Dance In Conversation
A few weeks ago, I sat in on two of Neil Greenberg’s rehearsals for This, his new dance premiering at New York Live Arts in early December. The first rehearsal was in Live Arts’s Jerome Robbins studio, the second was at the Actors Fund Arts Center.
The dancers for This are Molly Lieber, Mina Nishimura, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Connor Voss, and Neil. Both times I came to observe, all of them were in discussion together. About what order to try in their next full run through, and why, Neil used “I suspect” more often than he said “I think.” When Neil took photos of the dancers in costumes-in-progress for costume designer James Kidd, he asked them all to strike an extravagant pose.
From both these rehearsals, and their November work-in-progress performance at American Dance Institute, I remember Connor’s victory lap, Omagbitse’s oscillating head roll, Molly’s rib cage reaching out in front of her during a power walk around the space, Mina’s gaze toward the audience, and all of them embodying a kinetic, precise energy.
Stormy Budwig (Rail): How did you explain your process to the dancers you asked to be in the piece? How did you initially describe their roles in it?
Neil Greenberg: I told them that the process would begin with improvisational work. I explained that for many years I constructed my work solely from my improvisations, from my movement—everybody had to move like Neil moved on a certain day. Most of my work was choreographed by using my videotaped improvisations as raw material, which the dancers and I then learned, as close to verbatim as possible. But in about 2006, I began to videotape the other dancers doing their own solo improvisations as well, and I would be continuing that with this new project.
Rail: When I watched your rehearsals, I noticed that there were many entrances and exits. When you’re looking at the dance, do you determine an exit simply by wanting fewer bodies on stage? It seems like the dancers use the space more or less evenly—is that built into their improvisations you filmed?
Greenberg: Those are my structural choices with the material. In a sense, in the improvisations there was no exiting. There was the beginning and end of the sequence we chose to learn, which sometimes catches the dancer mid-movement.
Exit and entrance choreography has more to do with thickening and thinning the stage. As I began to realize how much I was using all four dancers, I knew that another way to see the material was to repeat it with just one person. When one person performs material, I pay a very different kind of attention than when four people do it with staggered timings.
Then there’s this whole stage texture that develops.
Rail: How do you discuss presence with the dancers? Does their collective presence shift when they repeat a phrase?
Greenberg: We’ve been working more on that lately. In fact, just before you arrived yesterday we were discussing that issue of presence, and improvising together with that in mind. Recently I’ve brought improvisation back into the rehearsals—something I’ve wanted to do with my last projects, but they were made so hurriedly there was barely time to do it1—to go back into looking at our attitude toward the material we’re performing. The physical attitude, and also the attitude toward showing it to an audience. That’s all a presence. I think that is one of the questions living in this work for us all right now—it is for me quite a lot2, because this work is different for me than previous works. I’m not creating continuities in the same ways, maybe not even to the same extent, that I used to.
Rail: It seems like each dancer has a very distinct approach to the material. Do you have individual conversations with them about continuity?
Greenberg: We have conversations together, but they each take the ideas differently. And so far, I’m happy with that.
Rail: I can imagine.
Greenberg: Well, I think it could be problematic for some viewers that the dancers take it differently. A viewer might want more of a clear center. But that’s one reason I wanted to work with different dancers.
Rail: What is the it that they’re taking differently?
Greenberg: It has to do with the attitude toward the doing of what they’re doing. We’ve talked a lot about when a movement or action is recognizable—if it could be seen as an image, if somebody could recognize it with a name, like “arabesque,” or “bathing beauty pose,” or waving a hand. Often, when an audience sees the image, the reference becomes bigger than the thing on stage. What it’s referring to is what the audience is getting. But, in addition to what it’s referring to, what is it? We’ve been talking about filling up the image with body. What are the physics of me doing this? In the past, I used to think it was either/or—a little more black and white. I thought it was almost as if you could dance without references and associations and images, and that I could weed them out choreographically. As if it’s possible, number one, and as if it’s desirable, number two.
Now neither is true for me. It’s not possible for me to weed out movement with referents, but the movement has qualities that are more specific than its associations or its image, which come from this person doing this bathing beauty pose now, here, while that person’s doing whatever they are doing. The context is part of its specificity.
We’ve been talking about the materials almost as if they are objects—almost like found material. I look at some of the duets as duet objects, and I look at the quartets as this object I made out of the duets.
Rail: You videotaped the dancers, but is there a writing practice associated with this learning process at all? It seems like a lot to understand and remember.
Greenberg: The ideas guiding the improvisations get winnowed down to short phrases like “fill the image with body” or “like a vase.” The dancers might have their own shorthand for what helps pull them into this continuum of possibilities—because we are aiming to be on a continuum. Sometimes things are more like a vase, and sometimes things are less like a vase.
And by “like a vase” I mean less like speech; less like something the movement might refer to, and more like the material in and of itself. I don’t know enough about the history of vases to know what it refers to. I see the materials. I see the shapes. I see the relationship between that vase and the room. I see it from the back. I see it from the front. Upside down. Lying on its side.
Rail: When you work on it fairly intensively [at American Dance Institute in Maryland] next week, is your process going to involve changing up the continuum?
Greenberg: Maybe. But also, we’re adding all these new elements next week—Joe Levasseur’s lighting design, and Steve Roden’s sound and video projections. What we make this next week is going to be specific. That’s why this is a word I like for a dance: it’s going to be this dance. The lighting is going to influence and change things into something specific.
A part of me really wants to keep the dance that I made in the studio. We worked for months and months, and there’s this dance that we made that lives in the studio, and I love that dance, and probably [this past] Thursday was the last time we got to see it. Once we get into the theater and start adding new elements, even if I don’t change any of the choreography, the whole reception of the dance will change. That always happens, but now I’m trying to embrace it.
GATHERING INFORMATION (FINDING OUT)
Rail: Do you have to see a full run in order to understand the micro-adjustments you need to make once you near the end of the dance?
Rail: To me that feels like the hardest part. I can’t figure out how to make time for that, because there’s always going to be another adjustment to make, but not before seeing it in context.
Greenberg: Well, this has been the first time I’ve worked with digital video throughout any of my processes. I always had tapes that I was juggling. Now I spend a lot of time in front of my computer looking at full run-throughs. And during my viewing time I can’t be interrupted. You can ask Frank, my husband: the saying goes, “Do not disturb me!” If I’m interrupted it’s like I’m watching the run in two parts. Of course I know that as a viewer in the audience, my attention might fade. When I’m watching anyone’s dance, sometimes I might start thinking of something else. I know that’s a part of the experience, but as the choreographer I have to chart my attention as I watch the dance. Sometimes, if I’ve tried and filmed two different versions, I’ll watch the whole dance up until that point with one try, and then just at that moment switch over to another QuickTime file to see the other ending I’m considering. As you know, there’s an aphorism I sometimes use, which is, “Find out, don’t figure out.” It’s so true for me. I’m absolutely stupid about figuring out. I will have five ideas, and I cannot predict which is the one I’m actually going to settle on. It’s hard for the dancers, having to show me so many possible organizations of the material. QuickTime is making it a little bit easier. Maybe a little bit.
Rail: How long did they improvise before you filmed them, or did you just film the whole time, from the beginning?
Greenberg: We set up which days I was going to film their improvisations, and we did a physical preparation together. We can work with levering off the floor, which to me activates the skeletal-muscular system. We can work with “contents and container,” which to me adds the organ system to the skeletal-muscular. Then I have another tact that I got studying Body-Mind Centering ideas with RoseAnne Spradlin, and that’s a nervous system idea—using the parasympathetic and sympathetic facets of the autonomic nervous system—which does something interesting to my perceptions. To me, it translates into a subject/object question: almost being able to observe myself as I am being aware of what’s inside my skin. So, each dancer has about an hour of improvisation.
Rail: That’s not very much.
Greenberg: No, but it’s more than enough! There’s so much material I would have liked to learn that we didn’t, and there’s material we invested hours and hours in that didn’t end up in the piece.
The dancers bring in information, too, which influences the whole group’s improvisations. They bring in information that’s useful, and also their reactions to the process. Yesterday, we brought our attention to an issue of continuity: I’m doing this, and I’m going to do that. Who am I when I move from doing this to doing that? Am I going to blend it into one, seamless energy stream? The answer, for this dance, is often not. This brought us to looking at the issue of subject/object. This sequence only lives because I’m doing it, so there’s a subject there—the person doing it—but I’m thinking of the sequence more as the object. It’s the placing of that movement object here in space, being aware of its relationships to everything else—that’s what I’m thinking of as more of a subject-consciousness. The me doing it.
Sometimes the consciousness of performing a sequence gets just a little more on the side of object, or more on the side of the subject—the person doing it, with agency. That’s a brand new question for us, and the dancers fill that in for me in a lot of ways. Say I’m doing something, then I leave to do something else: I am leaving a shadow of what I did. Or, the inverse of that, which I think Connor said, is that as he walks toward a place to begin a sequence, it’s almost like he is filling in what is already there.
THIS RAREFIED THING
Greenberg: I recently went to see an opera at the Met, and I realized how much opera is a world I haven’t lived in. It seemed like the composer made all these specific decisions, but I don’t think I could parse them out—what they were, let alone the significance of those decisions, and how they differ from others that could have been made. That’s what dance is to many people. It’s this rarefied thing.
Rail: The fact that it is its own decision.
Greenberg: Yeah. My interest in having things presented on stage that the viewer might be able to read and experience as the thing in and of itself is not just because the idea of abstraction feels like fun intellectually. I realize I have a stake in these ideas. I really love the work I love, and I don’t love the work I don’t love. It doesn’t nourish me. I’m really glad there’s work in the world that nourishes me, knowing that it’s different than the work that might nourish a large portion of the population. I’m glad there’s work for them, too.
Growing up, I liked Judy Garland, I liked playing with dolls, I didn’t like sports, and when I was introduced to dancing—a real “girl’s art” or practice—I loved it. You know. And for a while I didn’t come into much interference with this, but when I hit junior high school I was jeered at in the halls every day. For years and years, I knew that entering the school was entering a war zone.
Maybe 15 years ago, I was expressing to a student at Purchase that I’m really invested in challenging the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” This student said, “Oh, I get it. You grew up gay, and you didn’t want that to mean something.”
Associations, references, and languages are always cultural. Everything lives within a certain culture. However, I think there’s a real value in asking: What is this thing? I think that’s behind my investment in Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” essay. She drew some of these connections, and they really resonate with me, strongly and personally.
Greenberg: I think making dances and presenting them, or sitting in an audience and watching them, can exercise a way to live in the world. It can exercise my perceptions. If I start noticing what I see on stage, that’s a practice I can take onto the street with me.
Rail: I’ve seen you watch dance, and there’s this thing3 that you do.
Greenberg: [Laughs.] I sure do.
Rail: A physical example of the way a dance exercises your perceptions.
Greenberg: Right. I guess I’m saying that often my life lessons are learned in the theater. They aren’t lessons I can verbalize, but they open up my perception. I know what it’s like to walk onto the street4 and to not just be following my nose, but to perceive a little more.
THIS IS THE END OF THE INTERVIEW
Rail: Do you know how This will end?
Greenberg: The big question I have: is it important that all four dancers be on stage at the end? Or, maybe the opposite is true: is it important that they not be. Saying “important” makes it sound like I’m trying to get at something, to express something. It’s more like I will try it both ways, and I’ll feel the resonances, the differences, then make a choice about what feels like an interesting thing to present this time. You know, the choices we make influence the lives we lead. It’s this life.
- As his answer to my questions, Neil often expounds on information contained in the clauses he needs to use to answer it first. This is either a glimpse at all that goes on in his head when he considers the layers inside of what he’s doing, his artful way of clarifying my question, which isn’t quite asking what I’ve meant to ask, or both.
- He also qualifies what he says so as to not assert himself in absolute statements. As I experience Neil in conversation, he tries not to speak for other people.
- He moves his head around, tracing the air immediately in front of his nose and chin, like he’s registering the dance’s patterns—spatial patterns, maybe, but also those that exist beneath the surface of what we see directly, inside the body’s systems.
- I am visualizing the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 19th Street, or Tenth Street between Second Avenue and Third, or any of the blocks immediately outside venues I visit to watch live performance. I have an exceptionally vivid understanding of these blocks, and I wonder if it’s the byproduct of this routine expansion of perceptions by those works I see just minutes before walking onto the street. I wonder when this awareness starts to fade, or what we can do for it so that it stays alive.