Heather Kravas: Objects That Inspire & Interview with Aron Cantor
I first experienced Heather Kravas in a state of exhaustion, reciting a number sequence and stamping her heels. Her work, dead, disappears, blasted spectatorship by repeating movements and presenting a structure that challenged how we suffer those movements, at one moment a consensual witness and the next complicit in objectification. Two years later, I saw her work visions of beauty, a beautiful piece expressing her vision of an ethical community and collaborative co-living. Heather’s creative ingenuity, conceptual depth, and social consciousness surfaced both evenings. Each work is also characteristized by a palpable passion that impressed its values upon me.
Little did I know that rigor, acuity, and force of energy characterize a long career performing and choreographing in New York City, Seattle, and pretty much wherever else interesting dance is made. Heather has a wealth of knowledge and an uncanny ability to articulate the feelings and structures surrounding dance, and she graciously took part in a creative interview that addresses those and so many other fascinating subjects.
Heather responded to four objects of her choosing, another I offered. The objects could be anything generative, and Heather’s choices are varied, sophisticated, heartfelt, and a fascinating insight into what interests this artist. From those responses a number of questions were developed, which she then answered. The sheer amount of content, and the depth of response, is a testament to Heather’s intellect, passion, and careful thought.
Objects that Inspire
Excerpt from Interview with Sianne Ngai
“The justification of aesthetic judgments, which will always involve an appeal to extra-aesthetic judgments—political, moral, historical, cognitive, and so on—is, I think, the really interesting heart of all aesthetic discourse and experience. Aesthetics is a discourse not just of pleasure and evaluation, but of justification. How we talk about pleasure and displeasure turns out to be a very rhetorically tricky and socially complicated thing.”
“First, it underscores the performativity of the interesting. Judging something interesting is often a first step in actually making it so. Which is why there is an explicitly pedagogical dimension to the interesting…Second, it highlights how our experience of something as interesting compels us to immediately talk about it. As if there could be no aesthetic experience of the interesting without the talk.”
Kravas: I think what I like most in this quote is how SN displaces the initial aesthetic judgment so it is not something directed on the object but is owned by the witness. Assessment is an activity, there is movement there. With “interesting”, judgment is put immediately into dialogue. To be interesting is to be in relationship to something else, maybe many things. To be interesting necessarily brings the witness’s experiences into the process thereby making an evaluation complex, perhaps less hierarchical.
I also laugh thinking about a Slavoj Zizek documentary I saw (as I dimly recall he is speaking while riding in a canoe) where he talks about how we disingenuously say “interesting” to our peers when we don’t like their work.
Kravas: I fell in love with this scene ten years ago or so while on a residency in Belfort, France with Antonija Livingstone. We were working with a motley, beautiful crew and I suppose in some ways we were kind of like the men in this scene – the theater our barroom. I love the combination of sentimental and simple, the way a narrative about a total solar eclipse is played out (choreographically!) within the scene, allowing the performers to be simultaneously the subject(s) and merely actors of something vast and mysterious. I love seeing János direct the humble barflys and how clumsy movements become a system that we recognize as our solar system. The scene is beautiful, but made powerfully so because its components are awkward and personal. Often when I am bogged down making a dance I come to realize that my perspective is too narrow, focused on the integrity of each impulse. While I can appreciate technical proficiency, what is really thrilling is when we see beauty in something mundane or unsavory. I am trying to be braver with contrasts. There is so much directorial patience and conviction here. The movie happens without the camera telling us where to look –film slipping beyond the edges of the frame where it may be filled in with the imagination of its audience.
