Utopian synesthesia: DD Dorvillier in conversation with Jennifer Lacey on Danza Permanente

Interview date: August 27, 2012 Download a PDF of this conversation Jennifer Lacey and DD Dorvillier discuss joyful work, physical memory, eurhythmy, and DD's process of making human future dance corps Danza Permanente, opening on September 15 at The Kitchen, co-presented with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)'s Crossing the Line 2012.
Photo: Thomas Dunn
Jennifer Lacey: Could you explain a little bit the system you use to make Danza Permanente? DD Dorvillier: It's the score of a string quartet, Opus 132 in A minor by Beethoven. It has five movements, and a long, slow adagio in the center of piece. Each movement we made differently; basic strategies had to do with reducing the melodic and rhythmic content to a series of themes or generic phrases. Some of it is so self-evident- there is a melody, which repeats in variations through the whole 1st movement, in a different key or something, so we reduced it to a theme. There would be a phrase of dance that would go along with that theme, note-by-note to try to embody that theme. And of course its totally subjective, the way that we made choices about the shapes of the movements and the way they were organized in space had to do with reading the music, hearing it played, our own references, what it made you feel like, how it made you feel like moving… Sometimes it was based on how the notes were moving: low to high, rhythm unfolding or something was in unison. Each of the different movements we found different strategies to translate.  
Score used by DD/human future dance corps during the creation of the work
  Jennifer: You have this tone of official-ness when you talk about it, like it’s a NASA science project. But there’s a lot of subjectivity present, the work relies on it, and is strengthened by it. Did you pretend you all needed to agree on a method or was there immediately a respect for the obscurity of individual interpretations? DD: We agreed on 'that’s the theme, the theme looks like this,' but sometimes people had to do certain interpretations, so some people solved that first note by stepping to the left and some solved it by bending a knee, but that was a bit of a problem so everyone started stepping on the left, and that became the way to do it. There were some places where people solved those kinds of problems in different ways and we decided that, ‘Okay, that’s inherent to that instrument, Walter resolves like that, so that means that’s the cello.’ Jennifer: So they were responsible for an internal consistency, for their own instrument in the dance? DD: Yeah, exactly. Jennifer: When you were first making the material, there wasn’t just the relationship to the theme in the music but a relationship to words and to concepts and you were making vocabulary that was symbolic- making symbolic movement. DD: The first four notes, first eight measures are a series of four notes that are kind of played back and forth between four instruments. They progress from low note to high note and vice versa. We listened to it as just four notes in a row; it had a kind of meaning or a kind of “feelingness” to it. When we were in Seattle, we listened to the loop over and over, and we moved with the eyes closed, videotaping each other for 20-minute sessions. Many things happened. Knowing that we were trying to find something consistent so that we could make the patterns in the music visible and finally in that whole work it seemed like it was about a whole life, about evolution or a cycle or this kind of underpinning of life. Then in the musical analysis of the string quartet with Zeena [Parkins], there was a lot of language about these 4 notes as the base of the 1st movement; they function as this renaissance motet, they gave substance to the thing. Jennifer: There are so many steps and it’s so structured, given the structure was in a way, a readymade.  Sometimes you were churning out steps in front of people and you were looking at people’s variations and deciding if that anomaly or if that mistake or difference was actually integrate-able or not, watching over a landscape and deciding whether to leave that tree growing or not- sort of a gardener’s capacity. I was wondering if you have anything to say about your experience of being a choreographer, or of choreography is in the making of this piece? DD: It was really like being a gardener, that’s a nice image. It’s funny because it definitely is choreography, and I definitely made up a lot of it, and others made up a lot of the steps as well.  Gesture is not only in the sign but also in the organization of the body somehow, the organization of the body creates a rhythm just by bending or straightening, stepping onto a straight leg or going from a plie to a straight leg. Jennifer: These are things that we know, but this process made it fresh, interesting, impertinent somehow… there are times when I wonder about the relationship of the making time to the performance time and then the appreciation time, the way it lasts in me as a receiver, but I didn’t have any questions about this piece. I was like, “That work was totally worth it!”
