Zen and the Art of Stage Directing or conversations about expectations or just making up your damn mind already

Alexandra Beller, choreographer, and Ivan Talijančić, director, in conversation about choice-making (in life and directing), dramaturgy, and building their upcoming collaborative workshop, Mindflock, that gives directing skills to choreographers and choreographic skills to directors.

Performance still from WaxFactory's site-specific production of LADYFROMTHESEA at the Old American Can Factory (Brooklyn NY), directed by Ivan Talijancic, pictured, in the foreground: Erika Latta, photo by Tasja Keetman

Performance still WaxFactory’s production of …SHE SAID at the ICA/Institute of Contemporary Art (London UK), directed by Ivan Talijancic, pictured, in the foreground: Erika Latta, photo by Tasja Keetman

Ivan Talijančić: How do you remember the seed idea for Mindflock coming about?

Alexandra Beller: The initial moment of working together came about in your first class in Directing at my company’s Intensive. There were so many ideas that you initiated and ways you said things that resonated with my ideas about Dance Theatre, and yet were different, had fresh languaging around them, that I was struck with our simpatico.

IT: So there was a core we were both interested in, but tackling from different angles.

AB: Yes. And almost on a whim I think you said, “Next stop: a workshop just you and me.” Then later, in planning, we were talking about things that are sometimes missing in the training process for both Directors and Choreographers.

IT: …Because we both felt like we just barely started scratching the surface with this approach.

AB: Choreographers get so much information about structure but sometimes lose the WHY. And Directors get, I think, a lot of information about communication and relationship, but sometimes miss how the BODY is the vehicle for EVERYTHING. And then, Choreographers are often TERRIFIED to direct character, relationship, intention, and especially TEXT!

IT: Movement that sometimes feels like it’s movement for movement’s sake — and there is a disconnect from the impetus.

AB: And I think sometimes Directors have a gap in being able to coach the viscerality, the embodiment of a moment. Directors sometimes get so caught up in the IDEA. They can let go of the guts, the physical.

IT: In theater, it’s more about the head… and the text… and it is disembodied, especially in the anglo-saxon tradition where the word is still king.

AB: So we thought: “We have been coming from opposite ends, but in our own work, we seem to have met in the middle.” I am interested in how speaking AND moving can serve the same purposes. Movement does not decorate language and language is not the only thing that can further narrative and communicate specific, tangible facts.

IT: I would add a third element we discussed — which, as we both observed, was often lacking in dance on this side of the pond — which is dramaturgy, and how contemporary dance in this country is really lacking in dramaturgical discourse.

Photo of Toni Melaas, Milvia Pacheco Salvatierra, Tim Cusack, Edward Rice and Jenna Riegel by Rachel Roberts

Photo of Toni Melaas, Milvia Pacheco Salvatierra, Tim Cusack, Edward Rice and Jenna Riegel by Rachel Roberts

AB: YES. The WHY. Acting here gets at the WHAT. Dance gets at the HOW. But where is the WHY? I remember talking about the idea of the universal and the personal: how we are all trying desperately to be part of something, and all want deeply to be unique, and the tension that exists between those two desires is a deep deep thing. In terms of what you said earlier, one thing I really recognized as similar between our pedagogical approaches is the idea of just making decisions. Fixing them, adjusting them, adapting them later, but just make choices — more and more and more choices — and seeing them physically in front of you, so you can FEEL something. I think a lot of training is about THINKING about what you want to do, being able to defend it before you even make it, being able to describe it. But until you make a decision, nothing else can happen.

IT: We had a conversation about impetus. Why make work? What is that spark that makes it happen, and how do you translate that spark into something tangible that you can build, and then craft, and improve on, and layer into? It’s the bridge between the universal and the personal, and, in a way, the more personal you make it, the more accessible it becomes — because it can strike a chord on a visceral level. Which brings up the question: how do we raise awareness of that while working? One very simple and yet defining lesson I learned while studying with Anne [Bogart] was this thing she once said in class, which was that you are in a room with your collaborators and sometimes you are really bereft of ideas so what you have to do is get up, walk towards the stage, and say… “I know!” And it will literally happen in that moment.

AB: YES.

IT: It sounds simple but it is truly one of the most fundamental lessons.