Kravas: Visual artist and friend, Victoria Haven, sent this to me at a particularly bleak moment when I was making visions of beauty. There is often a moment (sometimes a painfully long, drawn-out one) when I am creating a piece where I feel like I have way too much material and, contrarily, absolutely nothing. For the last few pieces this has coincided with head wracking and hand wringing because the works’ structures felt hidden from me. As I write this, I understand the near comical dramatics I partake in are harbingers of a kind of aha moment when structure becomes obvious – like duh, how did I not know there were 26 components of this piece that need to be delivered in backwards alphabetical order (for example, dead, disappears)?? Vic is the person I call when I am absolutely convinced that I am irrevocably fucked. And, because she is the minimalist of minimalists, an artist to her warped little core, she completely believes me while also seeing it for the sign that it is, very generously maintaining a faith in my work. I think she sent this to me as a preventative measure. It is great to be reminded of this part of the artistic bargain – even the Evas and Sols prey to the bewilderment. It is also just so funny to hear Sol’s pompousness while perceiving his respect.
Kravas: Something I cherish about performance is the way we pass our dances on to one another. Though I did not live in NYC at the time of this performance, I think it is very important to know about the work that was being done in the 80’s/90’s – the people making it are my sisterbrotherauntuncles. I feel fortunate to know Ishmael and to have seen some of his work. I have learned so much from his generation (also my peers) and I am reminded reading this work of how many people I did not and will not get to know because of the AIDS epidemic. This piece is so powerful to read. I think much more so than seeing a video – it lures and devastates because its actions are invisible. I can imagine seeing this performance, even performing this performance. I hear the thuds of Ishmael’s falling body, wave after wave of loss. That I do not see it mirrors the fact that I will not see the dances of other artists who died in the epidemic. I love the layers, thinking about how it was constructed, observing its elegant simplicity, noting the performance reminders (which I read as reminders to myself), its humor and anger and sadness…
Excerpt from Erika Fischer-Lichte’s “The Transformative Power of Performance”
“The dissolution of boundaries in the arts…can be defined as a performative turn. Be it art, music, literature, or theatre, the creative process tends to be realized in and as performance. Instead of creating works of art, artist increasingly produce events which involve not just themselves but also the observers, listeners, and spectators. Thus, the conditions for art production and reception changed in a crucial aspect. The pivotal point of these processes is no longer the work of art, detached from and independent of its creator and recipient, which arises as an object from the activities of the creator-subject and is entrusted to the perception and the interpretation of the recipient-subject. Instead, we are dealing with an event, set in motion and terminated by the actions of all the subjects involved — artists and spectators.
“Thus the relationship between the material and semiotic status of objects in performance and their use in it has changed. The material status does not merge with the signifier status; rather, the former severs itself from the later to claim a life of its own. In effect, objects and actions are no longer dependent on the meanings attributed to them. As events that reveal these special characteristics, artistic performance opens up the possibility for all participants to experience a metamorphosis.”
Kravas: I find so much to “agree” with here – it is certainly in some ways what I strive for: to create a place where transformation becomes possible and to allow the completion of the artistic act to be an experience between the object of the performance, the people making it and its observers. I’m interested in how people can be together in ways that honor individuality through communion. It seems like one of the gifts of theater and something under threat. I struggle to create work that tackles the political without being didactic. I think it is political, not because it is “about” things – I want it always to be about itself. But there is a politic in how it gets made, or is left unmade. Though my dances grapple with abstractions they are fundamentally ways where I can study presence, listening and being with others. And there is the pleasurable contradiction between creating exacting structures and the soft humans that embody them. As performers we never abandon our histories, desires, aptitudes and foibles. Though performance requires confidence, it is not necessarily full of ego – there is sacrifice, vulnerability and care that can be cultivated. I am working quite deliberately to make room for this kind of practice within my practice. I’m honestly not sure if this can be detected beyond those I am working with. As artists we have been instructed to be ruthless and I suppose I am trying to be calculating in this ruthlessness, not indiscriminately violent.
The work is often repetitive and I think that this too relates to the desire to leave room for the audience to have an experience and to observe how thinking/feeling is a continuation of the choreography. When I am making dances I don’t think in this way, I am too busy scratching away to discover the thing. Or ranting. And in truth, repetition is personally soothing to me, even at its most excruciating and obsessive. I value the cadences and rhythmic aberrations. But I also appreciate the time that repetition offers one to cycle through experiences: monotonous, indulgent, annoying, euphoric, exhausting, comforting. It is a transformation relay, maybe a kind of rehearsal.
