American Realness 2012: An Interview with Laura Arrington

With so many known commodities invading the festivals this January, lesser-known and emerging artists can get lost in the shuffle. San Francisco-based choreographer Laura Arrington is one such artist. I first caught wind of her work a year or two ago and she’s one of the people coming in with a strong bit of buzz–Big Art Group’s Caden Manso, for instance, told me just a couple days ago not to miss her work. Hot Wings, the 2010 piece for four dancers she’s bringing to American Realness, is an exploration of gender, the body as animal, and violence. Funny and maybe a bit discomfiting, it earned plenty of praise in SF last year, and you have only two chances to catch it: 7 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 5 and 4 p.m. Sat., Jan. 7 at Abrons Arts Center (tickets $15).

Hot Wings seems to have a very interesting genesis; you’ve said it was an extension of some of the ideas you worked with in your prior piece Fingerbird, which is a response or taking off from the famous ballet The Firebird. What was Fingerbird like and what specifically continued to interest you that you took from that experience?

What was Fingerbird like…? Well, I listened to a lot of R Kelly while we made it. ┬áNo, Fingerbird was very artificial. Firebird was a source, but so were a lot of other stories of fancy symbolic birds. Kosinski’s The Painted Bird is one of my favorite books, and as an image it’s a favorite…it sort of takes the metaphor of the bird as transcendent and flips it on its head. Also, In a sort of silly way, R Kelly’s song “I believe I can fly,” this song that borrows a trite kind of plastic sentiment, sung by a complicated pop star, but that ultimately gets me…maybe I’m an idiot. But I like those silly intersections between what’s funny, meaningful, and stupid. When you know better…but, still…you still love the metaphor of flight, the image of the bird, the voice of R Kellly… I sort of likened the bird to a trite or conventional representational imagining of a broken woman.

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

You’ve said two things in relation to this piece that fascinate me: one is the idea of a woman (either gender really, but this is an exploration of gender) as an animal, the body versus the brain perhaps, and you’ve also suggested you’re interested in violence within the piece. Yet it’s pretty funny at many moments. Can you sort of elaborate on the animal and violence concepts and how they related/how you explored them in the piece?

I think the intersection btw humor and violence is a pretty high-traffic intersection. Anything that is as real as aggression or violence has the capacity to be received as funny. I mean humor is often camouflage for something darker and more real.
The animals are integral in the trio of pieces in this series. My most recent was about and starred my dog. It was called wag. A deer features prominently on Hot Wings, and Fingerbird was all birds. I love animals. That’s not super interesting but it’s true true true. There’s a lot to say about the animals, but it’s better to not…

I think even you’ve suggested that this piece is somewhat aggressive in terms of its relationship to the audience; what can the audience expect coming into the theater and why make a choice like that?

I wouldnt say aggressive, or maybe I did… It does ask the audience to be involved in ways other pieces may not. I don’t want to say too much though. Audience participation is such a dirty word to folks, so best not to say it!

Given the ways the audience interacts with the performance, and what you’re trying to do with them, did anything happen during the original run that surprised you? Did you see anyone have a sort of memorable response? Did anyone respond negatively?

It’s always a surprise to see how people respond to instructions. It’s always a surprise to see how groups of people create their own identities and personalities. I’m always so so curious to see how my work gets read by people. A lot of people think Hot Wings is hilarious, other folks it made them cry, other folks thought it was stupid, other folks clever… You never know, or at least I never know. I’m always so curious to see how the group identity of the audience can kind of take the piece on. The end of Hot Wings had vastly different responses. Again, I dont want to say too much as I dont want to give too much away.

What it’s like creating work in San Francisco? What opportunities exist there for you as an artist and what are the biggest challenges you face?

Man, I really love SF. Its a special spot, and it feels very homey. I have a really tight knit group of collaborators/friends. The Off Center/Ernesto Sopprani, Jesse Hewit, Keith Hennessy, and a lot of other folks make it a fantastic place to make work. It’s easy to do shit there. It’s in a pretty vibrant little moment. More and more outside folks are coming in, which is great, because my biggest critique of SF is that it’s a bit isolated.

For the entire line-up of the ambitious 2012 American Realness Festival, see here, and be sure not to miss one of January’s hottest parties, American Pussy Faggot! Realness on Sat. Jan. 7, with downtown impresario Earl Dax’s Pussy Faggot!. For all Culturebot’s coverage of APAP 2012 related events, see here.

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