AB: There’s that gorgeous thing in ‘A Director Prepares’ about how making a decision is a violent act because it kills all other possible decisions, but until you make that decision — where to place the chair — no other work can happen.

IT: We called it violence of articulation. Which is to say — while it is indeed an act of killing, to set or decide something — I like to also think of it as a hyper textual daisy chain. So, you commit to one thing — that chair being set down left — but then that opens up a myriad of possibilities in terms of how that chair will be used, what will happen to it, how you are going to use that piece of architecture as your dancing partner… it becomes a character.

AB: Yes. It is the first step in relationship. There’s a principle in Bartenieff called Initiation and Sequencing that basically says that once you have decided to do something, the outcome of the rest of the events that follow has already been determined

IT: Waaaaaah!!! Wow! Talk about violence of articulation!

AB: YES!

IT: I am going to try to forget that one when it comes to real life… otherwise I will never set foot out the door out of fear of unleashing Armageddon.

AB: It’s daunting: Ultimate KARMA. But the thing is, we are ALWAYS RE-Initiating. We can change the course at any moment.

IT: Or as a (very good) psychic once told me, “This is NOW. The universe is fluid. Every choice changes the future, but we can constantly re-change it. You change one thing and then the dominoes readjust.” I also sort of coined a term for it. I call it “the pachinko effect.” Pachinko is this game where you put a marble atop of this box with pins and it makes its way down through an obstacle course until it lands in a slot on the bottom. There is something similar called “the butterfly effect.” The butterfly is equally good! If not more eloquent.

AB: So, this is about constantly finding its way towards an end goal. Making micro choices along the way, but ultimately being inextricably drawn gravitationally towards something. I like the idea of gravity, the physics of being drawn towards something. It holds you down, keeps you from flying, but also keeps you alive and available. It is universal but we each experience it in a personal physical way.

IT: It is the thing that binds us all and it’s inescapable. It also implies the idea of corporeality.

AB: That goes back to the idea of the universal and personal. I like to think about how we have developed language that is attempting to be universal yet we have ZERO idea if the words we use mean the same thing to the people to whom we say them. Even color, or feelings, or images. We don’t know if red, or grief, mean the same things. I think about how that relates to memory: how we can never compare two feelings even of our own; how we just package everything in language. I think, and I am biased as a choreographer, that movement gets at something that is true. Enteric nervous system: 100 million neurons in the GUT. The spinal cord can experience something before translating it through the brain. Although it seems esoteric and unknowable, I do think there are some facts that play into how we experience bodies and images. Like: the distance of a body from another body is instantly relatable and communicates specific meaning without you saying, “They are so close, and so are probably experiencing deep intimacy.” The Effort life of a movement communicates similarly. The whole study of nonverbal communication came only from ideas about how the body changes shape in space.

IT: And it stays with you.

AB: We CAN remove meaning from these things and teach them as if they are simple choices that come from the head. I think my goal in this particular workshop (Mindflock) is to invite students to build skill in shifting between mind and body so quickly they almost don’t notice it. Make a choice (from the brain), FEEL it. Have an instinct from the body, make a choice based on it…

IT: …And then intentionally proceed to divest it from the emotional context, or the other way around…

AB: …And to be able to shift back and forth, and not get caught without intelligent scaffolding, or without guts, is key. I would like them to have a tool belt of specific things to try in their rehearsal, for both building material and shifting material to increase meaning, and to have an understanding of the small choices that are available at every moment, and then to increase their self-trust in their own instincts at responding to their own choices. So, for example: basic things like changing the distance, shifting the focus, changing the stress on a word or a movement, altering the effort life of a movement or a line and THEN, after making a choice, noticing how you feel as the viewer. Were you moved? No? Great. New choice. To be able to both analyze AND not think at all in quick succession.

IT: To understand how the shift affected the whole construction. Again, the pachinko 🙂 Which is also the decision to both make and show. Understanding the notion of commitment, and the ability to commit to a choice — but at the same time the commitment to letting go — and examining if the work can benefit.

photo of Alexandra by Judith Stuart

photo of Alexandra by Judith Stuart

AB: This relates to this idea of memory, which for me also holds true for the idea about present and FUTURE — we cannot hold them both at the same time. Making a decision can be about the present or about the future. If it is about the future, I think perhaps we often stop NOTICING because we are making a decision to effect a change in the future feelings of our audience, rather than staying present with how it feels to us NOW, making and noticing, and we can attach to an IDEA about how things will look, feel, etc., without actually seeing or feeling them as they arise.