Photo: Thomas Dunn
DD: Sometimes our work is kind of what the piece is about, in a big way, and I think more than this piece being about choreography is really about the dancers: if you can trace a story in their performing and relationships. It’s about dancing and being an interpreter. Jennifer: That’s why choreography is necessary; that’s the subject of their activity, the choreography. Accomplished dancers doing complicated choreography. That’s what it should be all the time, but I felt that this piece was particularly satisfying as a viewer. The choreography was well made, but the satisfying-ness of it was in the engagement, in the discussion of what they were doing while they were doing it and at the same time the difficulty; it didn’t look like they were struggling at all, but I could appreciate that they were working. And working with pleasure, working with a different sense of work. That is also quite interesting, this concept of joyous work. DD: I think that’s the key. Sometimes I’ll wonder “did I make this piece just to see people work?” That’s not why I made the piece, and what I enjoy is not even the prowess of their memory, in the movement itself there isn’t much virtuosity, so what we’re left with is the excellence of their concentration and their joy as you say, the joy that comes from them. Jennifer: It’s not joy like greeting card joy, there’s a certain kind of vivacity and aliveness to it. That’s why we’re here watching live performance! DD: What’s interesting is that if you really listen and you have a good memory. You can hum the tune of the string quartet; you can hum one of the themes. I can now dance a theme, but that’s because I made it up and I know it. Jennifer: Is that linked with an internal hearing for you? When you do the movement do you hear the theme? DD: I hum the music just before so I can remember what it is. I tried really hard to make a distinction between physical memory and mental-physical memory because what I learned was to dance to memorize it so fully that there was no more “thinking” necessary, but here they have to be thinking all the time. There’s a physical memory that they have. There are certain places where they have momentum, when they allow the momentum to take over and they have a natural counting rhythm, but in this case momentum is the most difficult thing for them to do, because if they go too much into momentum they lose the others. So, they either have to go all together in the momentum and know it or they have to keep counting. It happens in different ways.   On a really good day the very opening is like butter; they’re just completely together. But I’ve also seen it when they’re just a little bit off, and its just totally different, so its just a minor way of connecting with the momentum of the whole group that kind of throws the whole thing off. “Are we going together or are we counting?” And they have to be able to do both. Jennifer: Did Zeena talk about her experience as a musician? Is that how musicians play together? DD: She didn’t use the language that I just used, but she has said, “When a musician sees this kind of 30-second note sequence, they don’t think about it as a dot for every note, they might think about it as exactly movement with a momentum.” Jennifer: Movement through the notes, but they still have to keep time with the orchestra. DD: But there are places where she was like, “they wouldn’t play it as if it was a series of notes, they are playing movement.” When we were first working, we were trying to do this truncated series of notes, and she was like 'this is actually more like movement.' Jennifer: I was privy to several skype meetings of you guys puzzling out the score, which was incredible because you have some musical training, but especially Zeena going at it as a musicologist. I found it interesting that there was this real scientific, mathematical integrity to your discussion, and then moments where it was like, 'ugh, put it in the green pile!' DD: We were trying to bring the music and the dance together, so she would come at it from the musical point of view and I would come at it from the practical problems of the dance. Jennifer: Like, ‘we’re on the wrong side of the stage.’ DD: Zeena also has a dance background, so she would be like ‘can’t you do that with the arms instead?’ Jennifer: Why make music visible? DD: I’m challenging myself now with this concept of making music visible because it’s with a wink and a nod. Making music visible is kind of a utopic promise.
