Best known for her work with New York-based performance group Elevator Repair Service [ERS], choreographer Katherine Profeta has collaborated on shows such as Spine Check, Shut Up I Tell You (I Said Shut Up I Tell You), Cab Legs, Total Fictional Lie, and Highway To Tomorrow, as well as appeared onstage in the companys most recent piece, Room Tone. She is also dramaturg for Ralph Lemon on his Geography trilogy, the third part of which can be seen at BAM this coming fall. She has taught in the theater departments of Barnard and Yale. Katherine’s first independent show 131 is playing at P.S. 122 through March 28.
131 is set to Beethoven’s Opus 131, and tells the story of Beethoven’s cantankerous relationship with his nephew. Why did you choose to explore this piece of music and the story behind it?
We don’t really tell the story of Beethoven and his nephew — I would say more that we allude to it, or use it as a point of departure. I’ve wanted to do something to this music for over 10 years — ever since I overheard my college roommate listening to it and decided it was the most humorous piece of classical music I’d ever heard. I didn’t listen to a lot of classical music at that time, so it wasn’t too hard for me to decide that. Still, I remained attached to it over the years. I love all the different moods it goes through, all the different conversations it seems to have, how it keeps interrupting itself with another thought. It wasn’t until I began working on this piece that I decided to investigate what was going on in Beethoven’s life while he was writing it. I already knew that he was completely deaf when he wrote this music, but I didn’t know anything else. I started looking through his letters and found a series of cranky letters to his nephew from that time period, culminating in letters to other folks about his nephew’s suicide attempt. I was amazed that the man who could write such lush and seemingly “wise” music could have written such nasty, unwise material at the same time. It made me want to put the music and the letters next to each other.
One of the elements of the choreography for 131 is the videogame Dance Dance Revolution. Can you tell us about the game (What is it? How is it played? etc.) and share how you chose to use it’s principles in this project?
This is a fabulous video game, the kind you use in an arcade (though there are expensive home versions I believe). There are websites devoted to it that can describe it much better than I can (try www.ddrfreak.com), but in brief, the DDR player stands on a metal platform on which there are four sensor pads, arrayed in a north-east-west-south relationship. The player watches a video screen and listens to pre-recorded music, and the screen tells him on what beat he needs to put his foot down on which sensor. It’s like reading a player piano score as it scrolls up and responding to the score with your feet. The resulting dance patterns can get terribly fast and complex, but whatever happens it’s always built on those four simple foot positions. I was looking for a way to build up the dancing in this piece slowly, from very basic building blocks, and the DDR game offered a model for how to do that. A portion of the choreography in the piece is borrowed directly from the game. More often the choreography is loosely inspired by the game. But we kept the emphasis on the feet positions as the main element of the movement. We also kept the emphasis on rhythm that goes along with such foot-heavy choreography; we enjoyed giving Beethoven a stronger rhythm section in some parts of the quartet.
You are probably best known as a choreographer and founding member of the Elevator Repair Service. What have you found to be the similarities and difference between having your own show, and working in collaboration with an ensemble as you have done with ERS?
Well, I worked on this show in collaboration with the performers as well, so in that respect it was very similar to working with ERS. But with any collaborative situation, it’s not so much the fact that you are collaborating, as who the people you’re collaborating with are, what their ideas are, and how you all relate, that sets the tone for the working experience. Susie and I have worked together for years with ERS, but the other three performers were not ERS veterans, and as a group, we’d never worked together before. So we spent a bunch of time just feeling out the best way for us to work. We didn’t have the same kind of history together; we had to make it up as we went along.
In addition to performing you have done quite a bit of work as a dramaturg. How does that kind of academic work influence your physical vocabulary.
I don’t think the academic work influences my physical vocabulary; at least I can’t think of how it might. But being someone who understands movement has helped my work as a dramaturg, because I’ve dramaturged for choreographers (like Ralph Lemon) and been able to talk about movement with them.
What’s next for you? Do you have any ideas for future projects that you would like to share with us?
I’m not thinking that far ahead quite yet — I’m going to wait until this run finishes. But ERS has a great project coming up soon — probably a version of it will be seen mid-year — which I may be involved with in some way. And Shanti (Crawford, one of the 131 dancers) may put a bit of choreography on me soon — turnabout is fair play. But I haven’t started thinking of anything big and new yet.