Why Does it Have to Have a Name?

A short discussion between Randy James, Artistic Director of 10HL, and Kevin Draper, visual artist and writer for Satellite Collective, on the subject of visual images in dance works.

This discussion begins after Randy had noted that one of the most successful visual integrations he had seen with dance was Pina Bausch's "Agua"; a production that incorporated multiple video projection screens and a combination of film and still imagery.

Kevin Draper: We were just talking about whether the elements of a collaboration were really whole if they didn't stand on their own when they were pulled into another environment, like on a website. We've dealt at Satellite Ballet and Collective with the reality that, imagery that seems to move very much in a production is altogether too slow to be interesting as a web clip. I think, where we were headed there was toward the idea is that the context is the point: it can stand on its own but that's in the experience of the work. Once you pull it out you're in another environment anyway...

Randy James: Something that you can watch live that's slow, can be incredibly riveting, but I'm very mindful in saying that. I've served on many panels giving out money and you're watching a hundred different videos, you're watching two minutes of it, you're making a snap judgment so it has be more active. Not that I ever think about "who" the piece that I'm creating is for, but I do think about the audience that I'm going to present it to.

For instance, the program for our November 3 premiere, some of the works in our new repertoire would not work for this location, it's not the best place to do them. Would I do them in another environment, like New York City? I would have no problem doing that, it's a different set of expectations from the audience. Not that I'm dumbing it down, but I'm mindful that you only get one chance to make first impression, and if you turn people off then they might not get to see any of the work. So I think it's the same thing with visual components: when do you introduce it? Does it happen at the same time? Does it unfold at the same time? Can a general audience member absorb all of that? It's not a tennis match - but it could be: maybe I want it to be like a call and response - or are they singing in harmony?

KD We've had to deal with something like that [at Satellite Ballet and Collective] where - as you had mentioned that projection transitions are often best when they're almost invisible, like a lighting transition. What we search for is a kind of tension, that people know that if they're not paying attention to it that it will be different when they go back, but it's not so obvious that there's a literal grab on the fovea. I do think, though that there's an argument to made for visual dissonance - and yet classical ballet finds this almost unacceptable.

RJ Well, from what I've seen of Satellite Ballet, I don't classify that as classical, I would say that's contemporary ballet, because classical ballet wouldn't have those components in it. A classical ballet is Swan Lake, Cinderella, Nutcracker...

KD So all those ballets that you mention, those are heavy stage settings: I would ask, at this point in time with the technology available and the general cultural context in which we're working, can projection be that stage set?

RJ Of course, but then it's not classical ballet. The whole idea is that it's traditional. There are steps that are done: petit pas, the movements choreographed in the 18th century.

KD So by classifying it as contemporary ballet we've already skipped the tension that may have existed theoretically between the mediums?

RJ But then there are lots of people that don't like re-visioning the classics: like Swan Lake done with projections and not the stage settings - but then sometimes people will like that. I think ultimately as artists, you just have to do what makes sense to you and what you will like. I think if you're thinking about the audience, then you're doing yourself a disservice when you're creating something. Because you're not being honest about what's appealing to you.

KD You mentioned Pina Bausch's ballet, Agua

RJ Well, it's not really a ballet, it's a modern dance. Aaron Copeland, he wrote the music for Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring - he wrote a "ballet" for Martha, and in older terms, they called them all ballets, but they're not ballets... Do I use ballet vocabulary in my choreography? I do, I use an arabesque, I use an attitude, I use a pirouette, but it's not classical. And then what ballet are we talking about? Are we talking about contemporary ballet fifty years ago, are we talking about contemporary ballet with William Forsythe?

KD That's a touchstone question for Satellite Ballet: I take AGON, for instance as an example of the high modern. To me that's basically getting rid of those painted cloth backdrops and velvet curtains and stripping down the setting, and yet it was still heavily dependent on the lighting and the coloration of the space. They were able to get to a level of minimalism, but to me, that seems like a very old thing. I look at a color screen and I ask myself why are you not using imagery - we've been able to do that, even with movement, since the days of the magic lantern. I see a possible evolution there in terms of what's sitting on the cyclorama: can you really strip imagery down to basically, color, and call it postmodern at this point? It's almost like a high/low pop art thing: if you drop imagery out, have you created a hothouse flower?

RJ The terms, post modernism for instance: I honor my past, our intellectual history and all the people who have written about dance: but it's just dance - it's a bunch of movement - an experience - why does it have to have a name? I think that people are putting words to a form that doesn't need words. Like Shostakovich, his line: the press asking him what his symphony performance meant, and he said: "I just spoke to you for two and a half hours." However, we have to acknowledge we are verbal - we're talking right now: we're not talking in dance, we're not conducting the interview in dance terms or moving around and communicating that way, but the words minimize, they don't do it justice. Often, when I read what people write about dance, and I wonder, "is that really what you thought about that?" Because I didn't think that about it at all - maybe I didn't even think something, maybe I felt something, it was an experience. But we are a verbal society, we have to write grants, I have to write a press release and tell the press what that dance is about. But I'm always kind of flabbergasted at the gap - I don't relate that way to dance.