IT: Yes, and how it can be foreshadowing, or misleading, or both at the same time. One of the greatest powers that we have as directors is to subvert expectations.

AB: And also to invite a feeling of inevitability. OOOHHH. Those two…

IT: Absolutely. It’s like a tidal shift.

AB: You know that feeling in the ocean when you are looking for a big wave?

IT: Yup.

AB: Either because you want one or are scared of one?

IT: And you are like… this is going to be HUGE.

AB: And you are watching them and sometimes say, “Here! Here’s a big one coming!” And then… nothing. Or the opposite, and you are lifted up by it unexpectedly.

IT: And you don’t know what hit you.

AB: I think those are both useful tensions to create on stage.

IT: And very much life-like!

AB: …And then there’s the one that looks big and it’s coming and it’s coming and it is exactly what you thought it’d be, also good. So, practically, this is mostly beautifully theoretical anything.

IT: Ideally, in a performance, you are creating this world where you make the audience feel that anything can happen. So, it accommodates false expectations that get unfulfilled.

AB: …And you play with their inclinations around control and surrender, meaning that they will have varying degrees of wanting you to do what they want you to do and you will affect them in different ways based on their ability to follow you or pull against you, both useful.

IT: I mean, imagine a gun never going off in a Chekhov play — nerve wracking! And also the AHHHHH moments. Generally, I would say, I’d like the workshop to instill or inspire a way of walking into a work while getting out of one’s own way, learning to trust one’s intuitions above all, and accepting that anything can change at any given moment — working with tangible tools but then taking a moment to zoom out and say, “Were you aware that you just did THAT? The decision you just made completely altered the feeling or meaning of that scene.” Enabling the participants to be on both sides of the equation, to experience what those kinds of shifts mean while being a performer but equally to be on the other side of the room, as “audience” and to witness how changing different elements of a composition/scene can alter the viewer’s experience. And, last but not least, giving them the ability to experiment by enabling them to suggest/implement certain directorial choices to the work they are seeing on stage. Roll up your sleeves and make tangible decisions. Lots of them. Just go and do it. Then reflect on what just happened. Did that accomplish what you were hoping? Can you work with this same construction — and make shifts that will alter the outcome?

AB: Yes, and doing it quickly so we eliminate the preciousness and nervousness that directors may have around directing other people. Respect them and notice them and take them seriously after you’ve made them.

IT: Yes.

AB: That’s it.

IT: And make committed choices but then be ready NOT to be attached to anything after.

AB: So that you have something that inspires feeling….

IT: …In the service of the work. Because it is about how you can support the work in the best possible way as opposed to oneself. Getting out of the way of one’s ego and one’s insecurities.

AB: Yes. It seems existential: the idea of getting ego out of the room. But, there is such alchemy to feeling the work you are making as bigger than yourself. Like in contact improvisation, or sex. There’s something that exists that is a thing unto itself that is larger than the sum total of the participants.

IT: Absolutely! It is important to remind oneself that this is why we make work.

Performance still WaxFactory's production of ...SHE SAID at the ICA/Institute of Contemporary Art (London UK), directed by Ivan Talijancic, pictured, in the foreground: Erika Latta, photo by Tasja Keetman

Performance still from WaxFactory’s site-specific production of LADYFROMTHESEA at the Old American Can Factory (Brooklyn NY), directed by Ivan Talijančić, pictured, in the foreground: Erika Latta, photo by Tasja Keetman


Alexandra Beller was recently nominated for a Lucille Lortel award for Best Choreography for her work in Bedlam Theatre’s Sense & Sensibility, currently showing at Judson Church’s gym (extended through September). Ivan Talijančić makes work with WaxFactory, a multidisciplinary art group he co-founded with Erika Latta; his first feature film, 416 MINUTES is currently in post-production. They are hosting a joint workshop called Mindflock May 21 and 22 from 12-5pm at Gus Solomons Studio. To sign up or for more information, visit alexandrabellerdances.org.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: