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?