Photo: Thomas Dunn
Jennifer: I understand you’re tongue-in-cheek about it because it also seems to be impossible unless you have synesthesia. In a way it’s pointless because we don’t see the music. DD: That’s why I feel it’s kind of false advertising, but it’s an interesting language to use. I say ‘utopic’ because if I’m saying that we can make the music visible that means there’s no difference between music and dance, but in fact it’s the difference between music and dance that makes life so interesting. Jennifer: I would say that maybe the disillusion of those differences in the piece is sort of a fantasy about the end of life or what happens when we die, rather than a utopic vision. DD: It’s painful because if you can see what is heard then does that mean that you don’t really need to listen anymore? Or if you can hear the dance, then does that means that you no longer need to see it? Jennifer: You do have a tendency, as I do, of these unwieldy blocky concepts that exist in the world and that influence people and ourselves, and you tend to go at them (as I do) as a screen for activity. But I feel like you are a much harder worker, you actually tried to do the thing that’s impossible. DD: This work is about work. I don’t think I have a work ethic or something, but I think probably one of my modes of expression is obsessive-ness, and I’m very attracted to work that’s obsessive or extremely detailed. I’m actually really interested not in detail to produce beauty, but in detail for the sake of detail itself, which can be boring and dangerous. When you engage with that with other people it’s like you’re making a tapestry together. You need to put all that energy into all the details that go into just preparing the threads, and then you have that loom; everything has to be scheduled and negotiated… Jennifer: It makes sense, and it’s also a bit old fashioned. DD: Sometimes it takes itself too seriously. Jennifer: I would say that it’s old-timey. DD: It’s old timey… The references people made were ‘oh, its really baroque.’ It could verge on the territory of craft, which I’m not against, but the work isn’t really that. Jennifer: What did you think of the Steiner eurhythmy videos? One was about using eurhythmy in education and one was a Beethoven piece performed by a San Francisco eurhythmy group: DD: They’re both pretty great. In their effort and their sweetness and tenderness. The Waldorf proposition is kind of utopic, when I think about it as translation, when I kept watching them going through the different grades. I’ve used eurhythmy a lot; I’ve been very influenced by it. In CPAU, Amanda had gone to a Steiner school and I had done a little bit of eurhythmy in Puerto Rico… and we watched a ton, so we kind of invented our own eurhythmy alphabet. As I listen to the woman on the Waldorf video, I actually thought there was something quite sincere about giving students opportunities to engage with ambiguous relationships with signification, with gesture producing meaning. Jennifer: Yes, it does do something about the experience of oneself in relationship to a group. DD: But, when I was also watching the aesthetic, I was like, ‘ugh, why do I always have to see this idea connected to this aesthetic?’ It’s overbearing. Jennifer: It’s completely overbearing. We’re dealing with a tradition that is pretty anchored. It’s seductive and completely disturbing. A lot of language around Steiner is constant justification. DD: I do think that Danza Permanente would be a nice offering to students at the Waldorf School. Jennifer: Steiner himself said that eurhythmy was not dance, that it was making music visible and making language visible. DD: That’s really funny! This is definitely dance…it will always be dance. Jennifer: When you’re talking about utopian concepts it’s important that there’s a time of belief and investment. You’re not creating a system for the ages; you’re creating a system for this piece. The things you learn may carry onto the next piece or not, but it’s not about creating a language that will continue to develop and influence people and be functional beyond the making of the piece. DD: Exactly. Jennifer: At the same time, there’s a serious investment in that language in that moment, and I think that that’s an interesting quality, maybe, of our generation. Because we grew up in the cradle of modernism with these techniques that were meant to last longer than the body of their creator, and longer than the specific work that was being made; they were meant to support the work. And then we got into the mishmash of the 80s and 90s where people needed to maintain a company because they had a certain vocabulary that had to be delivered in a correct and nuanced manner. And now we’re not doing that but I do notice that we really like to dig in there and be like, ‘this is how we’re behaving for this amount of time, and we’re really going to do it…’ But it’s disposable. DD: I don’t know if it's disposable, you can certainly reuse it. Jennifer: It’s subject to entropy, and we know it. DD: It's mutable. The next piece I’m doing I really want to get my calves in shape because we’re going to be hopping a lot, but it turns out I hop a lot in all my pieces. So there are certain things that help when the others can do them. Jennifer: That comes up in your work; that is for sure. I look at those dancers and I see stuff that we did 15 years ago. DD: You said it very well; we’re not making techniques that are meant to outlast our bodies or the body of the work. Jennifer: There is something that persists. Wally [Cardona] and I wanted to get rid of all of that stuff and it wouldn’t go away, so we just called it the ‘Wally-ness’ or the ‘Jennifer-ness.’ There is the hopping and there are certain gestures that I completely recognize as coming out of your body. Whether or not you have invested energy in developing technique, people reproduce forms all the time. They are vibrant and more necessary because they keep coming up rather than remaining as a result of preservation.
Photo: Thomas Dunn
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dance, DD Dorviller, DD Dorvillier, eurhythmy, Jennifer Lacey, music and dance, PDF, The Kitchen, Video, Zeena Parkins


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