KD In a collaborative environment we do in fact need to have conversations in the forms we're working in - we don't talk so much about what the meaning of something, we have to say: "here's the picture, what does your dance look like?"

RJ We don't have to verbalize the meaning: for instance, with my lighting designer, I never talk about what my dance is about. He saw it, and he had a reaction to it. If I feel comfortable enough with the collaborator, I give the freedom for them to "do whatever you want". I need to decide if I like it at that point - if it works.

KD In the context of that statement: are there things that you don't want to see happening visually during the work?

RJ I'll say that, but I'm open to having my mind changed about that. I've seen things that don't work, but then everything that I've seen that didn't work, can work, if it's done differently, maybe even with a different dance. I mean, I don't like brussels sprouts, but saute it at the right temperature with enough oil and garlic and I do like them. There's nothing sacred: I don't believe in all Yes's or No's: you can be surprised in many ways. That's learning, growing, life. I love jumping off a cliff, let's go into the water and go a little higher: With my new company, 10 Hairy Legs, I'm very sarcastic and funny. One of the new works for a trio in planning, I may have the dancers in blackface and white powder wigs! It's how you grow, learn, expand. I don't want to keep doing the same dance, working with the same collaborators all of the time.

KD Do you see a big difference between a moving image and a still image?

RJ Well, the Mona Lisa isn't a still image to me. A still image is dead - though even that has life.

KD I like that take: the image can entertain the eye without having to move.

RJ Less is often best. Sometimes you see a dance, and think "that is so much movement out there." Can you slow it down, maybe speak with a small gesture, and maybe stillness? It's interesting, Bessie Schonberg said to me that I was very good at the use of stillness, and what was more important, was what happens afterwards. Because stillness in dance is unusual - people think dance is moving around the space. Dance can be many things - recently, a choreographer friend of mine who works with disabled dancers had a woman with one leg stand in the back and sing a song, and she just stood there facing the front and sang a song. She didn't move very much. One of the audience member responses was: "Well that wasn't dance": but, yes, it was, because she made a choice in where she was on the stage, where she was facing - she was facing right to the audience. If she had looked upward, one would have thought differently of what she was doing. Dance is creating images.

KD Doesn't that touch on theatricality?

RJ Yes, but does that mean it's not dance anymore?

KD That's not an easy line to draw between dance and theater: you poke right through it if you push on it. I would say that the machinery of the space, that's where I start to draw the line: if I am operating inside a theater I am definitely bringing the machinery of the theater, it's history into play and the expectation of the audience that I'll assist in the suspension of disbelief.

RJ But what stage are we talking about? Proscenium, warehouse, outdoors, elevated space, one with Marle?

KD I think we're talking about the fact that there's an audience present...

RJ Well, if there's not audience is there something happening?

KD I think that when an audience is present, there's a line of sight...

RJ But, is the audience chipmunks, people from Idaho?

KD If it were chipmunks would you know what the front of the work was?

RJ Well, one of the things that Bessie also taught me - I used to always sit in the middle of the space watching the work - she was like, Randy, there are people all over. You have to sit over there, over there... so if you watch me during a rehearsal, I sit in lots of different places because I see lots of different things. It depends on the audience, too. A Friday night audience is grumpy and wants to be entertained, and really hasn't had time to relax, but on Saturday, they've relaxed, maybe they're more open. You have to be mindful of the audience, but again, in the creation of something you have to respect your own wishes. Are people going to boo? You have to be prepared; people booed Nijinsky in Paris, they rioted over Rite of Spring, you look at that now: people booed at that?

KD Well, it brought tribal dance forms, which may not have been considered respectful of the classical form by the audience...

Randy James

RJ Well, for example, when my company went to Estonia, we did a piece called Estuary, very beautiful, very quiet and open. The audience was rhythmically clapping during the intermission for ten minutes. We were modern dance, and they were so used to seeing folk and ballet, and all of a sudden we did this thing that was so beautiful and free, dancing in silence, walking on each other. It really depends on the time period and so many different things - so again it comes back to me that it just needs to make sense to me, and engage me somehow. With collaborations, especially with new collaborators the more comfortable you can feel, the better, that we're all there to create beautiful art. I mean if an artist doesn't like his visuals, how am I going to believe in it?

Randy James is an assistant professor of dance at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, and studied under Bessie Schonberg. His new dance company, Ten Hairy Legs, premieres its new repertoire November 3, at the Theater at Raritan Valley Community College. HIs first company, Randy James Dance Works, ran from 1993 to 2007.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Randy notes one of the key features of his new company - for now, it's composed entirely of male dancers:

"I wanted to show off different aspects of male dancers," Mr. James said. "So often when you watch male dancers they're doing very macho things, big jumps, because sometimes they have a sheer power that women don't have.

"That's very exciting to me," he added, but so is the idea of seeing male dancers perform roles less defined by bravado.

To see the rest of this interview, follow the link: