sexy deconstructed

Double feature, Death of the Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer by Eisa Jocson

I get great satisfaction from both being a part of and watching an audience who is negotiating whether or not they have been intentionally been made part of a performance. Comfortable or uncomfortable, it is thrilling to be in the moment and let the experience happen, as opposed to controlling it. Being surprised is part of the fun. That’s what TBA does best – surprising us at every turn, inviting artists to blow open their corners of the world and hone in on their point of view for us to see. Eisa Jocson’s audience on Saturday was rearing to go. They were excited and fully invested in whatever was to come.

Ms Jocson, a contemporary choreographer and dancer trained in ballet, with a background in visual art, asks us to examine relationships between the economics and cultures surrounding pole dancing and Macho Dance – (a subgroup of sexualized dance for men in the Philippines). It is interesting that she chose to investigate these two marginalized forms of dance.

The performance of Death of the Pole Dancer began in the smaller of the two studios at BodyVox and we, the audience, filed in forming a circle around the middle of the room, creating an anticipatory space for a pole and a dancer that had not yet materialized. How was this going to work? Where was the pole? A pole didn’t seem like a movable prop. Shouldn’t this sort of thing be set up before hand?

While waiting for the show to start, lots of questions started to come to my mind. I thought about audience expectations and how much power that has over an artist, especially when there are economic stakes.  And, isn’t money always at stake? What exactly is objectification, and does it happen more often than we realize? Are we each guilty of objectifying someone? Objectification is treating a person as a thing or tool without regard for their dignity, disregarding their feelings and experience and taking away their autonomy. Ms Jocson was making us wait for her. Was she intentionally creating space for us to reflect? Was she objectifying us? Was this the audience participation part?

Eventually, Ms Jocson – donning six inch, bondage inspired, black patent leather heels, dressed in black short shorts and a halter-top – entered the room carrying a rectangular black nylon bag on her shoulder.

With an expressionless face and long black hair cascading over her shoulders, she knelt down, laying the bag on the floor. With crafted precision, she opened it taking out the different components of what was to become the pole and its mechanics in a ritualized choreographed manner. Four metal tubes – two long, two short, two round bases, one Allen wrench, one metal rod, three towels – one pink, two white, one small spray bottle, two band aids and one pair of fingerless leather gloves. Two moments of attentive self-care surprised me in how they revealed Jocson’s humanity and fragility. The first was when she took a moment to adhere the two Band-Aids to her palms before slipping on the gloves; the second was her use of the towels to protect her knees while assembling the pole. These both provided an interesting juxtaposition against the steeliness of the metal pole and her demeanor.

I am calling this a post-modern distillation of the act of pole dancing, its relationship to the audience and its emotional impact on the dance. It was brilliant! Even though she was dressed in a sexy, alluring outfit, it did not change the fact that she was executing a task. This was not a sexy task. It was one as mundane as unpacking a suitcase or rebuilding a car engine.

What is sexy? Why isn’t this sexy for me but it is for others? What makes this sexy? Who created this particular idea of sexy? Why has this particular image of what is sexy for women become the norm propagated by the media and clothing manufactures like Victoria Secret? What happened to individually based preferences? How do stereotypes shape a form?

Over the course of the performance, there were two overtly sexual moments which made me question who was in control and who was being objectified. Was it the performer or audience or both? One was when she was shining the pole with a cloth and the other was when she first promenaded around the pole. Her energy changed and for a moment her movements were sexualized and then they weren’t. It is a tool that can be turned on and off.

After the pole had been affixed to its central location in the room, Ms Jocson began walking around it shaking it vigorously to test its strength shaking it so violently that it jerked her body back and forth flinging her hair up into a crazy cloud around her head. The pole would bend in the middle but never break. She began building momentum with a series of repetitious movements pulling her in towards the pole and banging her chest against it. This energy propelled her off the ground and around the pole into a series of beautiful feats of amazing strength. Swinging around and around until her energy wound down and she slid off the pole onto the floor and finished in a heap of disheveled hair, with the pole haphazardly remaining between her thighs. It’s a rough image. We are uncomfortable and don’t know if she is finished. We stand silent for some time until a brave soul begins to clap and we follow suit. We file out of the room leaving her lying on the floor.


Eisa Jocson- Death of the Pole DancerEisa Jocson- Death of the Pole Dancer


Macho Dancer

Eisa Jocson’s second dance, Macho Dancer is the culmination of her time spent with a small group of young Filipino male dancers who perform in nightclubs. Their style of dance is culturally specific and distinctly Filipino. It is designed to appeal to both men and women and is a social construct of what is thought to be strong, sexy, cool and masculine.  It is a series of strutting, posing, hand gestures, flexing, body stroking and knee crawling that Ms Jocson performs flawlessly in a pair of cut off jean shorts, a tank top, cowboy boots and black knee pads.

“By emulating and simulating the macho dancer, she investigates social, cultural and economical conditions that ultimately unveil this perfect, normative body as a constructed body.”

Even in the “normative” state of our daily lives, doesn’t the body continue to be a construct of whatever environment we are a part of? Are any of us ever really free from such societal constraints?

This gender loop that she created as a woman performing as a man is so convincing that I easily loose track of the fact that she is a woman even when she pulls her top off and is bare chested.

Ms Jocson, with the help of a fog machine and spectacular lighting, brilliantly re-recreated the atmosphere of a nightclub, adding an array of music choices to facilitate the full exploration of emotions and movement within the form.

Her ability to shape shift and completely let go of her own body construct and adopt that of another was astounding.

She is fierce, raw and honed. She is smart and deliberate. I am moved, inspired and invigorated.


Eisa Jocson- Macho Dancer


Jamuna Chiarini is a freelance dance artist, producer and dance writer, writing regularly for Oregon Arts Watch in Portland Oregon.


Making A Living and ‘A Living Documentary’

Cynthia Hopkins, A Living Documentary. Photo by Thomas Kochie.

Cynthia Hopkins, A Living Documentary. Photo by Thomas Kochie.

I’m so glad that I read Kate Sanderson Holly’s post about Cynthia Hopkins’ A Living Documentary before I began writing mine. One of the coolest things about people blogging during the festival is that you get to hear some of the thoughts that are happening in the theater with you. As Kate was wondering if this performance had meaning to someone who wasn’t an experimental theater artist, I was questioning what the experience of the piece was for its inner circle audience, those who could intimately relate to Cynthia’s story. I am not an experimental theater maker, but A Living Documentary still echoed with my experiences as a young person trying to figure out how to make my way in the world.

So many of the questions raised in this piece are questions I ask myself. Replace ‘theater’ with ‘writing’ or ‘poetry’ or even ‘queer,’ and it seems these spheres aren’t so distinct. These questions about art making may not be universal, but they are certainly relatable. There’s particularity in grant writing and theater lights, but in Cynthia’s work there’s also the applicability of how incongruent our desires are with our ability to make a living and survive.

I’d argue that Living Documentary’s ability to highlight these commonalities and parallels is fostered part and parcel by the humor and quiet with which Cynthia presents herself. Her piece was equal parts dark penciled eyebrows/wigs and naked guitar solos, getting me with both her ridiculous facial expressions and tranquil tones.

