10 Minutes With Vanessa Anspaugh

Vanessa Anspaugh punctuates her 100-hour creative residency as a part of Dance Theater Workshop’s Studio Series with two work-in-process showings of Sky is Sky OR CCC (in one Part), tonight and tomorrow at 6pm. Vanessa and I (and one of her dancers, Aretha Aoki) went to grad school together and I’ve been deeply enamored of her ability to rub the taut edges of the gulf between individuals with visually compelling and quietly dislocating imagery for several years.  Her “We are weather” was on a “Food for Thought” program I curated, as well as last season’s “Fresh Tracks.” She is currently working with Juliette Mapp, and has also worked with Faye Driscoll, Jillian Pena, Aretha Aoki, Lisa D’Amour & Emily Johnson.

So, is this a quartet or a quintet? It’s basically for four dancers, but I’ve inserted myself into the first 15 minutes of it and then disappear. It’s not the point of the dance that I be in it, but I was curious about what it would be like to be inside my own work.  That’s always seemed so impossible and as an artist we always give ourselves impossible tasks, right? Plus, I couldn’t find a fifth dancer and thought I should challenge myself to understand and do what it is I ask of other dancers.  So, it’s been very interesting with me and Aretha, Mary Read, Strauss Borque and Devynn Emory working together.

And, Susan Mar Landaue is working with you again as a dramaturg.  How do you approach your work together? I don’t really have a plan for how I want to work with her and she flows in that process with me.  There are times when I hide from her and it’s like hiding from myself. There are periods where I won’t be in touch for a long time because I know she’ll ask me hard questions.  Then, eventually, I’ll bring her in and she’ll give feedback that is based in what she’s seeing. And, I respond with ‘this is what I’m going for” or not. It helps that she comes from visual art and performance and reads everything very conceptually. She’s not from dance. It helps to have someone brutally honest and very opinionated. Someone who will ask: “Why is that there? I hate it.” And it makes me really clear about my own choices, by answering to that. We disagree a lot, but she lets me do that. She’ll give me ideas and see very specific details. For example, once a dance is formed, she’ll see something like Aretha’s arm is more bent than Mary’s and that might be something I don’t care about and she’ll make me see it and in our discussion will help me focus on what I think matters. That leads to this clarification that has happened in this piece. It’s a 3rd iteration.  After my Fresh Tracks residency, we did a Judson showing, then we did a BAX residency and showing and with this the work has been coming into more work on details and nuance and performance quality. I’m being really challenged right now because I am asking a lot from my dancers but I don’t have the language that theater has. I can’t talk to them as actors or when I say to dancers “theatricality” there’s something assumed of insincerity.  I do want them to act, but by bringing their own narrative into their work.  So it’s not acting as if they are something else.  It’s how every gesture relates to every other gesture and how the dancers relate to each other in that moment and how they are also relating to the gestures. The movement started first and we’re working on what does the movement tell you.  We work with that task and are now dealing with emotional texture and I’ve been struggling with answering the questions that they have for me.  There’s something about dealing with narrative—having the dancers develop their own narrative then delving into the material in a deeper and fresher way.

How did the studio series residency change things for you? I wanted to do an intensive rather than spread out my time. So I got something like going away on residency. It was 6 weeks of working every night together. But, on an away residency you’re away.  Here we were all working every day and coming in, but I think the energy of struggle, of a 10 hour day before landing in the studio, probably contributed to what we made. There’s actually a lot of dancing in the dark, because at first we’d turn the lights out and improvise in the dark as a way to get to a deeper quiet and into our senses. We’d take turns so we didn’t collide and that enters into this work. This piece is responsive to the environment. It’s kind of chaotic. This has more multiplicity and pleasure and pain. But, the incredible thing about getting100 hours, which seems unfathomable, is that it gives you permission to do something like dance in the dark.

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