Choreographer Kate Weare at ADF: The Independent Interview | Arts
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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Choreographer Kate Weare at ADF: The Independent Interview

Posted by on Sun, Jun 13, 2010 at 12:19 PM

Leslie Kraus & Douglas Gillespie in The Bridge of Sighs
  • Leslie Kraus & Douglas Gillespie in "The Bridge of Sighs"
At one speed, the gesture is a caress: a familiar transfer of warmth between lovers of long duration. But at a different velocity, the same move registers as impact—either in bewildered self-defense or with malice aforethought.
What
have our eyes just seen?
Audiences will likely ask themselves that question at a number of points during
The Bridge of Sighs, which choreographer Kate Weare's company performs during the showcase her group splits with Monica Bill Barnes & Company, Tuesday and Wednesday, June 15 & 16, at the American Dance Festival. (A video excerpt from the performance is on this page.)
During our hour together, Weare reflected on a number of things. The relationship between rawness, ambiguity, violence and intimacy. What she
didn’t get from her training at CalArts. The real-world events that influenced The Bridge of Sighs. How she can’t bear watching dancers try to act.
Oh, and how her work
isn’t dance theater.
We reached her by phone in New York on Friday, June 11.

INDY: I understand there’s a new piece you’re premiering at the Joyce Theater later this summer. The more I looked into it, the more intrigued I became. Could we take a few seconds to talk about the collaboration with the Crooked Jades and what you’re moving toward in this new work?

Kate Weare: I’d already been intrigued by bluegrass. Being brought up in California on folk music and a lot of blues, I’d been listening—but naively listening—to bluegrass for a long time.
At Bates [Dance Festival], our production manager happened to be from Tennessee, and she was a big bluegrass fanatic. I told her I was intrigued by this music and I wanted to research it more.
She gave me a bunch of names to investigate—but she said, if you’re looking for dance music, you might want to look toward the people experimenting with old-time music, and contemporizing it.
She was right, in a way. Really traditional music is dance music, meaning social dance music. And in that sense, it’s deeply dictatorial—you dance what it tells you to, (laughs) according to the rhythms. Especially fiddle tunes: They tell you exactly what to do, in a way.
She mentioned the Crooked Jades. Last summer I was in San Francisco, and they were playing at the Café du Nord. I was really taken with them, because they were so un-New York. They had this sense of wanting to connect, of not being afraid of being emotional.

I also felt like it was time for me to start butting up against narrative. I come out of this post-modern generation of choreographers who’ve sort of divorced ourselves from narrative, and thought that we could sort of split from the past.
From my training at CalArts, I have very little musical training, and a part of me was feeling this loss. I wanted to find a way to re-engage with story—or I wanted to ask myself why I was so afraid of it.

Bluegrass has these cogent little stories, essentially. And there’s also the ethos of old-time music. It’s anti-commercial; it’s about community, being together and playing music, not about performing and being seen. It’s a little bit like the conundrum of the tango, which I studied for quite a while a few years ago. At its essence, tango is not about being watched. It’s a form of connecting with another person when you’re dancing; it’s about relationship, tuning in and listening. The music exists to be heard, of course, but it really exists more to be experienced.
But what happens when you put that tradition, that lineage about connecting people in a particular community to each other, on a concert stage? What I love about the Jades is that they gather all these strangers into an intimate space. But I’m wondering, can that happen at the Joyce? Can that even happen on a concert stage? Can we find a way to gather all these strangers into something intimate?
And it’s not always easy, necessarily, because some of the music is just so hard, and harsh and full of brutality. You know, some of it is painful music.

Douglas Gillespie, Leslie Kraus & Kate Weare in The Bridge of Sighs
  • Douglas Gillespie, Leslie Kraus & Kate Weare in The Bridge of Sighs

While I was listening to the Crooked Jades before our conversation, I was already making some tentative connections with your work. There is a rawness to Appalachian roots music; those strings—they’re not Mantovani or Nelson Riddle. It is a form of music that directly conveys human emotion: pleasure, suffering, longing, pain. At its essence, it cuts pretty close to the bone. In terms of its rawness, its directness and its intensity, I was thinking that your working with it makes a certain sense.