She spoke candidly (in her way, through recorded tape and characterization) of what it is like to move away from traditional ideas of artistic and financial success, to fold your nonprofit theater company, to stop paying unemployment tax on an enormous team of designers, and to envision a different freedom for yourself: freedom where artistic expression isn’t predicated on debt and fancy theater lobbies.

In humor and in nakedness, when some of the artifice of art is stripped away, when we’re just in a theater with one another, there’s a space of relatability. When Cynthia removed her makeup and clothes and stood with a guitar in low light, I was a wholly disarmed viewer. I was ready to hear her story and enjoy its intersections with my own.

I’m left wondering about the socioeconomic and biographical influences on the form of this work. Cynthia is the daughter of two English teachers, and she only very briefly experienced the spending power of financing extravagant works with her own money (which even then was tainted by its inheritance from her abusive grandfather), so when she speaks about survival, she is speaking about real survival, about how to make a living that is sustainable and safe. The intimate scale of Living Documentary amplifies the humor and honesty, but it also drew me in with its honesty about how much art costs and how much an artist needs to get by.


Olivia Mitchell is a Whitman College alum, cat-lover, and writer. Sometimes, she even writes about art. She lives in Portland, OR.


Eisa Jocson, Can You Help Me?

The dancer in Eisa Jocson’s Death of the Pole Dancer says, “Can you help me?”  These four words are the only audible words of the whole performance, and each one punctuates the silent stage with an affect of doubt.

Can we help her?  What is in our control?  Who is in our control?

Jocson’s 25 minute piece masterfully presents a dancer (Jocson herself) dressed in impossibly high stiletto heels and a leather bikini.  In a concert of silence, the dancer spends the majority of the performance assembling, shining and aligning the chromed stripper pole, which she stakes directly in the heart of center stage.  The last portion of the performance exhibits the physical effort of the performer, visible by sweat and labored breath–both halfway covered by an invasive pop song beaming from overhead speakers.  The end (oh, the end?!?) finds the dancer face down on the floor–legs dangling around the unresponsive pole.  To complete Death of the Pole Dancer, the audience must exit the performance space, leaving our performer alone and sprawled on the floor.

After Jocson’s performance I overheard many viewers in the lobby expressing the desire to ask the prone (“dead”) dancer if she was okay or if she needed assistance.  Eisa Jocson’s dance elaborates on the notion that the audience can help–that the audience can do something about the uncomfortable mess on stage.  But what exactly are the actions Jocson asks us to take?  The audience members’ expressions of pity, of shame and of insecurity point to the core of Jocson’s piece:  Jocson exposes a dynamic out of balance and a relationship between performer and viewer that needs care and assistance.

Something dies in Jocson’s piece, and Jocson herself is the assassin.  A woman in total control of her whole performance, she kills the presupposed power of the audience over her body.  Jocson tops from the bottom.  She inverts the audience’s gaze.  Really, who is powerless in Death of a Pole Dancer?  The dancer or the audience?


Jackie Davis is happy to be alive in a time where art can be beautifully ugly.  She is honored to walk this Earth surrounded by so many creative geniuses.

Dear Cynthia Hopkins


Dear Cynthia Hopkins,

You may not remember this but I met you once in Gary Grundei’s music composition class at Naropa University.  I was there getting an MFA in Contemporary Performance, and you were there writing the music for a production of Trojan Women.  The women who sang your piece rehearsed in the studio next to mine, and every time I heard it drifting through the hallway I would freeze completely, because I didn’t want to hear any sound except for that song.  It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.  You came to our class one day and listened to our songs.  In my piece I harmonized with myself, played two instruments that I barely know how to play and sang about wolves.  Gary told me later that you really liked my work, and knowing this carried me through a good chunk of the following year in my artistic life.  Being someone who went to all the trouble to get an MFA in Contemporary Performance, I am clearly in the target audience for your new piece, A Living Documentary.  I am so much the target audience that I can’t really assess whether the piece would be enjoyable or have any relevance for anybody else, but I want  you to know how profoundly meaningful it was for me to witness.

Once I had a dream about the theater director, Anne Bogart, one of my artistic heroes.  She was waiting at the end of a long line, like a guru, and each of her devotees got the chance to bow before her and ask one question.  I wasn’t sure what I would ask until I got in front of her, but as soon as I opened my mouth I burst into tears.  I wailed “I gave my life to theater, and theater ruined my life!”  I guess I was hoping she would offer me some comfort, or wisdom, but instead she looked at me horrified, mouth agape, as if I had just spoken the unmentionable phrase.  I cried so hard in the dream that I woke myself up, and never did hear her speak.

I was reminded of that dream tonight as I watched your piece.  So many times I have shared the feelings and thoughts and frustrations that you expressed, but it is hard to find an audience to air those grievances to.  With my own collaborators there was a need to keep an optimistic spirit.  With my non-artist friends and family there was a gap in understanding–the response would be something like “Well you shouldn’t have gone into theater if you wanted to make a living”, or just a sympathetic smile that you might give to an astronaut talking about how rough space travel is–they want to be supportive, but they will never know what its like.

For me, this lack of understanding came to a head this year when I realized that my own husband no longer supported my artistic aspirations, because now I have somebody else who has to share my debt, my mortgage payments, and my stress.  These last few months are the first in my adult life when I have not been working on a theater piece, and it does feel something like a drug withdrawal.  For the most part I suffer silently, and I don’t talk about that part of myself because I don’t know that anybody can really understand.  But tonight you gave me something that the dream guru Anne Bogart couldn’t–you showed me that there is somebody who understands what I have gone through.  Not only do you understand, but you have made an entire brilliant, brave and wildly entertaining musical about it so that maybe some other people who haven’t been there will also understand.

As I was wrapping up my graduate education I went through a phase of being determined to “succeed”, and one of the things I wrote in bold permanent marker on a poster on the wall was “Play the Game”.  I have always been reluctant to play the game that was created by others, and seemingly for others, but I knew that I wanted to make a living as a “slightly experimental” contemporary theater artist, and so I decided I should try my hand at The Game.  That was four years ago, and while I haven’t yet succeeded in the way I wanted to then, and by most accounts it could be reported that I dropped out of the game, I have found tremendous freedom in my life since.  In your closing song you sweetly lilted “You are free to play whatever game you want to play”.  That is a conclusion that I have also come to, but I assumed that I would never land on the TBA stage (one of the ultimate markers of success in my world) unless I played somebody else’s game.  Your piece was a refreshing reminder that playing somebody else’s game is never what TBA is about–its about courageously sharing your authentic truth while also bringing the full force of your professionalism to the stage, and you pulled that off in spades tonight.  Thank you, and bravo!


Kate Sanderson Holly

former founding member of Fever Theater and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, currently free-floating yoga studio owner with a toddler

p.s. I will totally buy you coffee.  E-mail me, girl.  [email protected]

Sound as ventriloquist

Cinema is primarily a visual medium—silent film exists, invisible film doesn’t—but the experience of watching movies has almost never been without sound. In the silent era, single narrators or entire troupes of actors used to lend their live voices to the muted speech of onscreen dialogues. Orchestras or lone pianists provided music. Film’s early period was full of attempts to coordinate speech with speakers and music with musicians.

