Alexandra Beller/Dances’ milkdreams, at LaMama’s Ellen Stewart Theater for the final presentation at this year’s La Mama Moves Festival, pulled movement vocabulary and performative delivery directly from the choreographer’s young children. For months, dancers Carly Berrett Plagianakos, Lea Fulton, Edward Rice and Simon Thomas-Train observed, mimicked and worked to fully inhabit a physical practice of unadorned naturalism. Along the way, a video of their process went viral with close to a billion hits. The resulting performance work winds and wanders like an infant. Unlike small children, the energy dynamic rarely shifts. The piece occasionally tightens into sharp focus and then instantaneously dismantles into placid chaos filled with micro-accumulations and tumbles. I found myself soothed and intrigued by the physical practice, more curious about how it felt than how it looked, and compelled by the effort to sustain this steady state of output.
photo by Scott Shaw
So, I just watched the viral Baby Modern Dance video and your rehearsal with Ivo on YouTube. I’d seen them circulating, but didn’t realize the first one had gotten over a million hits! It’s quite beautiful. I recall being thoroughly intrigued with my children’s developmental progress and they’ve shown up or influenced many of my works over the past decade, but there was something so consciously investigatory in Ivo’s choicemaking. I found his delight in the reactionary adult dancers particularly beguiling. It wasn’t simply a video of a child dancing, but of a child leading adults. There was a clear relationship between action and reaction, call and response. It’s a wonderful methodology for engaging a young child in an exploratory process that encouraged a kind of agency and command that felt very rich. That sense of play as the medium for evolution was so potent in those videos. Did you begin with a sense of keeping this research in the realm of lighthearted improvisation or was the tone of the work inherent to Ivo’s leadership?
A: I’m not totally sure I’m interpreting this question correctly but I’ll try. I brought Ivo in because I was seeking something that we were unable to produce in the studio. Although the act of dancing with him, and following him, was sweet and light, the necessity for it was almost desperate. I felt we needed to be saved from some story about dance and our bodies that we’d made up and were unable to relieve ourselves of. His particular tone of enthusiastic agency as a small person in a room full of big people suddenly being given complete authority over not only space and the use of time, but also the entire tonal content of the room was very powerful to me and became integral to the time of the work. What does it feel like to be a little person in a big world? Growing up to adulthood did nothing to diminish my sense of powerlessness. If anything it accentuated it. His dance felt like such a freedom from that littleness.
Photo by Scott Shaw
In watching the piece, I’d find that my mind had wandered gently away. The sustained tones of Robert Poss and Kato Hideki’s musical performance (of Poss’s score) and the continuous nature of the physical work of the dancers offered a lot of space for reflection. It reminded me of a particular kind of playground experience I’d have with my kids. There would be that sense, similar in a way to traditional concert viewership, that I had to attend diligently to all that unfolded in front of me. With the kids, of course, it was for the sake of safety but very often when they were just toddling about and not in danger of falling off anything, I’d let my attention wane. This was pre-iPhone days, so there wasn’t much else besides my own monkey brain available for distraction. I’d guess sending your audience into this very particular mindset wasn’t overtly intentional, but there was a way in which the settling into the continuity of movement offered the audience an experience of viewership that had more to do with noticing subtle equilibrium shifts than a hard stare consumption of dancers performing. In other words, the work took the time to let us see and continue seeing complexity inside of apparently simple efforts, but it did this in a gentle manner. So, the intensity of the work for the performers became slowly apparent over time. There’s a heavily learned non-focus that clearly required discipline and practice. Is this the way you were thinking of redefiniting virtuosity?
A: I knew pretty early on that, done well, the work could offer a sense of transcending traditional time and space values. I always felt extremely blissed out, as if my nervous system had been reset, after watching a run. I was aware that I was asking people to view with fewer expectations, and to slow down some of their habitual ways of responding and defining what they see. Part of my goal was to create a environment in which people could really SEE the miracle of the body as it is, as we all are, rather than the pyrotechnics of what a few of us can do. Ironically, it took highly trained professionals 2.5 years to learn how to do it well. They, too, needed to change a lot of their ideas of speed and space. I see the piece as requiring a remarkable amount of virtuosity. If nothing else, staying authentically in their mid brain while responding specifically to the work’s specificities (front brain) was outrageously hard.
Photo by Judith Stuart
I felt as though I was witnessing the early work of a new language, that this work could be seen as a movement style feeding future somatic practices. You did quite a bit of Body Mind Centering-focused work during this process with Martha Eddy and Cheryl Clark. In addition to my 2 kids, I’ve watched 11 nieces and nephews grow and it is fascinating to observe how their various progressions through rolling to variations on crawling to walking have then manifested in other learning or developmental differences in speech. I’m often citing my anecdotal evidence in relation to the the Bartenieff based patterning work I do with my students at Hunter. They think I’m nuts for making them get down and crawl around on their bellies, but I find it so vital in my own work to integrate halves and, literally, re-ground. Could you talk a bit about the nature of your work with the dancers, with your children, with observing dreaming/sleeping, and with BMC? You speak to it in La Mama’s Blog, but I’d love to hear some specifics about the what and the how of knowledge that your dancers carry in their bodies. At times, the dancing does look like mimicry, but often it was executed with a deeper understanding, a fully embodied understanding and I’m wondering how that was arrived at.