You’re exactly right. I’m interested in very similar things as a dancemaker. My company sits in funny place between the downtown and uptown worlds here in New York, because we’re a “dancerly” company, in some senses. But I’m very interested in human experience, and rawness, vulnerability and authenticity. And because of that, we make use of a lot of technique and form—formal qualities and formalisms—asking whether form, in and of itself, has enough meaning to matter—but the work’s not really about that. Those are just tools, in a way.
Ultimately, it’s about having as close to a real, visceral experience as one can get in a staged scenario.
I ask the dancers to do very intimate things with each other so we can conjure up true experience.

A moment ago you were marveling at the Crooked Jades’ ability to gather strangers into an intimate space. It’s an obvious response to The Bridge of Sighs: the work is definitely doing that.

As an artist you’re always trying to investigate what feels true to you. I think the most profound…mechanism of intimacy is about being truly authentic. That’s what I sensed from the Jades: They weren’t fronting. They were trying to really feel. They were unselfconscious and really engaging in the music.
That’s what moves me as an audience member, and also as a performer: You lose that self-consciousness and enter this state of connectedness. That is the essence of creating an intimate moment.
It’s not always easy to get to, though. (laughs)
I think it takes some skill and also, you know, some guts to get there.

This year, ADF’s theme—their frame for the season—asks the question, What is dance theater? Do you consider your work dance theater?

No, I don’t. But I see why it would be perceived that way, because I think we’re more directly and openly expressive than many dancers are these days—and it’s according to fashion.
I think that there’s a predominance of a “blank slate” kind of dancer, coming out of the Cunningham and Balanchine traditions — this sense of the dancer as an architectural instrument.
I think that we’re nothing like that. My dancers are highly individual, and I’m very interested in their individuality. I use them in the studio very much as creative wellsprings, so they inform the work a lot. Their unique skill sets, temperaments and whatever else is unique about them is really important to me and vital to the nature of the work.
My dancers are very empowered to interpret and help shape the nature of the material.
So in that way, I would make a really strong distinction. My dancers are not acterly. They’re not actors.
I can’t bear watching dancers try to act. (laughs)
I do feel whatever fuses in the face is the product of what one is feeling in the body, because dance is essentially about channeling sensation.
The face is an extension of all the molecules of the body. So, in that sense—possibly, yes: If you’re more readable than many dancers are, in the way we cultivate performance, it is more like dance theater.
It’s just not exactly the way an actor thinks, that’s all.
I also think I do a lot with power dynamics, and negotiations of relationships: looking at the individual, one’s sense of identity and how that’s negotiated in a relationship. It’s a broad theme in my work, that I—whether I want to or not—come back to again and again.

Kate Weare Company in The Bridge of Sighs
  • Kate Weare Company in The Bridge of Sighs

Given what I’ve seen of your work, I could pretty easily make an argument about dance theater and your work, in terms of the degree it tells a story…and we fill in the blanks. The Bridge of Sighs tells several stories about the interrelationships between four people on stage. The work is allusive about some elements of these relationships, but it’s quite disclosive about others.

And that feels more theatrical. Of course, dance has its long theatrical history in terms of storytelling, mostly through ballet. In that sense, it is theatrical. But I’m not sure it makes it any less in the tradition of pure dance.
Whereas, the era we’re slowly emerging from has tried to strip all that away. I think that maybe it just feels newly theatrical, somehow, in the order of lineage.
But Monica [Bill Barnes]’s work I think is sitting more squarely in the definition of dance theater. And Inbal Pinto’s work is as well. It’s a really interesting conversation in terms of why.
Because now that I’m thinking about it, one thing I don’t do, as a dancemaker, is think at all about scene: where is this taking place, do I need props for it, and do I need to set up a setting for it, which is a very theatrical context. I never come up with props in my mind.
For me, the setting is the body. Always.

