Cynthia Oliver on exhaustion, posturing, and emotional cost in BOOM!

Photo by Ian Douglas

Photo by Ian Douglas

Last week Cynthia Oliver and I spoke about her latest duet dance work, BOOM!, which premiered at New York Live Arts in October. I was compelled by the way one aesthetic or singular movement exploration blended into the next, the boldness of Oliver’s decisions in pairing movement with speech, the way two people can fill up a space yet make it feel infinitely larger than life, and the way I couldn’t get a handle, ever, of what was objectively happening. I was most interested in learning more about how Oliver created this dance because as I watched it I was never bored. There was always a challenge, new information, a contradiction, a question, or a raise in stakes that left me unable (unwilling) to leave her performative world.

It doesn’t bother me in a performance when I start to make connections that draw my attention away from the live dancing itself, because I think that could all be part of the viewing experience. However, as far as I’m concerned, to become so fully engaged with anything for an hour, let alone an articulate, shape-shifting piece of live performance that sticks with you even once it’s done, is a privilege. I stayed for the post-performance talk back with Oliver, her dancer and collaborator Leslie Cuyjet, and moderator Craig Peterson, and found that I was not alone. About the only part of the dance he would change, one audience member said: “I got terribly nervous when it looked as if there might be an end.”
The following conversation, then, is itself in conversation with the notes I took while watching the performance, and with Oliver’s question and answer discussion of the piece after its untimely end.


You choreographed a variety of very recognizable situations into the dance: there was an extended crying section, hugging in silence, all of which you seemed to identify but then explode and change from how we experience them daily. How do these situations fit into your larger concept of BOOM!?

My desire for this piece was for it to be really, really visceral. For it to relate to the everyday—the things that we all manage. I aim to do that in all my work. I wanted to unfold the layers of protection that we all often put up as armor, then lay that out for an audience to see, to experience with us, to think about in terms of their own lives.[1]

I wanted this piece to be vulnerable and honest. All the posturing we do to hold ourselves together; to not appear weak; to make it through the day: I wanted to develop that into another choreographic language.[2]

Can you identify any of the specific ways you broke down the posturing, or counterbalanced it?

The main posture was the lifted back look, where we look down our arms at each other and we point at our asses. This was a number of things for us: the armor we put on, but also it was identifying “the ass” as a body part that has been problematic—for black women in particular—both historically and in contemporary culture, in terms of how people think about their bodies. During one section, in order to move out of this posture, we play with it. It’s playful, it’s fun, and we laugh at ourselves.

There’s another moment where we come out of an extended running section, which starts with us not knowing where we are going, but becomes really directed. It shifts the emotional state into the competition of who can posture the hardest.[3] We leave that, and allow that to resonate, and then demonstrate the emotional cost of it when we’re crying. That would be the private moment. That would be when we allow ourselves to express what we feel when we leave one of those moments.[4] So, those are two examples of how we mechanically and emotionally deal with what I’m calling the cost of the posturing.[5]

How does exhaustion factor into the way you work? Some sections of BOOM! don’t seem to play themselves out until you’re fully exhausted, but I don’t imagine that you’re able to rehearse those complete sections as frequently as others because they’re so exhausting. How did you make that happen?

Well, first of all let me thank you for acknowledging that. I think people feel it when they watch, but I don’t think they intellectually say, “Oh—that’s exhaustion.” I’ve been interested in exhaustion for about eight years. With students here at University of Illinois, I started working on a piece called Threshold. It was about not being able to stop. What does that mean? How do we manage this? How do we engage with it? What does exhaustion take from us? What does it require? How do we survive? This kind of “rev up” just keeps going, and is something I experience as a human in the world right now. It’s something we are all dealing with.[6]

Photo by Ian Douglas

Photo by Ian Douglas

I’m interested in what exhaustion does to the body, and its unrefined nature—it ain’t pretty. I love that grittiness about it. I love what exhaustion tells me about what we’re capable of, or what we’re not capable of. I like that it changes the physical vocabulary. I’m interested in it for all those physical reasons, as well as for what it requires of you emotionally.[7] To go through that cycle with a partner necessitates a conversation: “This is what I feel like right now. What are you feeling like? How are we going to do this next moment when we feel like this?”

It was really hard to rehearse. There are also some parts we just don’t rehearse.[8] We talk about them, though, and we know where we’re going to go. We don’t want to rehearse it, because we don’t want to lose its freshness, its bite.