This context was on my mind during the Friday performance of Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North. A vocalist who works in the tradition of Inuit throat singing, Tagaq took the stage alongside Jesse Zubot (on violin and viola) and Jean Martin (on drums), and the three were accompanied by the recorded music of Derek Charke. Behind the performers, a large screen played Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North. Almost a hundred years separate us from that film, but this juxtaposition of sound and image didn’t feel unnatural. I often found myself falling into what seems like the natural division of the senses—eyes on the screen, ears attentive to the music—until I’d catch myself and remember that there was a really riveting live performance happening on the stage in front of me. In those moments of forgetfulness, I was reliving what lots of early filmgoers experienced: visually captured, sonically enveloped.

But the point of this music was something other than to accompany the moving image. Rather, the musicians aimed to reframe Flaherty’s narrative. In this sense, the performance worked like a second interpretive layer atop the first one, which is already present in the film through its intertitles. For just as film has almost never gone without sound, it has just as rarely been without language. Images mean lots of things on their own, but since the early days of cinema the inclusion of words has served to orient the viewer toward certain aspects of the image track and away from others.

Thus a key sequence in Nanook of the North—which begins with the arrival of a group of Inuit men and women to a trading post and ends with a supposed demonstration of the workings of the gramophone—is interspersed with constant intertitles that instruct the viewer how to interpret the scenes. We learn that the group has arrived at a trading post, that they have skins and furs to trade, that they are proud of their dogs, one of whom is named Rainbow. And beyond this contextual knowledge, the words on screen also convey specific ideological and affective positions. The first one puts quotes around the words “big igloo,” which is the term, it is implied, used by the Inuit to refer to the trading post. The inclusion of this term responds to more than simple utilitarian purposes. Rather, it is meant to exhibit the filmmaker’s intimacy with the culture he is representing, even as it emphasizes its foreignness from both himself and his intended audience.

This emphasis on difference—the supposed exoticism of the Inuit family—runs throughout the intertitles. Their function seems to be to domesticate the image track, ensuring its smooth insertion into the racist clichés of settler colonialism. Over this initial interpretative layer, Tagaq and her collaborators introduced new layers of meaning. They did so sometimes by giving certain sequences an epic quality, the music building and quickening, but also through straightforward uses of language, as when Tagaq repeatedly heaved the word “colonizer” into the microphone as Nanook, the film’s protagonist, was being schooled in the operations of the gramophone. Her intervention reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s demand for revolutionary photographers, which was to give their images captions that would wrench them out of “fashionable clichés,” giving them rather a “revolutionary use value.” Over the visual captions present throughout Flaherty’s film, Tagaq added her own (vocal ones, in this case), reinterpreting the nature of trade and race relations in Canada.

Cinema scholar Rick Altman once compared the screen image to a ventriloquist’s dummy. Sound, in this scheme of things, rules the production of meaning in film. This concept can help us understand the force of this performance. That is, the sonic puppet show performed by Tagaq and her collaborators gives the characters in Nanook of the North, itself already a mash of word and image, new agency and vitality. The music—pulse or roar, or some other unnamable effect—eclipses Flaherty’s often condescending intertitles. In the process, the daily routines depicted in the film acquire a sense of heroism and dignity that the original film denies them.

Craig Epplin is an assistant professor in the World Languages and Literatures Department at Portland State University.

TBA vs. Toddler


I have been going to TBA every year since its inception, for most of my adult life.  The festival started in 2003: I was 23, fresh out of college, with an experimental theater degree and many big ideas about the potential for live performance.  TBA did not disappoint–it quickly became the most important event in my year.  I learned that the festival is best done through total immersion, so I would plan months ahead to make sure that I could get time off of work, clear my own rehearsal schedule, and avoid any major commitments during TBA time.  I became a master of the puzzle of the TBA schedule, finding a way to see every show.  I attended almost every workshop and artist talk and went to the Works every night.

As the festival gets older, so do I.  In the eleven years since its inception I have gotten married, had a kid, and bought a house many miles from the center of the city.  As with most new parents, my husband and I have had to put on hold many of the interests which used to define us.  But for me, the TBA festival is non-negotiable–it is the last shred of dignity in a life that has become consumed by juice boxes and Curious George.  It never occurred to me that I should take a break from the festival–my first festival as a mom was in 2012, and my son was only 8 weeks old.  I did “slow down”, by planning only one show per night instead of my normal pace of 2 or 3.  I still have the collection of panicked text messages that I received from my husband during most of those shows.  I left early from almost all of them, in total defeat.  This year, my son is 2-years-old and I am determined to get back to my old pace for this festival.  Here’s how my first attempt panned out:

2:30pm I pick up my son from preschool

3pm Arrive at home, tempt him out of a post-nap tantrum with promises of juice and television time

3:30pm Jump in shower, try to find something to wear that doesn’t have holes or stains.  TBA is, after all, a place to see and be seen.  I settle for yoga pants with a dress over them–fancy!

4:30pm Coax unwilling toddler away from the television.  Start the ultimate juggle: Prepare the car and the toddler for departure, get my bike to magically fit in the back of our small wagon while keeping toddler from dashing off to play in the street.

5:30pm Finally we are ready to go.  Pull several sketchy traffic maneuvers to get to my husband’s workplace in Sellwood by the time he gets off

6:05pm Arrive in a panic, super quick car and toddler pass-off and I am on my bike, headed downtown for the 6:30pm Samita Sinha performance.

6:15pm Remember that I have not regularly bike commuted in over 2 years and that Sellwood is actually kind of far from downtown.

6:30pm Wheeze past a tandem bike on the Hawthorne bridge, still imagining that I might get there on time.

6:41pm Arrive at the Winningstad, defeated.  Toddler 1, TBA Zero.

6:52pm Arrive at the Raven & Rose to enjoy a Manhattan, resolved to at least get an excellent seat for the 8:30 performance of Tanya Tagaq.

8:10pm Arrive to the pass holder line at PSU’s Lincoln Hall.  Notice that the couple in front of me brought their 7-year-old.  Eagerly interrogate them about the experience of bringing a child to the TBA fest.  It turns out they saw the Samita Sinha show at 6:30.  They report that the 7-year-old laughed uncomfortably through parts of it and made faces, but by the end was singing to herself as they exited, which her mother declares a success.  They tell me that the show was “beautiful”, and I resolve to juggle the rest of my weekend around so I can see it.

8:20pm Sit down in my excellent seat, 5 rows from the front, and enjoy hearing the people behind me talk about how they have been attending TBA since the beginning.  I am in good company.

8:34pm The show starts…

Tanya Tagaq comes out, barefoot, in a short and flowing dress.  She smiles coyly and charms the audience with exclamations about how cool our city is.  We are about to find out just how meaningful this statement is coming from an artist whose mother was born and raised in an igloo.  The movie that unfolds before us reveals the stark landscape of the Inuits in the early 1900′s: Water, ice, wind and snow.  The summers are cold, the winters are much colder.  The food is raw meat, the only variation is in whether it comes from fish or mammal.  Nanook of the North, we are told, is the first documentary ever made, but also controversial because some scenes were staged.  Staged or not, I don’t think I have seen a movie this visceral, authentic and affecting in some time.  Of course, the experience is colored by the strength of Tanya’s live soundtrack, and my focus is continually split between the remarkable, raw, humanity revealed by the film, and the remarkable, raw, humanity in Tanya’s wails, flails, rocks and shrieks.  Amidst the starkness and intensity there are moments of humor.  In my row I may be the only one who laughed knowingly as a mother tries to wipe her naked baby’s face with a seal skin and Tanya squeals with empathy for the unwilling child (apparently face wipes are universally reviled amongst toddlers).  The movie does leave me with one unanswered question:  Where do these babies poop?