Perhaps a refinement of terms is inevitably needed when we try to take things on. Potentially any live work that that conveys a story about an experience someone has had could be called theatrical. Any work that conveys a sense of lived experience….

But one of the things I’ve valued enormously about dance—and poetry, which I also feel most connected to, in a funny way—is that it values the terrain of ambiguity. Ambiguity is a fundamental aspect of what it can offer a viewer.
I love theater, but I often come away from it feeling like I wanted more space for myself.

The work tries to tell too much of the story? Does too much of the audience’s interpretive work for them?

Exactly. It’s an aspect of the way language is used in theater, to pin down the facts and the situation. It’s a tricky issue itself to pin down in language, but I feel that’s one of the great strengths of dance.
For instance, the first duet in Bridge seems to spark audiences off a lot. A man and women are slapping each other, creating sound, in silence.
Audiences often have really strong reactions to that. People can interpret it with such a broad palette—and that’s one thing I love about it. Some people see it as an enormously joyful and flirtatious thing, and others see it as a terribly self-destructive, brutal relationship.
I think that that space to insert yourself, and to see a work through your own lens of experience, is one of the great values of dance.

An element of functional ambiguity, that leaves some of the story for the audience to create.

The artwork is not complete until it’s perceived. It doesn’t really come to life until it’s perceived.
You’re creating a relationship with an audience. And this is where the art comes in: the balance of being seductive enough and allusive enough that you can bring up something that the audience cares to engage with. They’re going to complete the relationship by engaging.

And Bridge leaves a broad range of interpretations, in places. This quartet’s interrelationships are truly multi-faceted. You see one value, then another, and another.

Douglas Gillespie & Leslie Kraus in The Bridge of Sighs
  • Douglas Gillespie & Leslie Kraus in The Bridge of Sighs
This doesn’t matter to an audience and shouldn’t matter, but Bridge was created the year before I got married.
And I was really terrified of getting married.
I think I was just terrified of merging. For me, it was really an investigation of fear around autonomy and merging and commitment.

Wow.

I don’t think I was terribly conscious that I was doing that at the time. It was just, as an artist, you sort of push toward what scares you. There’s that underlying story—that I didn’t know the story I was building, I was creating it out of what was going on, of the turmoil that was going on inside of me.
But now I’m quite happily married. (laughs)
Sometimes I smile when I look back at Bridge, because I can see all my fist-in-the-air defensiveness. I think I was really scared of what was going to happen to me.

When poet Robert Penn Warren wrote about Mark Twain’s relationship with his father, he summed it up with two words: Armed truce. There really is something of that in parts of Bridge; we’re experiencing strength, attraction and barriers among people at proximity to one another.
But I think we’re really drawn to the boundaries the four are constantly establishing, transgressing, and redefining between them, and their responses to those changes. Over time, the characters discover some of those crossings are good, or pleasurable—to them, to the others, sometimes both—while others are not.
But the physical gestures that accomplish these shifts are similar. The same gesture in one dynamic is a caress. At a different speed it’s impact, a slap or shove. The primary difference seems to be intent—and velocity.

This is something I really haven’t spoken about much, because I really do believe in letting audiences perceive what they will perceive. But for me the male duet feels like one of the most intimate sections in the piece.
It’s because they drop into being very real with each other; the violence turns quite intimate between them.
In a relationship, sometimes you have to go through something brutal to get toward something soft and vulnerable. I feel like the men in the piece, strangely, get closest to that kind of being true to each other.

Kate Weare Company in The Bridge of Sighs
  • Kate Weare Company in The Bridge of Sighs
There are contrasts between the female duet and the male duet. To some degree, there is a sense of barricade that never completely comes down on the women’s side.

