Organized Fragments from a Conversation with Lucy Guerin

Lucy Guerin’s “Untrained” (photo courtesy of the company)

Lucy Guerin’s 2009 work Untrained is at the BAM Fisher this coming week. We caught up with Lucy to hear some of her thoughts on dancing, training, and history.

What does the title of this work, Untrained, tell us?

This piece is about how dance training shows itself in the body, and it’s as much about the trained dancers as it is the untrained. The piece starts with physical tasks that the trained dancers are better at than the untrained. But as the piece progresses, it goes into territory that neither the trained nor the untrained are familiar with. But even with those tasks, you can still see how the trained dancers are informed by their movement training.

It’s also about effort and about failure, or rather, ideas about failure and success. At the beginning, the piece is very delineated: the trained can do the movement, the untrained can’t. But as the process evolves, you can see the focus of the untrained and how much they put into it, and it’s a way of performing (or non-performing) that is just as interesting as someone who is making it look “easy”. The untrained have a sense of really doing something, of being engaged. It’s a different focus and I find it quite interesting and even inspiring. And so as the piece progresses, it doesn’t feel that the untrained have done a worse job than the dancers.

What is “training” in this work? What does it mean, in this work, to be “trained” or “untrained”?

I remember when I would take ballet class in New York, sometimes people would come along who were not particularly experienced dancers. And I was always fascinated watching them, because their movement didn’t follow the framework of the trained body. They didn’t have that sense of awareness of where their legs and arms were. That is interesting movement in the same way as movement that the trained body produces. And it’s different from just watching someone walk down the street. Watching someone attempt these forms that we take for granted in dance is interesting for me as a choreographer because it reveals the myriad of lines, dynamics and textures of movement that fall between those that we as contemporary dancers are familiar with through our training.

In one cast we had this guy in Brisbane who could do the splits, had these pointy feet, great turnout. He had so much facility for what you could consider to be a dancer’s body. He had extreme ability in some sense, but he still couldn’t really dance because he couldn’t organize this facility within his body. In this current cast, one of the untrained performers has a lot of training in music. He can pick up the counts. But he is not particularly coordinated.

What becomes clear is that training gives you this ability to know where your body is in space. This kind of proprioceptive awareness, and ability to know where your body is. It sounds obvious, but it is very different between the trained and the untrained.

Its fascinating to think about what happens to our body in training. It’s about developing flexibility, and strength. But it’s more than that—it really is a way of thinking. Your mind is in your body in a different way. The trained dancers talk about this in the process. In their everyday life, they always have this sense of their body—sitting at a desk, picking something up—they are always aware of their body. And they bring this physical thinking to everything they do.

The untrained don’t have this awareness. And a trained dancer cannot move like an untrained dancer. There is a section in the work where the performers copy each other. When the trained dancer follows the untrained dancer it is extremely difficult for them, the weight shifts, the lines of the body are not the movement pathways they have been trained in. There is not a lot of physical logic to it from a dancer’s perspective so it is almost impossible to replicate.

This piece uses a new cast every time it is revived. How did that develop?

The piece came out of a creative development residency at the Meat Market (Artshouse) in Melbourne. I just asked two visual artists who I knew (Simon Obarzanek and Ross Coulter) and two of my dancers (Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry) to come into the studio to work with me. What started as an idea I had on the first day, just to warm up, ended up becoming the whole work.

After we did the work about 10 times with Ross and Simon, they started to become very comfortable with it. It wasn’t that they could “dance” any better. They started to develop this relationship with the audience that felt too resolved for the piece. That’s when we began to bring in new people for every season, and that really started to shift the piece. Then it really became about whoever was involved in the cast at that time. And we change the cast of the trained dancers as well so that everyone is sort of starting from the same place. Everyone learns the piece with more-or-less five days of rehearsal.

In what way is it about the people in the cast? What gets revealed about the performers in this work?

The untrained have a different history, and their history shows itself differently in how they approach the tasks. It’s interesting to see the way they stand on stage, their focus, posture. To see people up there who are not used to being there. I think for the audience it brings up this sense of “what would it be like for me?” They have a relationship and a kind of empathy with the untrained performers.

And the trained dancers are particular dancers. They’re not ballet dancers, they’re contemporary dancers, and have their own approach to the movement and are quite individual. Ross McCormack has worked a lot in Europe, with Ballet C de la B, Alisdair Macindoe has worked with me and other choreographers here in Australia. They’ve developed their own unique language as dancers, and because the piece is improvised, you really see that language emerging in the piece. And you realize how hard it is. When you see a dance work, everyone is doing it. It looks easy. When you see an untrained person attempt that same movement, you see that it’s not easy, it takes years to develop that movement.

We get a sense of the personality through the progression of the tasks in the piece. The piece starts out with physical tasks. But then the tasks broaden out: they write a song and sing it; they choreograph on each other, which reveals what they might think about dance; and other spontaneous things that are not prepared.

Of course, movement is not the only way we define ourselves, it’s just what I’ve chosen to use as a way of exploring the personalities. Then you can see how dance or movement can also be misleading, and not reveal who a person is. You can see a person on stage and see an aspect of them, but then meet them afterwards and they’ll be completely different. So it also reveals the kind of limitations of what you can see in a performer when they are on stage, it doesn’t always say much about them as people.

Right now in NYC there is a lot of focus on the legacy of Judson Dance Theater. One of Judson’s notable characteristics was its interest in pedestrian movement, and related to that, the aesthetic of the untrained body. Since then, there have been many variations and related ideas: untrained, “non-dancer” bodies, amateur performers, pedestrian movement, etc.; and various aesthetic and ideological motivations for using these ideas. How do you see Untrained within this range of possibilities? Do you see it in this history? Or does it come from a different place for you?

This piece is vastly different from my other work. I’ve mostly made highly choreographed, movement/dance-focused works. I love to see the body abstracted and used as something other than a human character on stage, and that has been my primary interest in a way. So this work is different for me, in my personal canon of works as it is mostly improvised, and focusses on the personalities of the performers. It is not concerned with a hierarchy of movement or creating astounding choreography.

I spent 7 years in New York, and I was part of the generation who danced for the people who danced for the people in Judson. Those interests and concerns are definitely part of my consciousness. But I feel that when I was in New York (1989-96) there was a real interest in movement invention and finding a physical language that was original, based on anatomic exploration and initiations and sequencing through the body. (This was my perception of it.) There was a real striving to create distinctive movement vocabularies, and that was one of my primary choreographic motivations at that time.

I think that one of the questions the Judson Church artists were asking was “What is interesting for a viewer beyond virtuosity” or “Are their different kinds of virtuosity in movement?” This has surfaced strongly in Untrained. When I set out to make a work I usually have only a slim notion of where that work might lead. The questions and concerns surface in the studio during rehearsals and it is through the process of making that the content of the work comes into being. This was the way with Untrained, and it is related to and reacting against my own history and experience.