Category Archives: Process

MANCC1

Residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC)

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In early October, I was in residence at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) in Tallahassee, Florida. I was invited to lead choreographic explorations with the dancers of AXIS Dance Company, an amazing organization based in Oakland, CA with a mission to create, perform, educate and support “physically integrated dance,” a contemporary dance form that evolves from the collaboration between dancers with and without physical disabilities. This residency was transformative for me and helped me solidify some thoughts I was exploring about process.

More information on AXIS Dance Company and the residency

Committing to the 24 Preludes – belated notes from London

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Early on in the London rehearsal phase I decided to work with the commitment of using the 24 preludes in their entirety.  In order.  (whether or not this becomes the final decision it felt right to commit to it very fully for a couple weeks) The decision came out of a conversation with Matteo Fargion and Rahel Vonmoos on the first day about the music.
This is the structure I’ve been working with for a long time, but I’ve been leaving the door open to the possibility of skipping tracks or using additional Chopin pieces outside of the preludes.
It feels good to commit to the full preludes and embrace that challenge as part of the work.
The use of this particular piece of music began as an exercise: A structure to organize within, a frame to push against… At first it felt temporary – like a necessary first step in assembling an unruly amount of material, a shell I would shed at a certain point.  But I quickly became intrigued by the pieces and the specific ways they cradled, coinsided and clashed with the content of my material.
When I show this draft to new people the music is always at the forefront of the experience and the decision to use Chopin carries weight and brings up questions.
For the work-in-progress version I’ve been working with for a while now, I only made my way up to the 17th prelude.  At the conclusion of my time in London I now have a draft of the full 24 preludes.
Embracing the challenge of sticking to this structure in full and recognizing that as a key component of the dance is so far proving very helpful.  Psychologically and in practice.
With the intentional limitation I feel like I can address more specifically the elements I do have in my control and at my disposal.

i.e. Silence (length between preludes), volume, style of the recording, source of the recording (full sound system, a radio onstage), and the relationship between my voice my movement and the music… which is a big one.

Why Mother why now?

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as in…why am I looking at the Mother-child relationship in my process right now…
 

