walked around us and navigated us and moved us around. It kept us from being able to claim the space. We had to try and find ourselves and build ourselves so that we had some semblance of citizenship within the process because that space was so dismissive.

LC: I love that, ‘citizenship within the process.’

JTB: The difference of every space is our practice now. That’s our work. Creating a system that we can take with us and that can expand and contract based on the space, not based on what the space demands of us, but what we demand of the space.

JP: That’s the work now--gathering ownership of the space.

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Claudia Rankine & Will Rawls, What Remains, Danspace Project, NY, 2018. Photo: Ian Douglas.

LC: I just saw another thing in my notebook that Will said right before opening night, ‘your value is not at stake’. I can be here. I can just exist and that’s okay. I don’t have to question anymore whether I was worthy of being in that room, with all of you, with Will, with Claudia Rankine. That show was sold out long before we opened, this was an important show. For him to pull that out: ‘you can do no wrong,’ ‘your value is not at stake.’ There’s nothing I can do that is going to diminish my presence here and that was just what I needed to hear.

TAW: That’s good direction. This process feels chaotic sometimes. But I trust Will to pull the direction at the right time. And that he really means that, ‘you can do know wrong’. We are the ones on stage making it exist. All the things that I’ve heard him say in rehearsal and the way that he’s imagining and structuring things, that is what is holding us up. He’ll find the answers to reconfigure it.

LC: As curators, as dancers, but also as black women, getting to fucking exhale into a piece and exhale into somebody saying “I got you,” is rare, and it is a very special thing.

JP: That enables us to acknowledge that the work is already done. The labor is done. You’ve given birth to the child. You just have to show up for it. Don’t be negligent. Just show the fuck up. Not feel like we need to pull this overtime and create new worlds and create new systems for performing the work. The work is there, the playground is there, now we get to sit back and enjoy the fruit of our labor. And I feel like that’s the performance of the piece.

LC: I’m so excited we get to do it.

JP: So many times.

JTB: I’m really excited to bring it to different spaces. It feels important that the work changes and expands and contracts based on what we need from the space. It keeps the work from being able to solidify into a thing. We can step back and look at the labor but it’s never like stepping back and being like ‘that’s a work of art,’ ‘that’s a finished art.’ Because our work is always still ahead of us. The work stays slippery and fugitive.

TAW: What you said reminds me of the pool that we were talking about earlier. There was a phase where we figured out: oh, okay. We have a pool already. What are we going to do? We’re going to put a slide in it. From this point forward, the pool is expanding and there’s an infinity horizon with the ocean that’s about to fall off.

LC: What remains for the performers after the performance? Well, I don’t know because it’s not done.

JTB: We’re not left wanting after the work was shown. What remains is, just, more.

TAW: The feedback remains. People said ‘I didn’t know you could do all of these things.’ The multiple skills required for the multiple ways we articulated ourselves.

LC: They would say ‘Oh ya’ll can sing,’ and ‘I was transformed’ and ‘I was transported.’ The maturity of the performance. That is the feeling I got from the feedback. They were looking at polished performers and polished work. It was known and understood to us, and I think people felt that with us, not just with the work, but with our work.

JTB: It’s a world that we created and live in. We’re not trying to find something new. We’re taking something that exists between the entire collaborative, and mining it for something deeper. That comes a level of rigor. You can’t just half-ass sing a song. No it’s: ‘show up and be good,’ while still being conceptually thick and irreverent and all of that.

JP: Jeremy, your words make me think about diving into the uncomfortable with the work. During a residency we had to call out a bunch of male shit that was happening within our surroundings. Everyone was a fucking man. This was when the Breakfast Club text got in there. ‘Fuck you motherfucking, you fuck face, fuck your face.’ All this really violent white male language. Let’s go there and see what it is and find the language. Stutter around the language until we’re like: ‘no this is why this is fucked up.’ It caused us to reconsider our thoughts around preciousness and comfort within a piece and a place. You might be thinking ‘I’m in a dance work, it’s supposed to be polished and cued,’ and it’s like ‘No, we’re here to reimagine ourselves and the world we’re around.’ Look at Claudia’s words like ‘death’, and ‘life’, and ‘proximity to whiteness’, and ‘proximity to authority’, and ‘proximity to surveillance.’ We’re here to question shit so deeply, we question ourselves. Which can be really taxing as a part of the work. To call yourself out every single day, 12 hours a day, it is a lot. But how else can we reach the depth. This work is like a glacier. It’s so deep and it’s so dense, and it’s terrifying because of the amount of possibility within it. That risk of going deep and doing shit that scares all of us. It’s a standard of communication and agency within the work.

JTB: I’m thinking about the first time when some of the text became explicit in how it functions in regards to the work. You mentioned calling ourselves out. There’s always this ‘you’ implied. I feel like the ‘you’ is often an implied ‘I.’ So then ‘to call you out,’ ‘to call you in’ becomes a question of calling ourselves out, to call ourselves into the work, and really challenging ourselves on all these levels. For me, not having performed at in this way many times before, I had to call myself out just to be able to enter the world graciously and carefully. We had to fuck with ourselves to get into the thing.

LC: There was so much that was unknown. We jumped into that.

JP: Everyday. Constantly.

LC: Trust, risk. I went in headfirst. I was so impressed when Claudia suggested that we didn’t need her text anymore. How amazing is that she has no ego around this collaboration? And that she recognized that the piece had become another thing, that we made it another thing. The performance was just us, was ours.

JTB: There’s a lot of trust in that. We were doing the thing. To me it feels less like a question of performers taking agency within the work and more about what a spirit of trust across all strata of a piece can allow for. That shit was really special.

All: Yeah. It was really fucking special.

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