A: We went through a lot of phases with this epic process. Our strategies for learning the material refined themselves over time. At first, before my year of Laban, we were really getting actions and directions from the video. The material came out interesting but flat. My Laban/BF info started to shift my attention to include Body Organizations/Developmental movement patterns, Effort life, reflex/righting responses, etc. That got us closer to the gestalt. With each phrase of Ivo (which were between :54 and 2:30), we probably did about 3 full separate attempts to gain the material. The first would be “steps.” We would learn the sequence of actions and directions and a bit about timing/phrasing. The second were often details (arms, hands, eyes, feet, micro movements we’d missed) and often the last (and this coincided with my laban training) was more of the why: reflex, equilibrium, desire, motivation, bonding, curiosity, etc. and often that is what brought us closest to rhythm, because it incorporated expression more than any of the other passes. I’d say we spent about 25 hours analyzing each phrase, and there were 10 of Ivo’s and 6 of Lucas’ phrases to learn.
Photo by Judith Stuart
I sometimes joke (when I’m heading home from a full day’s teaching or evening rehearsals) that I’m returning to my long term durational performance as “Mother.” At times, the unrealness of that role versus the increasing load of life away from my kids (who by now at 10 & 11yrs spend more time in other people’s company) surprises me. This is unlike their early years when it felt all consuming and professionally debilitating. You articulate a deeply important component to this work in La Mama’s Blog and in the program notes when you write about your shifting goals with the work: This piece has become as much a spiritual practice as an artistic one. It is the first work I’ve made where I don’t feel any separation between my “artist” perspective, my female perspective, my mother perspective, my human perspective. I found a lot of value in that statement about finding a way to have the meaning of your work be intrinsically tied into your various roles and perspectives. We’re still struggling to negotiate through this whole stigma of women’s work and I felt a strong kinship to that idea that your work could encompass the wholeness of your experience in the world. It reminded me of AnnMarie Slaughter’s Atlantic Monthly piece a few years ago about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” when she wrote about deliberately making her role as mother highly public: When I became dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, in 2002, I decided that one of the advantages of being a woman in power was that I could help change the norms by deliberately talking about my children and my desire to have a balanced life. After a few months, several female assistant professors scolded her because this kind of behavior made her appear less professional. I told them that I was doing it deliberately and continued my practice, but it is interesting that gravitas and parenthood don’t seem to go together. I want to acknowledge how you made your experience as an artist, a dancer and a mother an integrative experience and the way in which you have placed yourself and this process into a public arena. For me, that feels like an act of strong political choice. Did you feel that way? You write about the spiritual practice of it, but I feel a particular potency alongside the poignancy – that there is another level of meaning about how valuable your creative process was beyond the somatic and choreographic realms, beyond your individual journey and into the larger world of social value and relevance.
A: Yes. Totally. I definitely feel that allowing motherhood to be visible is a dangerous choice in relation to your credibility. That makes me quite sad. I have felt the interest in me as an artist fade as I have had children. There are two aspects to this (probably more): one true, one false. There is truth to the fact that it is impossible to commit to your art in the same way once you have kids. When I look at Kyle, Miguel, Faye, Monica, all of whom are “succeeding” at a certain high level in my estimation, I see clearly that I could not do what they are doing in the way they are doing it. Monica is touring every weekend. Miguel and Kyle go away for 6-8 weeks at a time. Faye works in residency mode, going away for creative process for 3-4 week stints. I can’t, or wouldn’t choose to, do those things. I cannot have it “all” if I define “all” as having a consistent, deep, committed relationship to my kids, and getting my work out in a big splashy, consistent way. They don’t fit. Add in to this that many of those jobs are gotten by the artist’s visibility in the scene, which means going to shows 2-3 nights a week, speaking on panels, going to conferences, writing for journals, etc, most of which I choose not to do because my remaining time is spent making the art, and making money. Those are facts and they feel irrefutable.
Then there is the false: the mythology around my relevance as an artist now that I am a mother. I think, similar to the Virgin/Whore falsehood, there is a story about the mother that she is not dangerous, not radical, not a revolutionary, that she cannot be impactful, set things on fire, affect change. I feel that story a wrapped around me in speaking about my work with people who know I am a mother. I do think it is a political act to visibly be both a mother and an artist, and as such, it is not always at the service of my own success.