The film announces “Tia Mak” (The End), and several moments go by as the artists and audience wind down from the other-world.  Someone whistles loudly, and from there the audience erupts.  I have a bike and I am seven miles from home, but as I chase a MAX train for 20 blocks through downtown Portland I realize how much of the wild courage of the film has gotten into me.  I find myself maneuvering pedestrians, tracks, and traffic stops fearlessly, like an Inuit in a kayak on the choppy waves.  I fly through the doors of my train in the nick of time and settle in to enjoy the aftermath of human effort, adrenaline and the ever-pulsing drive to live, deeply embedded in me by Tanya’s piece.  I am reminded that it was never easy to have a 2-year-old.  If I think its hard to make it to TBA on time, imagine if I had to spear a seal and build an igloo in just four hours of daylight.  photo

Kate Sanderson Holly is a theater artist, yogi, mother, long-time TBA press corps volunteer, and former founding member of Fever Theater and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble.  She can currently be found teaching yoga and movement arts at her studio, Yoga Refuge.

T:BA:14 haikus and other poems No. 1

 For this years festival I am going to endeavor a few poetic responses (literally) to the work, the audience, the ambiance, etc.

The first of these are coming in the form of haikus.

Opening Night

Bright Moon with design
Confabulations arise
People. Our people.

Stacey -Wynne Greenwood

Voices everywhere,
heads too. Reenarchivement,
an exorcism

The rest were written collaboratively in an exquisite corpse style with some inspiration from Mallory Mason.

Tanya Tagaq in concert with Nanook of the North

One known quantity
knees back, hand up, wailing on
Dogs, and we with chills

Tanya Tagaq in concert with Nanook of the North No. 2

Wow! Slam! Bam! Hypnotizing
Making the stage home.

Mack McFarland is the Curator for the Pacific Northwest College of Art.



Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer by Giannina Ottiker

Eisa Jocson speaks about gender performativity, choreographing the gaze, and much more in an interview with dance scholar Clare Croft.Clare Croft (CC): I wanted to talk about the choice to put these two pieces, Death of a Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer, together on one program. They have, I suppose, obvious potential links as physical performances of gender and sexuality. Is it interesting for you to have them both on the same program?

Eisa Jocson (EJ): The two works are situated in the same marginal spectrum of night work in the Philippines, but at the extreme opposite [ends of that spectrum] in terms of many things, mainly because of their clients [and] the gender relations [between dancer and client]. [Pole dancing usually features a female dancer with male clients, whereas macho dancing features a male dancer with both male and female clients.]

CC: You came to pole dancing as a hobby in a fitness studio, and you came to macho dancing as a spectator.  How did it shape your process of creation to come to one form of dance as a participant and another as a spectator?

EJ: With Death of the Pole Dancer, the work came about because of my experience with pole dancing as, first, a hobby. In the Philippines, I was one of the first few women to take the pole-dancing class. Eventually I was also teaching, and eventually I was also kind of a co-director of this pole dance academy. I think that during that time there was a lot of stigma during the beginning of pole dancing in the fitness [studio] or in the dance studio. [What] was very interesting for me [was] the shift from the strip club to the fitness studio—the space, the context. Somehow this shift didn’t happen immediately in society: [this] acceptance and awareness of how [pole dancing] could be appropriated as something else by women outside of the club–that it could be actually used to empower [women], or as a hobby, or for fitness. [What pole dancing means] depends on where you’re coming from and what your intention is.

Death of the Pole Dancer was not actually about the movement vocabulary of people dancing in general, but it was more of an investigation of how we’re seeing the way we’re seeing. You have a universal stereotype of a pole dancer. Somehow it interests me how much I can deviate from [that stereotype], and how much general perception can’t make the shift, too. With Macho Dancer, the challenge for me was to actually embody the movement vocabulary. I did not have the movement vocabulary of macho dancing prior to working on it.

CC: How did you go about acquiring the movement vocabulary of macho dancing?

EJ: I went into macho dancing because I wanted to challenge this embodiment of the female vocabulary that I’ve learned through this fitness space–pole dance for fitness. [I wanted] to actually force myself to embody the complete opposite [of pole dancing]. In this way, [I set out to] learn a gender performativity that is situated in an opposite context of pole dancing.

Learning [how to do macho dancing] was definitely [a] more difficult process. There wasn’t any macho dancing school to begin with. It wasn’t something that was being taught—just performed in macho clubs. What I did [then was to] go to macho clubs on a regular basis and really scout for the good [dancers] and ask [them] if they could actually teach me macho dancing.

In the beginning, when I was first asking if this was possible, the macho dancers would say, “What would a girl do with such a dance?” They didn’t take me really seriously. They thought I was trying to build the relationship with them for other reasons. When they saw that I was actually serious, most of them appreciated that they were being acknowledged for their skill. And [then] the relationship with the macho dancers became more of a student/mentor relationship. I found that quite endearing in a way. This relationship could exist outside of the macho bar.

At some point I decided to go to the gym, and when I went to the gym I realized that—or at least I felt that the movement made much more sense in my body—because I found the awareness of muscle groups, the form that you actually accumulate when you go to the gym. Gym culture is actually part of macho dancing. [It’s] basically choreography of muscle and form and showing off, and it’s a lot about narcissism—appreciating your own body.

My first entry point to macho dancing was this fascination with the movement and what were the conditions that actually made this dance possible–culturally, socially, and economically. What notion of masculinity are they [the macho dancers] performing? It’s very specific to their clients, who are male and female. In the beginning, their clients were more gay, and eventually when the economy started to become more liberated and women in the Philippines started to occupy higher positions, the clients became more equalized—so now it’s more men and women. And so what is being performed is actually, I guess, a projection of a certain notion of what it is to be male in Philippines society—to be desirable as a man for that clientele. The movement vocabulary itself says a lot about the condition of the Philippines context.

CC: What has it been like for you to be exploring forms that are so explicitly economically motivated? You’ve spoken elsewhere about how these forms have a relationship with the Filipino economy and the feminization of labor in the Philippines. Hearing this, I thought about how many forms of performance have an economic exchange, but we separate the performance from the monetary element—you pay for a ticket and then go to another room, whereas other forms of performances—often those seen as less “highbrow—don’t make that separation. The economic exchange is very explicit: someone in the audience has money in hand.

EJ: The exchange that [usually] happens in contemporary dance is definitely not [about] prioritizing economic exchange. The exchange that is constructed in contemporary dance is more in the level of discourse and the level of many [other] things: I would say [its] more [of a] multi-dimensional exchange—not just economic, not just cultural, not just social. Contemporary dance doesn’t favor one layer of exchange.

