Dancing in the Street…er… Garage

dancers in garageNoemie Lafrance is a site-specific choreographer and founder of Sens Production, an experimental arts organization dedicated to the creation and production of dance work staged within urban architecture. Since 2000, Ms. Lafrance has collaborated with large groups of dancers, designers and artists to create, produce and perform work for a variety of audiences in New York City. Ms. Lafrance received the 2003 Bessie Award for Choreography for Descent, and she has been commissioned to create a new work in the spring of 2005 by the Whitney Museum at Altria in the Performances On 42nd Street series. Her upcoming dance, Noir, is co-produced by The Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church and will be performed at The Delancey and Essex Municipal Garage as part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

During the month of May, Noemie Lafrance will transform one of downtown’s municipal parking garages into a “live motion picture” for her latest choreography Noir. When I arrived at her Brooklyn studio, she was busy at an antique, treadle-run sewing machine altering one of the sixty 1940’s style costumes that she is creating for the piece. She continued to work, now hemming a jacket by hand, as we talked about her newest project and her interest site-specific choreography.

First, let’s talk about Noir. All I know about it is that it’s in the style of film noir and it’s in a garage. Why did you pick film noir? Why the garage?

My interest now is to work with the narrative in dance without using text. And I was interested also in the idea of suspense. So I was wondering how to translate suspense through a danced narrative. My other interest is to work with the site specific, so real spaces. I was thinking of the more developed ideas of suspense in films, and I think noir cinema was around the time where all that idea sort of got developed. Then it grew and there’s this whole movement that is sort of “post-noir.” There’s noir of today also, and I think there are a lot of films now in Hollywood that have approached suspense in a whole other way. That is one of the things that is captivating to the audience. I guess it’s a whole scheme right in Hollywood, a whole trend, a whole section of films, and a lot of those scenes happen in a garage. There are a lot of the transactions where someone brings a suitcase with the money and they meet in the garage or in the place that is a secret place, but it also a non-place–a place that nobody would be there. It has this mood that’s neutral and not very humanized…It’s also this kind of feeling that you get when you go into these kind of places–of emptiness and silence, but also fear and solitude. So that’s the whole trigger.

Also my work is involved with post-feminist ideas, so that I talk about women’s desires and sexuality and relationship with men. I like the femme fatale in noir because it’s one of the first times when women were shown both as an object of desire and also a desiring individual, where the woman is placed as sexual and not necessarily as a wife or as a possession of the husband.

But the piece is not all women, it’s men and women?

Right. There are ten men and ten women dancing, and for the most part it is couples and it is contact, a lot of lifts and a lot of duets. So it speaks also of intimacy. There are whole different layers of intimacy by the fact that the audience is seated in cars. You know, the idea of being in the car with someone that you know because you came with them and then being with another couple that maybe you don’t know or other people that you don’t know. It’s a situation of intimacy, and what you’re watching is also about the intimacy between two people that you don’t know, that are characters. There is also this idea of the shift between fiction and reality, so that you could have potentially come to this garage and gone to look for your car and saw this couple having a fight or a situation which you can’t really understand so you just watch.

You have become well known for your site-specific work. What is it about site-specific work that interests you more than going into a traditional theater?

Well, it has always been my interest honestly. I’ve seen a lot of dance and I’ve danced and I’ve gotten tired of sitting in the theatre. I always want to dance when I watch dance. I feel like dance is hard to watch–it is more interesting to do. I think it’s a big conflict in the dance world, because the audience is so limited and because its very internal. It’s a small circuit, the people who understand dance are dancers so it has this whole incestuous relationship because it’s a small community. I feel differently about it, because I feel that dance is something that is very basic and it belongs to everybody. I always want my audience to dance. You know, not obviously because not everyone is trained as dancers, so you can’t necessarily dance in the same way, but just as spontaneously. It’s not part of our ritual anymore, you know our culture. I feel like our culture is actually more about images–like in film–and about ideas that bring in all the elements. The idea of theater is old in a sense that it is like in the time of the king bringing in a fake tree on the stage. To me, it doesn’t visually do anything. I am interested in showing a live film to the audience, so they can actually come to the site and see something that’s dance and an extension of reality.

What have you found to be the biggest challenges of doing site specific work, as opposed to working in a theatre where you can just go in, load in your show and perform?

Oh, a thousand billion things. There are a lot of unknowns that you have to be able to deal with…like not knowing where are you going to get electricity or how are you going make a dressing room and all that stuff. And you have a limited budget, so its not like in film where they can just move in with the big vans and everything is in there. We sort of operate the same as film does but just without the budget. So it’s a little difficult sometimes, even though Noir is in the Whitney Biennial and it is co-produced by Danspace Project. I am getting a lot of support from important organizations and its great that great that they can do that…and it is not just about money. It’s about support in many ways, sharing resources and also credibility.