I totally agree. Now, the women have these very merged moments, but they’re not actually dealing with each other, in a funny way.

It’s in their indirection, I think. Both women are looking forward, but not looking at each other. It’s almost a contradiction in terms: intimacy by proxy. The arm of one woman goes out 90 degrees to the body, and the woman behind her brings her arm up so they’re interlocking, but they don’t look at each other. Their facial expressions remain remote—or they suggest that they’re internally processing what’s going on.
But they don’t disclose.

This is very specific to me. I feel sexuality is used a lot as a defensive tool in the piece.

You think? (laughs) Just a bit? (laughs)

(laughs) Okay, yes. (laughs)
You know, the year I was making this piece, I had just read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for the first time. It’s a fascinating book, especially if you consider its time.
I’m not going to go on a limb and put anything specifically political out here. But while making Bridge it struck me that I feel — I’m a card-carrying feminist, but I feel some of the consequences of feminism, in our contemporary sexuality, or in my own life, I should say.
That’s one of the things I was looking at, too: This illusion that one can have control through sexuality, that one can exert control through sexuality.

It comes across in the work. Control seems very important to at least one of the characters on stage. But in that character’s machinations—in my notes I wrote manipulation, in places—something is clearly being misplaced. That character has dexterity in posing the others—almost like action figures—just so, and several of them seem to all but volunteer. Still, something intrinsic is getting lost.

One of the themes of the work is loss—and sadness, actually, which doesn’t really come into it until the end, but it’s there.

You were talking about your time at CalArts, about feeling you needed to explore narrative, as a sea change in terms of your training. You refer to a post-modern influence in your training—

—and the sense that storytelling is somehow suspect—

—and of divorcing yourself from narrative and making a split from the past. This surprises me, because you’re quite adept here at telling stories.

But the work I made the very following year was a deeply abstract work.
I was raised by visual artists. And I’ll never forget, when I was quite young, that my mother said to me, “You know, Kate, you don’t have to struggle so hard to think you understand the meaning of your work. The meaning’s in the form. The form is the meaning.”
I’ve never forgotten that. She was coming from a visual arts perspective where form is terrifically meaningful throughout time, and for a long time that’s been a source of investigation and subject matter for visual artists.
But I’ve struggled with that question a lot—happily struggled with it, because it’s my investigation.

I felt I had a wonderful education at CalArts in some ways.
And in some ways, I also felt deeply cut off from engagement with the lineage of my form, and the history of the conversation between dance and music.
That’s a shame, because it’s a huge part of our history.

Kate Weare, Douglas Gillespie & Leslie Kraus in The Bridge of Sighs
  • Kate Weare, Douglas Gillespie & Leslie Kraus in The Bridge of Sighs
Can you recall the moment you when you realized that something important was missing?

I can completely pinpoint that for you. It was an internal thing rubbing up against an external.
We were aware of what the “rules” were of the current modes of art-making. You know, as artists we’re always wrestling with what we know to be out there and what’s expected versus what our impulses are.
That was rubbing up against the fact that I had had these profound urges, as a child, about why I needed to move. And at a certain point in my dancemaking, as I was growing up, I thought, “I’m getting too far away from those urges. This is a guess now. This is what will kill my desire to do this. And I’m aware of it. I don’t want to go any farther into this dry realm. I want to remember the blood.”
Music was connected to that for me as a child, because music’s connected to feeling.
There was a certain moment where I profoundly felt that I was being too worried about what the outside expectations of my medium were, and how the medium was heading toward conceptual art and performance and wanting to intellectualize itself.

I feel that many, many people in the dance world wish they were in the visual art world.
I happen to have been brought up there; I know the visual art world quite intimately in some ways.
There’s a reason I went toward the body instead.

So I wanted to feel again how strongly I felt when I was young. That was the impulse.
It’s a funny thing. I have a strange relationship with the experimental dance world.
But I just care too much about moving to give up on moving.

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