The language [in Death of a Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer] is appropriated from its original context, and then placed in a different platform. The signifiers of the language shift: what does it mean for this body to move this way? It actually opens up the contemporary dance form to give space for a new discourse about this language and not just to see it as the language of dance by macho dancers. What does [macho dancing] tell beyond [its] situation? Can you actually locate it in the global discourse of economics and not just look at it in that [macho dance club] context?

CC: What has it been like to perform the piece outside of the Philippines where are less likely to have the referent of the macho dancer?

EJ: There have been stages and different ways of seeing, especially if it’s one culture to another. Even though they don’t know the language itself, it’s so stereotypical that basically you can recognize small traits or forms and positions in popular culture.

[It’s] been very interesting to tour both works. They don’t really come as a package most of the time. Macho Dancer has toured more than Death of a Pole Dancer. So, I have more feedback with Macho Dancer. Put together in a double bill, both works shift meaning as well. It really depends. I think Death of a Pole Dancer by itself poses more of a problem with people because somehow my physical appearance clearly fits the stereotype of the pole dancer. Then with macho dancer I have more of a distance from the actual image of a macho dancer—being a woman, not having the physique of an actual macho dancer, [etc.]. There’s more space between me and the vocabulary. Somehow people can somehow reflect on this absurdity [more readily]. With Death of A Pole Dancer alone—without Macho Dancer—it takes people sometimes longer to break the stereotype that is being presented, or [they] can’t separate the performativity and the actual visuality of the body.

It really depends on the individual, [and] on the feel of the festival where it’s being presented. It’s been read in so many ways—especially Macho [Dancer] because it’s been touring. The work and myself matures and grows with each performance. I’ve been touring Macho Dancer for 2.5 years, and each time I perform it I realize something new with the work. Sometimes I have these revelations. I actually feel like I get the work now after touring it.

CC: Most American audiences who’ve seen your work have seen it programmed in the Queer New York International Arts Festival in New York. Do you think of Death of a Pole Dancer or Macho Dancer as “queer”?

EJ: I never really framed the work as “queer” or “not queer.” [Thinking about this work among] the [contexts] of dance, performance, –visual arts even, [these works] kind of escapes a certain framework. They might fit nicely into dance or theater or visual art performance, so in a way that’s a strength of the work. It can really go from one [area] to another. But, as well, it cannot be put in a box. A lot of dance programmers would not say it’s a dance work, but a lot of theater people would say it’s a dance work. A lot of dance people would think it’s a theater work. It really depends on who’s talking.

For the queer context, I think it’s the same. It’s a framework that’s placed [around the work]—a way of seeing into the work. I’m not actually familiar with what a “queer” framework should be. I guess “queer” is a bit of a definition defying [word].

CC: I think that’s sort of both the pleasure and the problem of the word.

EJ: This is probably the same with the work. Maybe the work shares the sense of vagueness of what it means to be queer, because it’s a work that doesn’t fit nicely in one genre. And of course you can say [these works] tackle gender performativity, and what is normal, and what is a stereotype, and what is fixed and what is changing.

CC: Watching Macho Dancer, I was so struck by your gaze. I’m thinking specifically of you walking downstage, chewing gum. There’s some about you walking towards the audience and almost receding at the same time. How do you think about the gaze in this piece?

EJ: I think that the gaze is one of the most interesting elements in both performances. It’s a choreography of gaze. In each section of the piece, the gaze shifts and, of course, the relationship also shifts with the audience. There’s always this gazing “in relation to.” It’s a very powerful element within the work—I would say even central for both. It’s this act of seeing, how you position yourself, and the way you see what you see.

Death of the Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer





TBA Interview: Clare Croft with Luke George

Luke George, Not About Face. Photo by Nick Roux.

Luke George, Not About Face. Photo by Nick Roux.

Luke George and I sat down face-to-face (via Skype) to discuss his work, Not About Face, fake belief, and how to keep dancing while being watched by an audience of people looking at you through long, white shrouds.

Clare Croft (CC): What was it like the first time you began dancing this piece, looked out, and saw the audience under the shrouds?

Luke George (LG): [Laughing.] I started inviting groups of people into . . . the space where I was developing the work quite early in the process, because it became very clear that I couldn’t spend the whole development of the work imagining this interaction without actually having the opportunity to experiment with it and to see how it would go.

I actually spent a lot of time making the work in a gallery setting—so not in a private studio setting. I had a residency at a gallery in Melbourne called West Space. So the gallery was open, and so people during the day would come in and look at visual art: work that was hung on the wall or installed. I had a small gallery space that I was working in the whole time, so already [I had] the sense of being visible while I was working—to people and to eyes that I didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of theatrical control over or time-based control over.

Then I did this week of experiments where, for half-an-hour each day, people were coming by to be with me in that space. That ranged between one person to five people. It was a very small space, very intimate. That very first time the thing of intimacy really came forward. I guess it was because of the nature of the very small space. These shared experiences came up, which is something that I hadn’t [expected]. I wasn’t sure yet in the piece whether I was going to be standing onstage performing something or being amongst people. It hadn’t really presented itself, but the nature of the space meant we had to be amongst each other.

So the theme of intimacy came up. And then also the possibility [arose] of my confusing or problematizing that situation of intimacy. What is actually happening between me and the person who comes to this thing?

The very first time I had more of a crowd was the end of that week of experiments. I had thirty people coming into the space, and I decided I didn’t want to see them to begin with. I wanted to close my eyes and let them come into the room, and I’d be standing in the room with the sheet over me. I was kind of working in a sensory practice . . . and moving with my eyes closed.

Then I, at one point, opened my eyes and through my eyeholes saw all these sheets standing there with gaping eyeholes looking at me. And I can definitely count it as one of the most terrifying performance experiences I’ve ever had. [Laughing.] And I thought, “What have I done to myself? This is going to be awful.”

CC: Why do you think it was so terrifying?

LG: I realized how much—I already knew this and I think this is why the shrouds were happening, why they were being brought into the space—but I realized how much I, as a performer, rely on or need to be able to see the people that I’m performing to. It’s always been really, really important to me to be able to see people and to be able to look at them and to feel and sense their experience of what is happening through being able to look at their faces.

And I also think it’s some kind of need that I have as a performer as well. Whether that’s vanity or it’s about reading people, I’m not sure. But suddenly for there to be this faceless group of people and bodiless group of people. There was something about these eyeholes with no expression, just intently facing me where I was, which was kind of frightening. But [that] ultimately became the most thrilling thing to explore about the piece: if I can’t tell what you’re thinking or feeling by looking at you, [what do I do]? Similarly I realized that I was under a shroud, so they [the audience] may be having the same experience.

CC: How have you continued to think about intimacy as you’ve performed and developed the work?

LG: I guess intimacy has come up specifically in this piece [through] actual physical intimacy: actually touching or asking for touch, asking for physical closeness.

Something that’s been coming up in the piece a lot, which I never really planned, is how people are watching each other watching in the piece. You put on the shroud, right? And you would expect that you just kind of lose yourself or something. You lose yourself and you become fascinated with what’s beyond yourself. But what I think is that people actually have a stronger and deeper sense of themselves because they’re in this capsule. They’re having this more intimate experience of their own bodies, and their own feelings, and their own sensations. It’s happening quite privately, because that’s not being viewed so much. I’ve noticed this kind of freedom or agency. People are moving around and moving away from things. They’re making noises. They’re chatting—like during a show having a little chat with their friend!