What were the limits, if any, that you set for yourself in choreographing this dance? I make dances too, and I feel like there are limits I need in order to stay creative, and limits I need in order to stay sane—are those kinds of limits similar for you? Does that resonate with you at all?

I have a lot of limits, because I’m a parent; I am fifty-three; my dance partner doesn’t live here. Just those limitations dictated certain things. In my twenties, I could be in the studio eight hours a day, six days a week—no problem. Now I have to really calculate how much energy I have, both physically and mentally, and to give it its just due.

In terms of creativity, to keep myself fresh, I have to give myself time away. I bring Leslie here [to University of Illinois] to rehearse. We will do a two week residency, and we will work six days, four hours a day. Then we go away for a couple weeks. Then we bring it back. Part of this has to do with functionality of where we are geographically, Leslie’s schedule, and the fact that it is more economical to bring her here. But also: I feel like the time away is just as important as the time that we’re in it, because the work will be sizzling in my system and in my skin. I’m dreaming about it, I’m talking it over with my husband [Jason Finkelman,] who is the composer, and I’m watching my ten year-old son play.[9] He makes some sound effect, and I think: Oh, that’s something. That’s something I need. Life is happening, and it is kind of bleeding into the dance in my imagination, in the dream time. This time structure created the space for the art to be made.

Was there one part of this process that was particularly fun?

Oh, sure. The banter that Leslie and I have together. She’s an amazing human, first of all. We can just start some nonsense, and go. It will develop, it will morph, it will become God knows what. It’s just the sense of play that we have together, and we just have to let it fire up, and do what it does. We will be fools in the studio for as long as we have the energy, as long as we have another comeuppance, another level, and then when we’re finally dry, tapped out—that’s another place of exhaustion—we’ll stop and start laughing. We will ask each other, “What just happened?” It’s very fun, and this is how we came up with the whole opening of the piece[10], and also a lot of the places where we have to stay soft and act silly. But also, the way we relate to each other in the studio creates camaraderie and intimacy.


[1] In the talk back at New York Live Arts, Oliver discussed this same hope for us to insert our own experiences: “What did you see that had nothing to do with me? I was the body through whom you channeled information.”

[2] During the same talkback, Oliver also commented on the language of dance as being “naturally abstract.” In retrospect, this is a phrase I find myself applying to the whole arc and progression of BOOM! Oliver’s everyday situations begin as defined sections of choreography, but gradually take paths into territory that seems inevitable yet profoundly surprising.

[3] In my notes while watching this section of the performance, I write “battle of BAM.” Oliver and Cuyjet have a highly physical and verbal face off during which they try to one-up each other’s postures, each time saying “BAM!” The audience is laughing out loud.

[4] This crying section is particularly intense, because the ferocity of their sobbing first reaches a humorous climax, conveying clear melodrama, allowing us to laugh, but before I realize it, morphs into a devastating portrayal of what it’s like to cry, exhausted and alone.

[5] Elsewhere in my notes I write “pain and precision and domination,” all of which describe a single moment during which Cuyjet and Oliver seem to walk down a catwalk.

[6] Oliver, during the talk back: “Life knocks the shit out of us.”

[7] During a particularly charged, articulate section of BOOM!, Oliver and Cuyjet sequence through a spoken word recitation that ultimately comments on freedom (“You think you’re done because you’ve got freedom?! Free enough. Free enough—that’s free.”) They speak and move together in unison, breathing together, maintaining the same rhythms of speech. Of all the choreographic strategies Oliver weaves into this section, her sense of juxtaposition might be the most striking: A loud scream of “Imma punish ya!” is followed by a soft, temptress-sounding, “And then, I’m going to give you a reprieve.” I feel both implicated and understood. It’s haunting.

[8] One of these is a hugging sequence that happens in a far corner upstage, after the recitation carries them into silence. It indeed seemed too intimate and reliant upon real-time responsiveness to warrant rehearsal.

[9] I wonder if the part in the dance when Oliver and Cuyjet don super hero capes was, at least in part, inspired by children’s play.

[10] The stage is totally dark. In come Cuyjet and Oliver, who could potentially be two audience members late to see the show. We can’t see them, but we hear them carry on, compare their outfits, and talk over each other. In a way that is unhurried yet frenetic, as lights come up, they make their way down the tiered steps, past the audience, and finally take the stage.

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