Talking with Lance Gries about “The FIFTY Project” at La Mama Galleria

K.J. Holmes, Lance Gries, Jonathan Kinzel, Jimena Paz, Jodi Melnick

K.J. Holmes, Lance Gries, Jonathan Kinzel, Jimena Paz, Jodi Melnick

Lance Gries, a former Trisha Brown dancer and Bessie-nominated choreographer, celebrated his 50th birthday by inviting 50 colleagues from Brussels and New York to duet with him for 50 minutes. The New York dances were captured in video, edited and designed, in collaboration with Mike Taylor, into a video installation that will run at La Mama Galleria March 27-31. “The Fifty Project” also includes a supplementary booklet with a map, designed by Tony Carlson, of some of the educational and dance-related affiliations of the various members of Gries’ dance-family tree.

How is the project going? How did it come about?

I’d recently written this long essay and wasn’t sure if I liked the tone of it. Part of it will be the introduction of the handbook. At this point in the project, I’m dealing with lots of deadlines and editing. I’ve lost the heart of the project, which was that I wanted to meet and dance with people. How do I find my way back to the initial intentions and how wonderful it was to meet, reconnect and dance with people again or, in several cases, for the first time. The essay is a narrative of how I conceived of the project and how I grouped it with old-time connections who couldn’t say, or wouldn’t say, no before branching out to people I had admired and known but didn’t have a dancing relationship with. There were many people, such as John Jasperse  or Ishmael Houston Jones , who I’ve known for 20+ years, but had really never been in a studio with. Then, there was the 3rd group of artists that I admired from afar and I thought why not ask them. There was yet another smaller group of artists I met as I was still inviting people, by happenstance they wandered through my dance world – like Michelle Boule. She came to a Melt class I was teaching and I’d never met her and I said let’s dance.

When did you start? Where you aiming for a video installation from the beginning?

I started in July. The first meeting was with Miguel Gutierrez.  I’d also never danced with him, had barely even met him and as a first experience, it was exciting.  I made lots of mistakes on the technical side, even forgetting to turn on one camera! I had first conceived of these sessions as not being recorded, completely ephemeral. I just wanted to dance with a lot of people. There was numerology – 50 years, 50 people, 50 minutes. 50 minutes proved to be an interesting time frame – not too short, but not durational either.  There were definitely different modalities, but as you look at the collected duets there appears a pretty clear wave pattern that reveals itself in a lot of the sessions. I started think more about how to use video once I decided I was using video. At first I wanted all 50 duets projected simultaneously on the walls of a big white cube with surround sound. That wasn’t technologically feasible for where we are.  Finally, we’re using 4 large projected rectangles divided into 4 units each. As I started to conceive of how these would be organized – I realized I didn’t want to make a dance video and edit, but respect the rawness of individual sessions and show them as unaltered as possible. I wanted the viewer to get the essence without manipulation. By chance, I was looking at two videos side by side at the same time and thought that offered something beautiful. I had decided I would wear white and then as Mike Taylor and I began editing, we decided to start highlighting, or choosing sections that “privileged” the guest. Not that I would disappear, but that the different guests who are wearing dark or colorful clothing would appear to be dancing together through me.

So, the installation has a kind of compositional arrangement?

I am a choreographer, but in this project I’m not that interested in controlling the viewing experience.  I come from Trisha’s work, which is minutely organized. But, here there are so many unexpected synchronizations, sometimes just in a gesture, a direction or composition between the two bodies or camera.  The juxtapositions create their own possible choreographic reading.   I also wanted to keep these studio dances outside of a regular performance space, so we chose a gallery setting. There’s a little more distance and we can look at the images and not feel so obliged to follow a  choreographic sensibility, viewers can chose what to see as they look.  There’s often this responsibility to follow the exposition of choreography in a traditional performance space, but I like the more slippery relationship where the public can ignore that whole video cube if it’s not interesting to them.  I would like each person to develop their own choreographic mind while viewing.

How have you and Mike designed the installation?

I’m just starting to design the installation part of the project. I’m using the community map

Map by Tony Carlson

Map by Tony Carlson

as my score for the installation. Learning how these people cluster together was helpful, how their personal trajectory might start in one grouping and then evolve. There might be a quartet that starts with my college buddies – for example Jodi Melnick starts in the beginning and her full 50 minutes will be one of the large branches of the installation. There’s the early Trisha Brown cluster and then a cluster of people I met early on and going forward. So, we’re generally looking at 16 out of 30 of the New York tapes at any given time in quartets. Some people move forward in the installation throughout time and space with about 8 of them as a main part of a branching system. These are people who are pillars of my dance experience and history. I’m trying to score it in an aleatory way. How I can best approximate trajectories. There will be moments as the installation continues with full screens of individuals. It will take some delicate editing strategies to balance so much information.

I changed my intention during the dancing sessions a lot from the beginning.   At first I thought I would go in and be some kind of permissive energetic value that would allow the guest to bloom.  I originally had some strategies, maybe to lure them into certain camera angles for example. Early on, a couple of guests told me “It was your birthday, so I was trying to highlight you!”  Meanwhile, I was trying to bring the guest forward and they were trying to frame me. The best thing was to let go of any of those positions and just duet.

Is there something more about turning 50 that prompted this project? It’s such an incredible kind of living archive that you compiled in your own body through dancing with all of these people.

Really, I felt homesick for NY and the community here. That age felt like a milestone and I wanted to mark that.  And I really wanted to spend a year in New York and it was perfect to organize a project that would fill that year. Plus, it was a very practical way to meet people. Rather than calling someone to see a show or lunch – it was great to meet and dance. Most of us these days only dance with people in a work context.  It was intimate, just us in a studio. The New York sessions all took place in Randy Warshaw’s studio where I have a lot of history and many people would come in and say “Oh, I was here 16 years ago!”  Some people literally, got away from their desk to come dance for a couple hours. It was a relief. They could get out of their administrative head.  I met people who don’t consider themselves as actively dancing at this point in their lives and in this context they could really enjoy that. There are many other levels of how it affected other people, not just me. Some didn’t consider themselves improvisers.  John Jasperse said that. “No one ever asks me just to dance.”  People want to be asked to dance, to share themselves that way.  If someone just called me up and asked me to dance, I’d go.   I heard that Paul Langland was in town for a couple days and now our relationship is on another level because I just asked him to dance with me.

That is quite profound. We spend all this time in classes or in rehearsals or watching each other in shows, but few of us just dance together for the simple act of dancing together. That feels pretty substantial. That idea is going to ripple into more places, I think. I feel mobilized by that.

Yeah. That’s why the mapping document is valuable too, because I wanted to balance the sentimental things. It’s incredible what your body has just done with that intimate exchange. Every time I came home I had an interesting story about what their state was when they came in, what mine was. For a while I gave interviews after the session, but that got a little heavy. So, mostly we just sat and chatted before and after. There was a definite mood that I had to establish and I also had to set up and test these cameras – focusing the technical stuff, doing shot cards, release forms, etc.   That was tricky.  Now I have a whole stash of tapes, an archive that I’m hoping can be used in many ways., including other types of installations.   I’ve received an invitation to go to a festival and dance with Diane Madden, so we will return to the tape of our session somehow for that invitation.   We will also be

There’s something about the way in which improvisation allows you to be conversational with another body that a lot of our other dancing doesn’t facilitate.

Right, teaching at P.A.R.T.S and other places, I’m often dancing at a high level of improvisation with the students.  I’m really in my element. I recently did a work with a group of past students in Brussels and I realized I had a deeper relationship with those students than with people I’ve known since 1985 and had danced with. Vicky Shick and I had never danced together again since our year together in Trisha’s company. That kind of story could apply to many of the invitees. So, I danced 14 duets in NY last summer and then 14 in Brussels (and another 14 late fall in NY.)  I realized I knew man of these young dancers better from our time dancing together in class. I thought it was interesting to include the relationships that came up educationally in the booklet and community mapping.  80% of my dancing has been in studios and class environments over the past 15 years.  All that immateriality is still living within and between these people from that teacher/student exchange.

Dancing with K.J. Holmes early on was a huge experience for me; she works in such a developed realm of improvisation. I realized that if I paid attention, I could develop a real practice in improvisation as I continued with the others.  When I paid attention, I was often having flashbacks of past dances and carrying them into the space. I really felt that I was working between the psychic and the physical.

You’ve become something of a vessel or a channel between duets, not only in the way you are constructing the installation, but in your actual physical experiences. You are the thread, of course, but I’m just quite taken with what you carry with you in memory and experience of all of these incredible artists.

As dancers first, we often forget or maybe have begun to undervalue how important it is for us to express ourselves in our “native language” of moving.  We share way more through language and endless other modes of communication these days than we do through our dancing spirits.  I really felt that I got some part of this back through dancing with so many people over the past year and I hope I can find a way to continue with it.  Many people commented on this and with the hopes of continuing meetings in the future.

I felt overall that everybody had a desire to expand some shared language in their own way. Together we would often drop back into some vocabulary that felt like safe territory, and then push it into another direction. It’s a specific group, maybe a bit “Lance-centric” as Chrysa Parkinson described it.  Still, the accumulated sessions are a little snapshot of where a segment of our community is in this moment in time in terms of movement vocabulary.   I was always surprised at just how individual people are despite how much we share, of how differently people assert themselves. I was taking a lot in and receiving a lot of information from every session; and that was wonderful.   I always left each session satisfied and refreshed.  I often joked that I was feeling a bit like a vampire, having taken in so much from so many people.

Aside from how important it is for dancers to dance with one another, this project and our discussion is making me thought of the incredible value of the studio as a space for dancers.

It’s the rich fertile space where dancers live. It’s not as public as the stage. It’s safe, a space that’s not as reliant on having to produce. It did feel very permissive, but there were two cameras and my birthday, so all of the framing ended up adding just the right amount of tension to the environment.  There was the occasion, the time frame, a studio that most people knew, the cameras providing an eye. It created a great thing, a great space to dance with other people in. I didn’t really consider how potent that would be when I first conceived the project.


Full Presentations of the Installation featuring thirty NY dancers perform on the following schedule:

Wednesday March 27 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm
Thursday March 28 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm
Friday March 29 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm
Saturday March 30 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm
Sunday March 31 2:00 pm

These presentations are free, but seating is limited and reservations are required.  Reservations may be made here.

During Galleria hours (1PM – 4:30PM) there will be hourly full length FIFTY dance sessions with dancers side by side in a double duet image on the following schedule with the following artists:

Wednesday March 27 K.J. Holmes and Paul Langland
Thursday March 28 Diane Madden and John Jasperse
Friday March 29 Jodi Melnick and Jimena Paz
Saturday March 30 Jeanine Durning and Ralph Lemon

Viewing of all of the NY “FIFTY” video archive will also be possible on private monitors during regular Gallery hours.  Choose from thirty of these recorded dance sessions and view in full length or browse through thirty hours of edited dancing material with some of NY’s most beloved dancers.

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