But then [they] react [to me performing]. I feel reactions happening in quite unusual ways. Sometimes it really throws me because it [has] not [been] as polite as performance audiences often are. I’m really noticing people having this experience of themselves that is quite different. During the show, people are moving around so much. I keep changing positioning, too. I keep changing the configuration of the room. Or I go somewhere. People may follow it; they may stand back. They may stand back to look at the whole thing. There are all these degrees of watching happening. Watching each other. And so their connection to each other becomes part of the piece, too. And I feel like that has something to do with this sense of intimacy: that we have this heightened sense of ourselves and each other.

CC: An audience always brings with it certain expectations about how it’s supposed to behave, based on maybe what we call the work or the signals of the space. Do you feel like the physical space affects people, or does the shroud somehow overwhelm their expectations?

LG: The shroud is caught up in everything I do.

Very simply the shape of the room has a huge effect. If it’s a square, or if it’s a long rectangle. You know this sounds so simple, but it actually changes things quite a bit.

I’ve tried a number of lighting situations as well. And just very simply working with a lighting designer where we were like, “Well, in a performance situation you point a light in a certain direction, and the audience will go towards the light, but they won’t go into the light.” They’ll go to the light but only to the edge of the light, because what’s in the light is what’s to be looked at.

We wanted to explore gallery white-wall-type rooms where the light is usually on the walls—because the thing to look at is on the walls. It was this question of where to focus the light. Right now when we’re getting to a space we try to light every single inch of it so the entire room is brightly lit and everything is equally in plain sight. I mean that’s a big challenge: that’s a lot of light.

But then also in the piece we do change the lighting of the piece to enter into something a bit more theatrical, but more of an altered state. By that time I’ve been able to physically corral the audience into a certain space and hold them there, so they end up being in the light themselves. And they end up being the sculpture in the room, or the set in the room themselves.

One more thing: I found out really early in making the piece, if it’s a room that has a lot of features—a lot of architectural features or if it has objects in the room—those features or objects become so loaded and so in focus.

I was so lucky at the space that they gave us [when we performed] in Sydney. It’s this incredible gallery space—this beautiful white space. It’s pristine. And a polished concrete floor. Just stunning. That’s not necessarily the pinnacle space to do it in—perhaps it’s a little too perfect. I felt so lucky, though, that I didn’t have to think about incorporating other things. Objects are really tricky. People keep looking at me and looking at it [the object], and are like “Tell us the meaning of this thing. What is it about this thing?”

CC: Speaking of other bodies in the space, how your collaborators have informed “Not About Face,” particularly Hillary Clark [who will be performing with you at TBA]?

LG: Hillary and I met through developing Miguel [Gutierrez’s] piece, [And lose the name of action, which TBA audiences saw in 2013]. I [had been] aware of Hillary for a long time: seeing videos of her and looking at choreographic works of Tere O’Connor and thinking, “She’s super interesting.” And then getting to work with her in Miguel’s piece, we had this instant rapport with each other. Instant. Exciting. Halfway through that process we started working on “Not About Face.”

I started making the piece in Australia with a group of three collaborators: Nick Roux, Benjamin Cisterne, and Martyn Coutts. Nick comes from a sound and video technology background. He was bringing all that knowledge and that skillset into the room, [but] we also resisted working with those materials for a long time. He was just working with me on ideas everyday: being a watcher, being a participant, or being a doer. The shroud was actually Nick’s idea. I kept covering my face or covering his face or blindfolding myself, and then covering/kind of wrapping myself in things. And he suggested the whole sheet one day. We got one sheet for me, and one sheet for him. [Then we realized,] “Oh, we can’t see. Let’s cut holes in it like a Halloween costume. It’s funny.” And then we both put sheets on and we were [thought], “Ohhhh, this is really interesting.” So it was really through the connection with him that the thing about the sheets and being together—audience and performer under the sheets—came about.

Martin Coutts was weaving in and out of the process, visiting the process as dramaturg—feeding in and out. A little bit later Benjamin Cisterne came in and really started talking about space and lighting and building. So I worked with all those guys for quite a while, and then I left the piece for awhile.

[While in] New York . . . working with Miguel, I asked Hillary to start working with me on it. I [had been] performing it myself, [but] I really wanted to try teaching it to another performer, so I could step out and actually see it and start to direct it. I started teaching her, and just immediately, her role was really fascinating to me. Hillary’s such an invested performer, such a collaborator in the room, and she so believes in the work. She really wants to tease it out, and there [was] so much interested interactive dialogue between her as a performer and me as a maker.

I actually started to feel, not only was she stepping into a kind of performative ownership of the piece, but [she was] also kind of being like a dramaturg within the piece, which is really interesting to me—that I could be working with someone who’s inside the piece who could also be quite reflective and bring in a lot of references for me. [That might have been] because she was working [on the piece] without necessarily thinking she was going to be performing it.

We kept working, and I ended up teaching her the entire solo, and then I asked her to come to Melbourne to work with me on the premiere of it. I wanted to see what it would be like if, in Melbourne, which is where I’m from and where everybody knows me, if actually for two of the five or six performances Hillary performed the solo instead of me. I didn’t announce [that Hillary would be performing]. It was a surprise because for the first half of the piece the performer is under the sheet. They come to see me, and suddenly then there’s this woman—and she’s got an American accent and she’s speaking to them. And [the audience thinks], “Who are you?”

Hillary [and I agreed] she [would] perform the piece as though she’s me as well. She was imagining that she was me, but she was also regarding herself as me to them. [We were] playing with this idea of substitution or understudy and pushing it even further. What if we actually are each other?

We’re trying a new version of the piece where we both perform it now.

CC: So it’s two performers?

LG: Yes. But I wouldn’t necessarily call it a duet. I’ve always thought about the piece as a solo that’s not a solo anyway. [It’s] a solo that’s a solo for the whole room—or that the whole group of people are engaging in the whole solo. In that way, we’re [Hillary and I are] both doing the solo. We’re sharing it—or something like that.

CC: You said it was the questions and references that Hillary brought in as this performer/dramaturg [that first got you excited about working together]. Were their particular questions or references that stand out in your mind that were turning points in the creation process?

LG: I think Hillary as a perfumer is just so incredible at reading and tuning herself: reading a situation or reading herself or reading another performer or reading a moment. That deep intuition that she has available to her at any moment in terms of energy and quality is quite astounding. And then the fine-ness of her tuning—tuning of action, tuning of reaction, or tuning of choice.

[I reached a point in my performance of the piece where] I felt like was all desire, all want—just performing broad brushstrokes. Everything [I was doing] kind of felt like it was the same: every dance, every action just felt like it was the same. Parts of it had different names, different references: but actually it was all just kind of very similar. Working with Hillary in this fine pulling apart [of my choices] and taking the time to really understand, “Well, what is this thing?” [had a huge impact]. What does it mean to speak—to say the words—to repeat the words of someone else like you’re actually being a medium for them. How do we actually really connect? [What happens] if I’m wearing headphones and listening to someone else’s voice and speaking as if I were being a psychic or medium for them? Who is this person and how do they speak? And where do they come from? And why are they speaking this way?