I am a mother. 
My memories of my mother when she was the age that I am now are very strong, potent and continually influential.
My son Simon is almost eight.
When I was eight my Mom came out to me. 
In the same breath she explained that she and my father would be getting a divorce.
She loved Lori the way she had once loved my Father.
My parents had enrolled me in catholic school a few years prior.  We never went to church and we were already considered a pretty weird family, So my mom thought it best if I not tell anyone about her sexual orientation.  So I didn’t.  I felt a little guilty when I made “best friend pacts” to tell all …but my Mom always came first so mum was the word.  But it was tricky for me: I thought her relationship with Lori was beautiful and I wanted so badly to tell everyone I knew.  I didn’t like lying when people asked why my Mom didn’t have a boyfriend. 
My mom’s fear was strong.  In general.  About a lot of things.  And it still is.
When I was eight AIDS was spreading and the general population didn’t understand what it was.
And AIDS was connected to gay.
Fear was strong.
My Mom’s partner was a nurse and they showed me several VHS movies about AIDS; making sure I understood that you can’t catch it through touch and spit.  And they made sure I knew everything there was to know about condoms.  “Guys- I’m 8!!!  Yuck.”  They made jokes about how straight I was and giggled about the guys I would be bringing home.  “Guys – I’m 8!!! Yuck.” 
My Mom and Lori found a community of closeted lesbians in our suburban neighborhood.  Many of them had kids from previous marriages… and they became good friends of mine. 
…when I was 8 years old it was 1980
Ronald Reagan was elected. 
I vividly remember my mother pacing and panting as the results of polls rolled in.
“I can’t fucking believe this.  What is wrong with people?  This man is a moron.
Nichole, the world you live in is about to change for the worse.” 
I wondered what does this mean?  Who is this man?  How could he single handedly ruin the world we knew?  What should I do to prepare?
Is this how Simon feels as we gear up for the election where Mitt Romney “battles” Barack Obama?  Simon is searching for good guys and bad guys – trying to assign the roles. 
The messy details of my parent’s divorce taught me early on that there were no such thing as good guy and bad guy.  There was only difference and complexity.  Sure, there are extreme beliefs and behaviours, but everyone has their reasons and even the most well-intentioned action can hurt others.  I learned this through the example of the relationships in front of me.  The tiny tears against my heart made it stronger bigger full of compassion.  Will Simon absorb this type of information through my words, without living through the struggle?  Is he too protected?  What is he taking in through that little lens of his?
The Memory Map:
In my solo practice I found myself referring to a mental map of my childhood home.  I lived on a street called Midway Avenue between ages 3 and 10, sometimes with my Dad and his girlfriends, sometimes with my Mom and her partners, sometimes with my parents when they were trying to work it out.  As adults came and went I was the most consistent resident. 
I find it interesting that seven years of activity are now condensed into one static picture that I can mentally walk through.  Its interesting to note what remains: for instance the christimas tree sits at the bottom of the steps even though it was only there one month a year.  Its like a time lapse photograph of sorts.  Sometimes length of stay earns a piece of furniture its place, but sometimes a brief flash of activity –if bright enough- burns its way onto the image forever. 
The Poetics of Space:  I started reading The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard and felt an immediate thrill as I read the introduction.  I couldn’t believe how perfectly it supported and illuminated the ways I’d been thinking about space and the significance of one’s memory of their childhood home.  Reading this (I’m still working through it) is deepening and expanding my thinking about this personal material and strengthening my confidence that it can indeed make its way into a work of art that others can relate to. 
Real and Borrowed images.  And the Borrowed images you can’t remove:
The dead guy:  When I was taking a mental tour of my childhood house on Midway avenue, I noticed there was a bloody dead man on the couch.  What??  There has never been a bloody dead person on that couch and I have never seen such a horror with my own eyes.  So why is he here on the couch at Midway avenue?   I realized this image arrived when I saw a play “Iron” in which the mother tells her daughter the details of a murder she committed.  As I listened to the story I was staging the murder in Midway avenue.  I often stage scenes from books or plays there if the author does not assign specific architectural details I just subconsciously stage the action at Midway avenue.  Apparently this body permanently lodged itself on my childhood couch.  As much as a try I cannot erase it from the room.  I’m stuck with this dead body. 
Now as you can imagine, when I relayed this detail to Wendy her eyes widened.  “Well, this metaphor is very strong Nichole, you need to put this stubborn obstacle on the stage with you in some way”
Ok, so what does all this have to do with performance?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  But its certainly made its way into this creative process…
And, when your own story implicates others, is it okay to tell that story?
*how this relates to my group process is detailed in “Mother and the Architecture of Memory”

Notes from Wendy’s April Visit

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WENDY APRIL VISIT NOTES
(warning this one is long…)
What is a mentorship?  It can take so many forms.  Wendy and I have been trying to take cues from one another and learn how the other is most comfortable working.  What are the expectations of this mentorship and how can we continue to make sure we stay on track. It was essentially a blind date mentorship so there was no telling how it would all shake out.  There have been many discussions along the way about how to define and organize our working relationship.  There have been hurt feelings and un-met expectations.  There have been break-throughs and new ways of seeing things.  Navigating our relationship has not been simple but the project has been overall rewarding and illuminating thus far.
Wendy expressed a desire for me to do the bulk of the initiations for this April visit.  She wanted my desires, questions and inspirations to guide our work sessions.  She wanted me to map out and lead our work for the week. 
Solo process: 
I opened our week discussing the main questions and observations about the process of working alone as well as the main ideas (narrative content and formal concerns) I am wrestling with and investigating in my projects.  


Example of a talking point:
-Wearing all the hats can be overwhelming:
Initiating tasks/assignments for self; fulfilling tasks and assignments as performer; evaluating one’s own performance; editing and organizing the performance of the tasks.  It’s difficult to perform all of these roles fully. 
Creating tasks for self:  how can I create tasks that allow for exploration?  There is a tendency to predict the outcome, designing tasks that will lead me to a known or expected result.  In this instance being both the guide and the guided can be thwarting.  When I design tasks for others in a group work those dancers inevitably find a new interpretation, opening my mind to new ways to address a topic.  When, as a performer, I embody the tasks of a choreographer/director I feel a freedom and bold-ness to chart new territory and bring back the excavated items. 
Fullfilling my own tasks lacks the sparks of collaboration.  Fullfilling my own tasks can sometimes limit discovery. 
Example of a content talking point:
-I described to Wendy the ways I’m using a memory map of my childhood home as a structure for a performance.  In it lies a series of images some real and some imagined, some found and some borrowed. 
-I described the ways I’m using “mother” as a source material, my mother in particular and the view of the world that I attach to my mother.  The previous blog is an excerpt from “why my Mother and why now?” its a document I wrote in anticipation of Wendy’s visit.  I only posted excerpts as the full document got quite personal.  I felt I should try to figure out why I was drawn to these personal memories so that I could better understand how and why and if it can be translated into an art project.    
-We decided to start making a sketch of a solo with the content and material I’d generated thus far.  This would allow us to address process more concretely, putting theory into practice and having examples to point at and push through.
-Some working points that stick out to me:
-       really “do” something so that semi-acting doesn’t emerge as a default (i.e. when carrying as many items as possible,  Really carry more that you can handle.)  Pushing things to the extreme.
-       Find a cold distance from personal source material so that you can look at it and shape it with formal eye.  We tossed around possible structures for abstracting and shaping the fact material.  
-       Play Good Cop/Bad Cop as much as possible.  When performing try not to evaluate.  Be fully present and accepting of all choices.  Be the good cop.  Directly following an improvisation switch to bad cop.  Sit on the sidelines and look at the stage, envision what just happened.  Recall as much as you can.  And then be your own harsh critic. 
Group process:
I introduced Wendy to the group process I’ve been engaged in.  Many of the themes from my solo process have filtered into this group project resulting in very different types of explorations. 
She watched me warm up the dancers and then they ran through all of the material we’d been working on.  Wendy chatted with us a bit and then led the group through a few improvisational exercises geared toward speaking and pushing improvisations further than you think you can or should. 
Wendy introduced herself to the group:  She contextualized her performance experience for the group using two divergent examples:  DV8where the work is choreographed down to the minute detail and -as she put it- you can really feel the hand of the author. 
Vs.  Forced Entertainment where the structures are so intentionally open that you can feel the performers making choices and driving the work; The work is in the hands of the performers and the director is an instigator and an editor. 
Wendy commented that dance can often appear to be a strange game of charades causing the audience to wonder “what’s it all about”? Why not just let the audience know, she suggests.  *
Some things Wendy and I talked about after the group session:
Relationship to performers:
-We discussed ways of making sure the cast feels agency to solve problems and bite into the making of the work so that aren’t waiting to be told what to do and how to be.  The purpose of working with smart dance-artists is to give them space to be full.  She encouraged me to be the editor, not the sculptor.  We talked about ways to keep the feel of an ensemble (with me being part of that ensemble) even though I’m not dancing in the work.  I’m so used to creating this through my dual role as performer/creator. 
-We discussed methods of being clear and decisive with tasks and directives without prescribing the whole shape of things, without defining where the thing should end up.  i.e focus on starting points not ending points to allow the performers ownership over the material and permission to solve problems. 
-Encouraging performers to be unhelpful in order to be helpful.  In improvisations there can be a tendency to say “yes” and to readily join other performers in their actions or mindset.  But providing obstacles for another performer or contrast is often the more helpful choice overall.  Sometimes, on stage, the most helpful thing to do is to be unhelpful.  To create conflict and resistance in order to help the scene… to give the other performer something to push against.
-Its great when performers are not privy to one another’s tasks.  This provides an in-born conflict and necessitates discovery and listening.  
How does one harness the spontaneity and spark of a chaotic improvisation? 
This is something I’ve been struggling with all my life in various ways.  Sliding back and forth on the continuum of choreographed and open structures, landing on various points for each project.  It was nice to hear some of Wendy’s thoughts and strategies for this age-old question.  For instance she introduced an improvisational structure in which assignments were listed on pieces of paper, allowing dancers to grab information when needed and the director to feed in the tasks that relate to the goals of the project.  This seems like an exciting tool, and an interesting twist on the types of generative improvisations I am used to.
It is really great for me, through Wendy’s suggestion, to try on a different way of guiding the action – putting my energy toward extreme states and conflicting events – since my tendency is to direct casual behaviour, subtle interactions and primarily idiosyncratic or dreamy movement states.  I’m excited to push my work into new territory and its great to gather the directing tools to send the dancers in that direction. 
It is also important for me to acknowledge (if only for myself) where my own aesthetic intentionally diverges from Wendy’s and for me to note that these new tools and ideas are there to serve my own vision as needed.   It’s not important that I make work that Wendy would make or would even like.  It’s important that I stay open to her thoughts and her prodding while continually filtering the information through my own artistic voice.
*interesting to hear her make a comment about the “charades of dance” in light of the conversations we’ve been having in the solo process, where she’s been encouraging me to abstract, obscure and spin away from the root content.  I feel I understand what she means though.  There is a way that we can let the audience in on the questions we are asking, providing a light or lens with which to follow the work. 
But on the other end of the spectrum is work that is too clear and overstated, something I want to avoid. 
I am much more interested in work that manages to place questions on stage than work that delivers a statement or concocts the answers to life’s mysteries.  I’m drawn to the mysteries themselves.  This is why theater sometimes irritates me: or least those plays that come with a mission statement that is underlined repeatedly.
But placing questions onstage is difficult to do well.   Attempting it can run the risk of an unfocused project that meanders and confuses. 
I am seeking to find this balance. 

Why do I make dances?

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Why do I make dances? 
For a long time I couldn’t answer this.  I just do.  It’s who I am.  I tried to stop dancing a few times but it is one of the few things in my life that I’ve always gravitated toward without question.   But its important to question it. 
I started dancing for my own pleasure.  To sooth my loneliness and channel my manic energy.  Moving in unison with the other children was a ritual that lifted my spirits.  Working hard to learn new things, challenging my physical memory, working together to solve problems.  At the end of the year there was a performance.  The adrenalin rush that pumped through my veins as I prepared to step before all the people, the dizzy ease I felt once I stood on stage, the palpable exchange of energy I could feel between everyone in the room, performers and watchers, these things sealed my deep commitment to the form.  Everything about it. 
I made dances with the neighborhood kids.  I made dances in the school playground.  I made dances when I was alone.  I made dances in the living room during my parent’s grown-up parties, often to drunken applause. 
As I grew older I studied many forms of live performance,
gathering training and professional experiences that gave me a range of tools to continue expressing myself and took me further into the world of the arts. 
I started making dances to work out my own questions.  My own desires and my own fears. 
I made dances about being alone.   I made dances about discovery: of the world and of one’s self. 
I made a lot of dances that weren’t “about” anything but sprung from my awe of the complexity of human exchanges, a celebration of the absurdity and the sadness of our basic human quests and the awkwardness and beauty in our attempts to connect.
As a performer I discovered humor and reveled in the ways it highlighted the exchange between performer and the audience.  I spent a good amount of time in the training and creation of physical theater and clown work.
I then moved my dances out of the theater to give the audience more agency.  I focused significant energy on creating a world that the audience could literally step into, where the discoveries were theirs to make, sculpting a journey that they could follow and be followed by.
I opened my process to include the voices of the design collaborators at the onset of each project, reaching out to a range of artistic minds as relevant to the project at hand.  Sustained relationships with a pool of collaborators allowed each project to build on the next.  I built up the skills to helm large-scale projects and manage complex investigations (the mathematical love of organizing patterns combined with my dreamy idealistic sense of things)
After several years of focusing on the exchange between audience and performer, between collaborators and dancers, I am wondering what would I make if I returned to a less elaborate process?
With this year of research and discovery I wanted to ask myself:
What would I make if I weren’t collaborating with designers?  
What happens if I stand alone? 
Why do I make dances?  Really truly, why?
What are the questions that I myself am wrestling with and how can I share that with an audience?  How can I make those questions relevant to wider circle?  What is the cultural context that my questions sit within?  How can I play with formal structure to support the weight of personal content? 
And how do the stories of the dancers fit in with my own?
So I don’t have the answers. 
I don’t want to make dances that appear to be statements.
I want to make dances that honor the questions.  But give you a window in.
On Monday night I’ll be sharing my process as it sits thus far.  Flinging the door open to share these discussions with people other than Wendy and the dancers I’ve been working with this year.