That’s something I want to talk about…I am interested in making site specific work something credible as well. It’s not BAM. It’s not Lincoln Center, but I would like it to be able to have that kind of recognition. That’s where I am coming from, in building my company, Sens Production, and in producing my work. I mean, there are lot of people who have no clue what I am talking about. The average person that I am dealing with, they don’t understand, but they do understand film. They do understand ballet. For example, there is a guy I am trying to get involved with Noir. He has a lot of old cars, and I wanted him to lend them to us, but he doesn’t understand the importance of that. The impact of the dance reaching out to a larger audience. Like we showed Descent to something like 4000 people, and with Noir we are going to reach out to about 5000 people. That’s like a show at BAM in a way, the same kind of impact.

You trained at the Martha Graham School. How has that training has played into your work?

What I take from it is a strong sense of physicality, which I find important. For me, it was also a question of finding a strong technical approach to modern dance, because I never trained in ballet. I was never interested in it, because aesthetically I didn’t like it, and it didn’t work with my body. But with the Graham even though it has a very sort of classical edge to it now, it wasn’t in the 40’s. I feel like my body really understands it. It brought me to a technical level that I was looking for, actually in the optic of creating not in the optic of dancing for the Graham Company or any other company.

Has your training affected the way you interact with or pick your dancers?

Well, I do have some dancers that are from Graham, from the school or the company or both. Graham is sort of the base of the modern dance language, you know she was the teacher of Cunningham and Taylor and everyone, so its all really at the base. If the dancer can’t contract or doesn’t understand the Graham language, they really haven’t explored contemporary or modern dance. Because a lot of it comes from understanding how to move from your pelvis, from your center. You can see it, you know, in dancers that initiate movements from the extremities instead of from their center and to me it’s a tool to work with. If I want to get something that’s more emotional, it’s easier to work with someone who has that kind of background. My choreography is not necessarily so hard all the time. Some things are easier physically…they are more almost gestural, and they are emotional. They are felt. The dancers need to be involved and believe in the character. It has a theatrical side to it, and I think that Graham developed this idea of drama in the physicality, which I think is great.

What other choreographers who really inspired your work?

I would say, I like Pina Bausch very much. I think her dancers are ballet trained, very strongly ballet trained. That’s what I’m saying, if your are not ballet trained you should be Graham trained or have a training–some kind of strong training. Also, I need dancers with personality. That’s part of what I am looking for. If you’re trained and have a sort of blank face, like a question mark, it doesn’t really work.

Moving on to other topics, I hear you have a project in a swimming pool coming up.

I want to do a project in the McCarron pool over there. [She points out the studio window.] I want to do this one with 40 dancers. I want the audience to sit around the pool. It’s an empty pool, and it’s really big like 50000 square feet.

And the dancers would be where the water would be?

Yeah. It’s a piece about illusions and ideas that the mind can’t really grasp, like infinity, or void, lots of space. In terms of the psychology of space, I’d like to explore agoraphobia, the fear of large space, large urban spaces, like plazas.

Are you more interested in urban settings than rural landscapes?

I’d actually like to do a piece on the sea, I have an idea about that. I mean, I think that maybe because I am in New York, I am interested in setting dance into architectural settings more than into nature settings. I just think what I have to say is about people in their “manspaces” in this culture, so it relates to people here. Maybe if I land myself in the country, I might want to do things differently.

Your company, Sens Production, produces your site-specific work, are you interested in producing site-specific works by other choreographers?

It’s just for my work now, because I feel like as an Artistic Director and a producer, I want to establish a clear vision. Yes, in the future we would like to produce other choreographers and maybe directors and maybe other art forms in a site-specific context. I would like to do that in a certain way at a certain level so that it is truly site-specific, not just to default of something else. You know like “let’s just dance over here”. It is really like how are you involved with that space, and what’s the relationship between that space and what you’re doing. For me its visual and conceptual and historical. It has all these different elements to it and there is a very strong relationship to it. The reason why its there and what it brings to the work. This vision has to be established, so that it is clear when there is an exchange with other artists what this is…what we’re about. This is what we want to explore. This is what we want to work on. So if you are coming to us to produce your work, it’s not because you are looking for any producer to produce your work, it’s because you want to explore the idea…the depth of work that is site-specific in doing a piece that involves the architecture.

Any final thoughts?

Just that there are people, some of whom are not so recognized and some of whom are, and they are fighting to do this kind of work on all different levels and scales. So, I think that it’s important that people understand that this kind of work-site specific work- needs support. It needs to move to the next level and I think there is a movement towards that in this time and in this city.

Choreographed by Noemie Lafrance
at The Delancey & Essex Municipal Parking Garage
105 Essex St, NYC
May 5-22 at 7:30pm and 9:30pm
For more information visit www.sensproduction.org

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