I felt like before [I started working with Hillary] I was a little afraid of things in the piece, like not spending time in a moment where no action necessarily needs to take place. [Hillary would say,] “Maybe this moment is about just letting things ring.” Hillary is really so great at [saying], “I think we’re moving on too quickly here. I think there’s something here that we’re rushing over, or we’re not paying attention to what’s actually happening right now.”

[There is a] moment in the piece [that] developed through her and I just playing and improvising with each other. [It’s] a big singing moment for the whole room. We get everyone singing in the room. I, for a long time, had a lot of doubts that people would actually sing, but without fail everyone sings straight away. It’s astounding. And every time I do the piece now it feels like that could go on forever. We could sing for a really long time. But then it naturally ends. And I used to just cut straight out of it and go “Ok, next thing.” This is where Hillary was like, “It’s so interesting when we stop singing. [We get] the singing going, but then when we stop singing [we have to experience] the actual feelings that a person may go through standing amidst a group of people. We’re under these sheets, and we’re hot, breathing.” She’s a pretty special performer.

CC: You’ve used the term “fake belief” often when you’ve talked about “Not About Face.” How is the oxymoronic collision of those words productive for you?

LG: “Fake belief” came first of all from my experience as a performer and performing for other artists, particularly this one artist in Melbourne, Phillip Adams, who I’d been performing for for years and years. [Adams] made a series of works [and] one work in particular had a lot to do with—he was exploring a lot of stuff to do with cults, absolute blind belief of people committing to a leader—committing to a certain collective belief. Then he made this other work that was completely different: that was about birds. [In both pieces,] I felt like he kept requesting or asking of me and the other performers not to just perform the thing, not to just do the actions or not just perform it really well, but to absolutely believe in the thing that we were doing.

The way I interpreted what he was wanting from us . . . is that if we believed utterly and entirely in what we were doing—if we weren’t just performing the thing, [but] were being the thing—then this would be the success of the piece. This would be the success of the transaction between us and the audience. He really gets you into some crazed head space [with this mode of directing dancers]. Your heart’s racing; your adrenaline’s racing. Your body’s thumping. All these kinds of physiological things are happening.

[Working with him] got me thinking, at first, “Yes, this is how it happens. This is when it’s truly happening. I have to believe it. I have to be it. That’s the only way it can happen.” Then a year went by and we toured the work, and I thought, “I’m going to try it a different way. I’m going to perform it. I’m going to remain me, and I’m going to keep some slight detachment. I’m going to hold myself at a distance. But I’m going to perform it really well. I’m going to access what I know of performance to do this. And it was great. It was equally great, if not better. But there was no way I could tell if one approach was more authentic than the other.

And I just became really fascinated by this. Do I need to perform it to believe it? Or does the act of performing it make me believe it? Do I need to believe it to perform it? Do I need to perform it to believe it? What are the relationships between those two things?

As I started exploring that with “Not About Face,” immediately it became also about [whether] the audience needs to believe this as well. [This is] such an old question in terms of suspension of belief; it’s ancient in terms of the situation of performance.

Also I started to [become] aware of and see this shift in performance happening in the last five years [with] all these pedagogical performances of people showing videos and absolutely denying any type of performance that’s about having another type of sensation. [These performances are such] a rational thinking experience for performer and audience. Somehow that’s in here as well.

With fake belief it’s something about what is the agreement that can happen in the room [during the performance]? Do we need to agree [on what that is]? Do I and Hillary and the audience need to agree to either believe it or fake it until you believe it for this thing to happen and take place? And what is that relationship to our desire and collective desire—or the notion of collective desire? Is collective desire actually a thing? Does collectivity even exist?

CC: In addition to the term “fake belief,” you often talk about “energy” and “presence” as important to your work. Those are big buzz words in contemporary performance today. Your last piece, “Now Now Now,” very much insisted on energy and presence. What’s the relationship among energy and presence in “Not About Face”?

LG: I felt like I’ve settled on those words [“energy” and “presence”] for the time being—or narrowed it down to those two words for the time being. “Energy” and “presence” [both] deal with my interest in immateriality—or really all the materiality—of the situation of performance. I’m coming from a dance background, particularly from the Australian dance situation that I feel like I’m coming from, and I feel like we’re coming out of this time where dance has really valued virtuosity. This is a global thing, right? Strength and ability and youthfulness and company and production values and marketability: all of these things where it’s so concrete and so tangible. We think of the dancing body and we think of muscle and sweat. I do love all of that, too, and that’s what I come from.

But I’m more and more interested in what is the act of performance. What is it to be in front of somebody else and be seen and to see back? But then also the trouble with that term “seeing” and visuality with the nature of performance is the felt nature of dance: the slippery, ephemeral completely subjective nature of dance, of the moving body. It not concrete. It’s not a translatable language, necessarily. And it’s a completely individual experience for any person that’s viewing it in any moment. It’s almost impossible to say “This is what this action means; this is what this gesture is.” Dance is so much more slippery than that.

I’m interested in exploring how bodies stand in front of each other and regard each other. How [do] bodies take up space and time in these terms of presence and energy?

TBA Interview: Clare Croft with BodyCartography Project

BodyCartography, Super Nature. Photo by Tada Francesca.

BodyCartography, Super Nature. Photo by Tada Francesca.

Over the course of the TBA:14 festival, 400 people will have the opportunity to be one-on-one with the members of BodyCartography in the intimate performance installation, Super Nature. I recently talked about the installation with BodyCartography founders, Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad. Two-on-one talking about one-on-one.

Clare Croft (CC): Super Nature began as the two of you finished working with the dancers of the Lyon Opera Ballet, but still felt like questions lingered. Could you tell me about those initial questions that first spurred the creation of Super Nature, which, in total, includes both the performance installation that we’ll see at TBA and a larger onstage group piece that has appeared in other venues?

Olive Bieringa (OB): In Lyon we started to think about humans as animals. And then, [too, we were thinking] about dancers as really trained people who get looked at as “others,” [especially] in the way they get treated by the opera/ballet systems.

And we were thinking about empathy.

And [we were thinking about] how to create the conditions for the audience to pay attention to the kind of extreme experience that these extreme movers were able to manifest in their bodies—

Otto Ramstad (OR): And how to think of them [the Lyon dancers] as people and not aliens.

CC: How did these questions take form in the studio as you imagined them being embodied and being staged?

OR: We got more and more into “What would it be like to choreograph empathy in the foreground? How would we actually do that?” And then [Super Nature] kind of became an ecological melodrama: a nature show about human animals.

OB: “If we were to make a documentary about human animals, what would that be?” That was one of our impulses.

OR: We were [also] talking about melodrama. There’s this really good interview with Guy Maddin on the Walker [Art Center] Channel. He’s talking a lot about the definition of melodrama. People think of melodrama as this really un-real, overactive, kind of wacky, overly theatrical thing, but he’s saying that the experiences that people have inside of themselves—to accurately express them would be like melodrama. He said he thinks his movies are more realistic because they’re actually acting out the feeling of what it’s like to be a person and to be in different situations. When we think about melodrama in that way with dance, it’s sort of like this piece was expressing how you feel, but expressing that kinesthetically—really expressing the kinesthetic value of your body.

