“And,” an interview with Aynsley Vandenbroucke

Photo courtesy of the artist

Aynsley Vandenbroucke wil premiere her newest work “And” at Abrons Arts Center on March 30. For the past eight years Aynsley has explored relationships between writing and dance within her performance making, reading, and teaching. “And” is an evening-length solo performance/monologue using experimental literary devices to create a series of live essays that hold multiple truths. She skips across the borders of fact and ficton, life and art, writing and moving. When we met recently for a coffee, we continued to skip across and around the structure of a formal interview and instead had a great conversation about life, love, OK Cupid, misogyny, teaching, academia, Zen, Zen temple scandals, and several other things that I didn’t take notes on.

Aynsley has been creating dance in New York since 2000. Her work has been performed throughout New York City at the Chocolate Factory, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Danspace Project, CPR−Center for Performance Research, Dixon Place, and Lincoln Center Institute’s Clark Studio Theater, among other venues, as well as in San Francisco, Colorado, and Brazil. She was a 2014 fellow at the MacDowell Colony and in residence at Yaddo in 2012, 2013, and 2016. Her work has been supported by the Jerome Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, LMCC, the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, and an emergency grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. She has taught at Princeton University since 2011 and her writing has been published in The Performance ClubThe Brooklyn RailBOMBlog, and Movement Research Performance Journal. For more information visit: www.movementgroup.org

Vandenbroucke and photographer Mathew Pokoik founded Mount Tremper Arts, a center for contemporary performance and visual art in the Catskill Mountains. There she played a large role in the design and building of the studio performance space and served as artistic director and then co-curator until 2014.

 This is an excerpt of some of her working text:

  • Number of times someone has asked me to describe what I teach and I stumbled because I didn’t feel like I could answer in less than an hour: 5
  • Number of times I’ve questioned what teaching can be: countless
  • Number of years I’ve been thinking about the role of movement in pretty much every aspect of life= 26
  • Number of years I’ve been wondering how to make a dance made up of questions= 19
  • Number of times an older choreographer told me I’d stop asking questions as I got older=1
  • Number of years I’ve been using somatic practices to ask questions= 14
  • Number of students who wanted to talk about the election the week after it: all of them
  • Number of students who wrote a group email after the election saying they couldn’t wait to dance together=5
  • Number of lectures I’ve given in my life = 0
  • Number of new courses I’m creating that I wanted to call “In Praise of Uncertainty” but whose title felt off after the election=1
  • Number of times a female student of mine was told she could choose between being authentic or winning a debate = 3
  • Number of times she grinned through it while someone talked over her= 5

This sparked some initial talk about integrating all of our life practices with one another. The magic in her writing is the apparent simplicity of the structure that allows very specifically personal details to become recognizable shared experiences of living or the larger political forces at work around and at us.

Photo courtesy of the artist

How did this work come to be? How long have you been working on it? Or, with a title like “And,” how long have you been working through it.

I’ve been working on it for about 4 years. Basically, I was going through life stuff – reading a ton and marinating while going through a divorce and the shift that ending that partnership meant for the arts organization we started together too, Mt. Tremper Arts.  I was living on my own for the first time. I’m loving it…actually. I’m having fun since I’m not sure I’m monogamous. I met Matt when I was 23 and that was that, so I’m not looking for another husband right now. It’s a chance to meet amazing people who are really exploring and figuring out alternative family structures and senses of closeness. I’m holding a lot of contradictions: I love this man and we don’t want to be married anymore. Divorce is hard, and I’ve also enjoyed this new process. I had a sense that having been married made me “used up,” but as I meet others who’ve been previously married, I realized that I learned a few things. It gave me a lot. I’m actively curious about what they loved about marriage and maybe there’s something about that structure – this thing about structures that interests me. I’m thinking about building a life and building a performance and somehow they all interweave for me. It’s like what we’re talking about with our students. We plan very intricately, but then we’re walking in and not knowing what it could look like. I like embracing that at 39 years old.

Yeah. That’s lived experience that can’t be gained theoretically. Now, you know.

The last year or two, I started making a few animations. You’d think I’d know by now how they all fit into the piece! But, I was feeling kind of lazy about these two sections. And, it was pointed out that maybe I’m not lazy about them, but not interested enough in them.  I could make this older section of the piece really meticulous but I’m not so interested in meticulous these days.

That’s part of the living-with-it/life-stuff/mindful-stuff too, right? Not having to be on top of everything all the time and feeling our way through it? It’s like your class idea.

Right, I wanted to call it “In praise of uncertainty,” but in light of Trump, I couldn’t. But, in the fall I am teaching a class called ‘Uncertainty.’ One of the things with the meticulous point, is that it is like going back to an 18-year old dance student mindset. Because I’m performing in this piece I’m still carrying this idea that if you’re getting on stage, you must have it meticulous. But, teaching is not meticulous. My plans are meticulous, but once I’m in, it is its own organism. I haven’t figured out how that relates to the making of this performance. Matt and I met through Zen practice with this idea of finding grounding even while things fall apart. Something about that we taught each other and supported each other with.

Did Mount Tremper Arts happen because of the Zen temple up there? Is that separation from the not-profitable organizational structure and partnership finding its place in this work too?

Matt grew up spending time around there. I learned about the area because of the monastery.  There’s something else about Mount Tremper for me right now that has to do with Spalding Gray. In the piece, I’m playing with a clip of his from “Terrors of Pleasure” in which he talks about going on a hike up Mt. Tremper and looking for property around there. A lot of the work that happened up there at MTA was because friends of ours, Zen students who needed to take a break from the monastery- often because of starting relationships, came to live with us for a while! Running a non-profit with a partner is hard. There is something in the piece about having a voice within a relationship. Within all kinds of things.

Yeah. At my Sunday morning community meditation the dharma talk was about silence, but along the way the teacher said the word “resistance” DING! He also mentioned “a politician” so it went from interpersonal silence as a way to actively listen and, in my head, complicit silence in the face of injustice. Like your student being told she can be authentic or likable.

That student debate thing is real. I had a line in there about “Number of men who asked me to comfort them after Hilary didn’t win.” Fascinating dynamics. For me, the talking and talking in this piece…it’s horrible. I keep thinking of things to add to not have to listen to myself. But, then there’s having a voice and standing up. Even this year while there’s a desk I’m carrying around, there’s something about being a woman and having a voice. It’s hard because within my teaching, I’m interested in disappearing so they’re the ones talking. At Princeton, there’s a lot of ‘I know’ kind of people. But, like with my “Uncertainty” class, I’m interested in my not being in “knowing and spouting” and then, deciding to make a performance where I’m spouting and talking leaves me caught in moments when I believe in it and I don’t.

Sometimes, though, from having a lot of sisters and undergrad and grad school at a women’s college, I’m comfortable with the talking through as the process to understanding. Not speaking from I know, but speaking from, in doing so… in asking myself to turn a feeling into words in my head into shapes my mouth makes, I come to a knowing. So, I don’t always know when I speak, but I know more after I speak something. I’m processing through verbal articulation… 

I want to write a lecture against lectures. And, then there’s the many struggles around female authority. What is female? But, also what is my voice, my experience, as a female in the marriage. Some of it was related to feeling comfortable with certain kinds of uncertainty, letting things take their own time, holding contradictions at the same time. What is that quality? Our working methods were different and I’m trying to reconcile with that too.  This is the soup of many of the things so many of us are thinking about — in one 50-minute bit.

I think, with the Hilary stuff and our battle’s with knowing, meticulousness…She was pitch perfect in those debates, perfectly spoken, intelligent, prepared, well coifed, no coughs. And, all that perfectionism didn’t protect her from that. I feel like being a mess, messy with things is also a power, like the praise for uncertainty. Like, all of this life stuff is also your art stuff and the performance moment is a heightened life moment, but not the resolution of the issue, experience or idea.

Life is not meticulous. I want everything to be integrated. I have cut out a lot. But, sometimes to be in the messiness, I think it’s going to be a glorified reading so it’s more flexible. One of the main holes is this section when I’m reading and the energy goes and it is like a lecture.  It died then, in that rehearsal, I was just reading. So, at this point, I’m fighting different impulses. The middle and end could go any way depending on whether I’m highlighting a different part – and… I don’t want to decide and… with a title like “And” I keep adding ideas in. There are 3 different possible directions for this one section. So maybe an audience member has to pick, but then I’d have to write the three and I don’t feel like doing that! Or maybe there are three different beginnings that would eventually feed into the same ending. That’s where the perfectionism settles in. I’m trying to figure out what would make it feel right.

Well you’re loading in now,, so there are all those other people you’ll be accountable to and the deadlines that will influence the outcome.

Yup. Somethings just have to get decided. Thank god there are other people. There’s no minute of my day that isn’t filled with thinking about that. I have people coming in and will have to have something to show them. They’ll watch these parts I’m grappling with. They’ll help me with the artistic questions of how I’m able to keep holding contradictions. How I could hold one truth in the same being as another truth.

That’s beautiful to me, the holding of contradicting truths allows me to think of my own struggles. Thanks so much for sharing.

Performances of “And” are Thursday, March 30 to Saturday, April 1, at 8pm, and Sunday, April 2, at 3pm, in the Underground Theater at Abrons Art Center in the Henry Street Settlement.

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