Canter: When you attend a work (when others attend your work) what do you bring to the performance? How are you an active participant (help others be an active participant)?
Kravas: I think for there to be a space for activation and possibility there needs to also exist a place for inactivity. As a viewer I try to suspend my immediate judgments or to notice when my responses are knee-jerk. Sometimes this suspension, particularly of my stylistic discriminations, allows me to see what an artist may be doing on a less superficial level. It is particularly enjoyable to go to the theater thinking that you feel one way and be proven incorrect. I feel like if I can do that with seemingly less important things like, how someone’s pants fit, I can sometimes come away with a greater experience of intimacy – I can tap into the inherent vulnerability and generosity of the act of performing. Naturally this doesn’t always work out. It is the place I grapple with both as an audience and a maker. I want to indicate my preferences (or see them) but I don’t really like it when work (most especially my own) variously neglects or relies on its self-awareness. I think performance plays with this arena of dashed expectations.
Canter: What are the virtues of a performance that resists prescribing to the spectators where to look?
Kravas: I think it is more honest. There is an old voice in my head that tells me that to be a great artist I must be controlling – that I need to control my body, the choreography and ultimately the eyes of my witnesses. That to “achieve” is equivocal to mastery. But ultimately I morally and politically disagree with this arrogance. I may want to obsessively control my body but I am not interested in telling people what to do or how to feel. It is more of an invitation. I think if people understand something of their own choice there are a great many who will choose to go somewhere unexpected. That feels like an interior risk, born of an unspoken agreement. And of course lots of people won’t want to go there. Being ok with this rejection is significant yet still painful – the interest inter-connected with the suffering.
Canter: I just want you to riff on structure lol. What is the relationship between structure and meaning in performances you enjoy and your own work?
Kravas: I am obsessed with structure. And I think I only care about meaning but I rarely think about it. Emergent meaning from structure? In 1999 (maybe 2000?), I took a choreography workshop with Tere O’Connor and I recall him speaking about the different ways one can get into the meat of making a dance. He spoke about structure a lot and I absolutely had no idea what he was talking about (though I wanted to!). It didn’t help to think of structures of other things like buildings or butterflies, I didn’t know how to think of structures in relationship to a dance. I was too mired in movement invention. Even at that time I think my dances were structurally engaged because I just like things to be a certain way and have a strong design sense. The last few things I have made I seem to make immediate structural choices that are later discarded as I am working and understanding the material from a more embodied place. Then, after a time, I freak out about structure again and there is this sense that it is lurking around. I get rather muscular and cerebral sometimes in an effort to figure it out, generally to the detriment of physical sensation. This all has to be smudged up and returned to the body, most often, thrown away before it becomes the thing.
Canter: Is repetition a way of guiding the conversation you have with your spectators? I’m also tempted to ask you your relationship to Gertrude Stein but, like, don’t worry about it.
Kravas: If I’m to get specific, I don’t think that my dances are about repetition at all. Repetition is mechanical. It is no change, no change. But when humans repeat things there is always change. There is “oops I made a mistake” change, change due to exhaustion or a lapse of concentration. I think I am most interested in what does not and cannot be repeated. So “repetition” becomes a way to notice aberration. And I think once we see differences we are a little more opened up. Yes, I suppose it is a way of providing a place where I offer an audience to look at what may otherwise go unnoticed. I like to think of it as a controlled place to delight in failure and persistence and where one might most directly see a relationship between the performer and how that performer relates to and creates material.
Of course I love G.S. for all of the transformational opportunities that exist in such tiny expanses of simple words. I find her playfulness quite subversive.
Canter: What else do you tend to discover about your work once it is completed?
Kravas: More and more I love the process of work and am discovering ways to let this be what the performance is rather than a crystallization of practice. The presence of observers is a huge shift. I used to think that it wasn’t until there were witnesses that I could have a perspective to understand my creative flaws. I was thus trying to make my dances impervious to this shift. The work was very hard, rather determined to remain itself. Maybe another way to say this is that I used to attempt to complete my work and there was something interesting about my inability to do so at odds with my willfulness (I chronically change things and also can’t remember choreography. It is always moving towards extremes of detail or minimalism, occasionally erased nearly entirely). And now I am letting people into the room at a certain moment with the understanding that it is simply an instant to observe this continually changing thing. What I am learning is that I like to play with tension and the more tension I can achieve between the performance and the audience the more I like it. I have to spark people’s initial curiosity otherwise I think the work feels thin and simple. There is maybe more intuition involved than analysis. I may be wrong but I think my dances have a tendency to read very differently from night to night. It’s kind of hard to bear but one does what one does…
Canter: How are your friends, colleagues, and inspirations part of your process?
Kravas: Seeing people complete meaningful work is greatly inspirational. Seeing artists do it repeatedly throughout a career even more so. I think that is what most inspires me – not the specifics of how other artists make decisions but that they persevere to make them at all. Witnessing focus, tenacity and also ease and playfulness reminds me to release my grip. This experience of hanging on and letting go is very powerful – something gleaned from others. I am so grateful for seeing the work of my mentors, peers and now younger artists. Seeing work also reminds me that it reverberates most strongly when the event is part and parcel of its maker. All that squished out individuality helps me get out of the way a bit when making my own stuff.
And my friends – I am so lucky they put up with me. I have a painter friend named Dan Davidson who relates making work to lovingly building and moving into a house that you torch to the ground repeatedly. Fittingly, I ask him to retell this anecdote when I am faced with throwing out everything (this happens frequently).
Canter: I think a lot of artists, and humans, can empathize with the “wallowing in” experience. How else do you make it productive?
Kravas: I can only say this right now because I am in a different part of my process, but I think I quite enjoy it. I love being consumed by the work. I love the struggle and misunderstanding and terror of it. I’m sure I would never say it while I am in it and I am sure to be there again – I would only speak of the agony of not knowing and the fear that it will not come. Maybe because I have done it many times now there is a bit of me that recognizes and tends to the faith-keeper. I try to be ok with the not-knowing part and float through it. I usually see really great work at this time! The right film or art show usually appears at the moment when I need a diversion and example. Keeping some perspective.
Canter: What else goes into the “artistic bargain,” what distinguishes your version of it from the universal version?
Kravas: I’m not sure I have a good answer for this but it reminds me of something I have been thinking about a great deal. Claire Dederer, best-friend of a best friend, recently wrote a piece for the Paris Review tackling the subject of art monsters (specifically the likes of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen). She asks whether it is necessary to be something of an art monster to be an art genius, (she says it much better than this). She considers her own position as a mother and writer – as a mother who strives to be a good one, available to her children and partner – and wonders whether this “goodness” comes at the cost of her work. As an artist deeply committed to my practice and as a mother, this line of thinking is quite terrifying. And mostly, I have been choosing to reject it. I am trying to figure out how to make things that can embody and embrace something different. This may sound strange to people who think of my work being on the relentless, even angry side. Maybe that is the part of me that is monster, but this is a focused personal place that I share with rather than impose on others. I think my work may be a little “problematic” in this way. It is really sprawling in its ideals even while spare with its material and we are maybe more comfortable being told rather than invited. I suppose the thing I return to in my own artistic bargain is a pathological willingness to make something that I don’t know how to make. And to be as honest within that endeavor as I can conceive.
Canter: How do you see yourself as part of dance’s legacy?
Kravas: That dance is passed from body to body to bodies is dear to me. The only way I consider my legacy is with this consideration. I know that because I danced with DD Dorvilier for countless hours, there is something of her that resides in my creative understanding. So too there is something of me that slips off or is rejected by those I have had the opportunity to work with. I am into this kind of hidden legacy. The rest I think is for other people to figure out or forget.
Canter: Do aspects of a piece of work, or a practice, that cannot be detected in a performance — the vulnerability you are cultivating in your practice; the marvelous way the archive of Ishmael Houston-Jones score, displaced from the dance itself, honors artists that died — have meaning, any sort of mysterious significance, for the spectators? Maybe it doesn’t!
Kravas: I think it does but I don’t know how. Perhaps it is important that the cultivation of listening is not definable. Maybe it is another situation of care or honesty that gets built upon. It seems crucial to the structure actually – there is such a difference between vulnerable situations and didactic ones.
By the way…Your score for audience had me reconsidering an idea I had after presenting play/thing at The Chocolate Factory in 2016. That piece came together (or almost came together) in the final moments before the premiere. It was like a race. Structurally, it loops. Like the whole thing is made up of loops that then form bigger loops and then loop again. When we started the biggest loop for the second time I asked for all of us to remember our feelings and fuck-ups and try to put those experiences into the repeated loop so that they became a new choreographic texture. What I realized while performing is the dance should be durational, maybe a 24-hour piece, and that we would keep repeating the big loops and all of our feeling-fuck-ups until the choreography was fairly obliterated by the aberrations. It would become a dance of memories and glitches and recorded emotions. I would like to ask the audience to also emulate their responses – to feel bored in the same place, scratch the same arm, whisper to their date at the same moment. Maybe impossible? But my idea of a score for witnesses.
Canter: Do you think spectators experience the potential communion of a performance as political? Do you care if spectators experience the sense of community you cultivate as political, would it tick you off, or something, if that gets in the way of an elevated art experience?
Kravas: I strive to make work work on a few levels. I am interested in the communal aspects of performance and am hopeful that some will experience it on this level. But I’m also attempting to have it work as something visually compelling through time. Sometimes I think that I am making dances to be seen from above and I spend a lot of time considering this sort of design or accumulation. I want people to have their own experiences more than I want them to have a specific one. What’s most potent for me is to get to volley between my aims toward abstraction and something about our messy humanity.
Canter: Why do you think spectators want art to be at the behest of the political? Is “want” the wrong word?
Kravas: Do they?
Do you think so? I like art to poke into the place that disregards what I think I know/want. Because these are such potent political times I think we carry that with us, we see it everywhere.
Canter: It sometimes seems people find political resonance in nearly anything, from an off-the-cuff conversation with a friend to a painstakingly curated event. I suppose I think one may “want” this as there is comfort in investing in creative intelligence mediating on political issues, while investing in creative intelligence dealing with less politically tangible issues may not provide the same warmth when we wake up and read the news. But then again, why should any art piece be at the behest of making one feel less political anxiety?
Kravas: I read the word “should” and the 17-year-old-wanna-be-p-rocker in me aims for any sort of rebellion. I don’t really think art has a general moral obligation. I do know that in the last year-and-a-half I have been personally less interested in creating parallel anxious states and more interested in the genesis of weird utopic ones.
Canter: What is your favorite piece of art, that is not one of your own, about presence, listening, and being with others?
Kravas: I don’t yet have one yet!
Tino Sehgal’s Guggenheim exhibition was very moving, personal and grand and contained these elements but somehow I think my favorite would be quieter and less popular, ha! Seeing Fred Sandback in 2014 at Dia with my friend Victoria and my then infant daughter comes close…
Canter: I’m in love with the phrase “creating exacting structures and the soft humans that embody them” because it somewhat establishes, for me, pillars to the dance world you work in. I also see it in your work, the exacting structures and the soft humans. Is “creating exacting structures and the soft humans that embody them” an organizing principle of sorts for the contemporary dance community you are a part of?
Kravas: I think it is for me.
Canter: How are you ruthless as an artist? What’s that person like?
Kravas: Dogged and intense. I am also working on being lazy and anti-capitalist. And I have a tendency to be extremely grumpy before I figure out what I really want to do. I think to others my ruthlessness is funny. Like watching a grouchy toddler.