OB: [We were thinking about] the causal effect of our actions. Every physical action that we have on the planet with each other has an effect, and I think we wanted to create a hyper-experience of that for our audiences.

CC: How do these questions of affective connection, particularly kinesthetic connections, get heightened or transformed when brought to the intimate scale of the installation?

OR: We made this installation as a way to experience the empathetic condition [and to experience] the audience in a super, super intense and super direct way.

OB: It was a training for our performers. Then it was also a training for our audiences. Our hope was always that the two pieces [the stage version and the installation] would travel together, and our audiences would experience both parts. I would say that the melodrama becomes a much more internalized and personal process within the installation.

OR: [It’s] the immediacy [of the installation that makes that happen]—[the experience] becomes a lot more reflexive.

OB: It’s about you.

OR: For the watcher and the performer, it becomes about a crash between your reflexive [body] and your social body and your animal body. You know where you are—you’re in your social body. But there’s something about [the piece] that really brings out your animal body. [There’s something about] being in that proximity with people and having to share that space.

CC: You’ve talked about the installation as kind of a training for performers. As you’ve both danced in the installation, what has the experience brought forth for you?

OB: One of the things that comes up is the immediate feedback you get from people. You’re able to read people a bit more than you are when you’re in a big auditorium, for example. The immediacy of someone’s total fear, excitement, or joy takes over the installation.

As a performer you have to practice this 360-degree performing, because it’s not at all frontal. But you also have to practice a super, uber full-on compassion practice for them [the audience member] and for yourself because you’re in this together. You’re creating the conditions for watching and [the conditions] for that person to be able to be present for you. If there is a feeling of discomfort or total awkwardness or if it seems like they aren’t interested—of course you have no idea if they’re [interested or] not—how do you keep going?

OR: [The installation is] so much more somatically tied to the audience [than being on a stage] because they’re right there. A lot of times when you’re onstage and you’re having thoughts like, “People aren’t engaged in what I’m doing,” it’s in your head. It’s just about you. But in a room with someone else, and you’re two feet away from them—

OB: And you’re hyperventilating. And then they start to adjust their breathing.

OR: If you’re just right there with someone, it’s not in your head. It’s in their body, and it’s in the space between your bodies. It’s a somatic experience of the audience. I think a somatic experience for the audience as well.

CC: You used the word “awkwardness” earlier. How might it shape the way we think about empathy if we think about awkwardness or discomfort being the things from which empathy proceeds?

OB: It’s a point of relation. Someone else is feeling awkward—not that I’m setting up someone else to feel awkward—maybe another way of saying this is that, in the practice of doing something difficult, there can be moments of awkwardness. I don’t feel like people need to be entertained or everyone needs to be beautiful in order for something to be successful. There are all sorts of phases of being human.

OR: Awkwardness is interesting in empathetic contexts because you can think about empathy and it’s not necessarily about matching, about being the same. Sometimes [empathy] is [that] if someone’s happy, and then I’m happy, we’re sharing [happiness] together. But if there’s an awkward situation where someone [else is] not feeling good, it’s not as though you don’t feel good as well. If someone’s going to fall, you don’t try to fall as well. You try to catch them.

The social practices are fairly broken in the installation in a certain regard because we [the performer and audience member are] there, together, without talking, and we’re just sharing space. The social practice is askew, so there’s going to be awkwardness. This happens in the theater also, but you are in the social construct of sitting in your seat.

OB: And then there’s a possibility something new can emerge out of the awkwardness.

OR: That’s not to say that there’s not a social construct that we’re in a gallery or we’re in an installation or we’re at the TBA festival. There are all those other social contracts. But the whole somatic experience of being close to people—it’s just going to shatter some of those [constructs]. And that’s what’s going to be awkward. Because the sensation that the audience has, that we have—just the intimacy is embarrassing sometimes in a way—just to really be with someone.

OB: And the audience is really feeling what you [the performer] feels. When you feel yourself feeling, that can be really awkward and really painful for some people.

CC: Susan Foster has written about some of the etymological roots of the idea of empathy, and how, many centuries ago, when someone said two people “had chemistry” people imagined electrons jumping off one body and onto the other—to “have chemistry,” to have magnetic empathy, was to always be engaged in an act of exchange. That brings up questions of power, because the exchange isn’t always equal. How do you feel the sensation of power within empathic exchanges when you’re performing in the installation?

OB: In a way, the audience is invited in, but they’re of course free to leave any time they want. In some ways, they don’t know what’s going to happen when they’re in there. But we know.

OR: We know. But we also don’t know.

OB: We’re also improvising, and we don’t know who they are, so what comes up out of who they are is really [important]—the relationship between the two people is what really becomes the material. We’re in control of the installation to some extent.

OR: But some people come in and take control.

OB: Yes, they take over!

OR: Some people come in and want to move. They take up the whole space.

OB: They get so excited and take over.

OR: Some people feel really empowered or they think, “Now is my time to dance.”

OB: So, in a way, the practice of empathy is the practice of giving up power or widening your perceptual field and lowering your tone, and then really trying to meet this other person.

OR: I think empathic reflex—the layers of empathic reflex that we have—I think they’re kind of underlying control in a way.

OB: It’s really interesting when you think of therapy. If I’m the therapist, you paid money to come and see me, so we have an agreement that you’re coming in, and I’m going to help you in some way—

OR: I’m going to help you help yourself.

OB: Yes, I’m going to help you help yourself. So it’s an interesting—if you are unpacking really complex mental issues, you don’t know who’s in control.

OR: Audience members gets told, “Welcome to the installation. It’s going to be 15 minutes. You can go or stay. You can move anywhere you want, and I’ll come and get you when it’s over.” And that’s what they’re given.

I think there’s a fair amount of agency in the audience. I guess “agency” is more of a term I would think of rather than control.

OB: And that’s the language, [the language of “agency,” that] we use in describing the piece.

OR: That’s what I’m looking for: agency. Not situations of control.

CC: There are some controlling factors on the engagement that were your choices, but not choices you make in the moment of performance. How did you arrive at 15-minutes as the right length of time for each one-on-one engagement?

OR: We did ten minutes before, but it was actually too short.

OB: We’ve started working on a new piece called “The Empaths,” and we’ve been doing these one-on-one things that have come out of this installation. As part of the research for that we hit a twelve-minute minimum. Those experiments are traveling through public space, so they’re a little bit different. 15 minutes is plenty. That’s a really nice long chunk of time to do something.

CC: It’s not the same person in the installation every 15 minutes, right? If someone comes more than once, they’ll, of course, have a different experience, but they’ll also potentially be with a new person?

OB: Yes. There are four of us who will be rotating. So we’ll be doing hour to hour-and-a-half shifts each. One of the performers is actually a 15-year-old.

CC: Oh wow.

OB: He’s amazing.

CC: How do you prepare for your turn in the rotation?

OB: I just warm up on my own and review the material. Because we’re improvising, there’s a whole bunch of material we’re working with. So I review that material for myself, and then I get myself in a really good space. I warm up. I get the fluids moving through my body. I do a lot of shaking. And I just kind of clear my space, so I can be present with people.

OR: It’s really intense because it’s an hour straight. It’s really intense.