Heather Kravas & Milka Djordjevich on MASS

Visibly Difficult

An Interview with Milka Djordjevich
by Heather Kravas

Published in conjunction with performances of MASS at The Kitchen in New York and at Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles.

Heather Kravas:
I thought we could begin by speaking about the work’s relationship to difficulty. When we began this conversation, I asked you to tell me a couple of things about the dance. Your immediate response was, “The piece is hard.” I think often about the space difficulty assumes in choreography and wonder, what is its role in MASS? In what ways is the piece hard and for whom?

Milka Djordjevich:
There’s a practical aspect, which is that we are singing and dancing at the same time as untrained singers. Part of what the piece is about is the fact that we are dancers singing and that it’s about our bodies. Dancers tend to be voiceless, mute and anonymous in performance. Our singing is not necessarily a statement, but is a way for us to play with a different form of embodiment.

Heather: So you build difficulty into what the performance actually is. You set out to do something that you knew was going to be hard.

Milka: I knew it was going to be hard, but I think didn’t realize how hard it would be. I knew it wouldn’t necessarily be about mastering singing, but I knew that something in that would be challenging or difficult.

Chris Peck, my collaborator, and I set out to work together and create something where the choreography and the music would interact and be codependent, in a  dynamic that would be increasingly difficult. What would happen in the choreography would change in relationship to the music, and what would happen in the music would change in relationship to the choreography. It would be an interdependent score that would perpetuate itself in relationship to each other.

We knew that the musical aspect would be predominantly singing, but we didn’t know to what extent or how, because it was really a question of what we could do as dancers. Chris realized that we could do more singing-wise than we had thought we could. So it became, “Oh, you can do that now? So let’s try this. Oh, you can do that now? So let’s try this. Oh, you can do that now? So let’s try this.” It’s been a process of layering complexity through simple elements. For instance, we do a series of steps, and there’s a repetitive singing pattern that’s in relationship to it. “Okay, we got it!

Let’s add a layer. So when we do these steps, let’s add an arm action, and then let’s add this canon three-part harmony…”

Heather: Are we seeing that as part of the piece? Do we witness a kind of braiding and layering, and observe a culmination of that achievement?

Milka: I think you do see a part of the braiding, but it’s accelerated. It’s not going to build from its most basic. I think you’ll see it, maybe midway, or maybe it skips a few steps and then the culmination of the braiding all together. Which also then brings up the question of the visibility of the difficulty.

Heather: And does this become difficult for your audience? And if it is difficult for them, what are your feelings about that. Sometimes I feel that, as artists, we set out to provide something that’s difficult because there’s so much that’s spoon-fed, sold, or marketed to us culturally. The creation of a challenging environment, one that perhaps embraces monotony or failure, maybe points out this fabricated perfection.

Milka: We have gotten this question about the visibility of difficulty from Rebecca Brooks—with whom we have both worked in a similar capacity as a performance advisor. There are moments in the process when we do something that’s hard and then we get it, and we can do it, and then it gets harder. So I don’t think there’s one moment where the viewer fully understands how difficult it is, or what it took to get there. But what we’re trying to figure out now is how to have the musical and the choreographic pieces fit together in a way so that it’s on that edge of failure and mastery, somehow just at that point. Not to show that we’re just barely keeping it together, but that attempt or that…

Heather: It sounds like a tension. I know that when I go to see a performance, I like those kinds of tensions. It keeps me engaged in what I’m seeing. The failure or the success is not necessarily as interesting as the question—the container around the experience. We live in a perpetual state of failure: we’re never young, thin, pretty or rich enough. To witness this mirrors my reality more than a virtuosic act, while simultaneously redefining beauty. Masochistic, I suppose, but the over-achieving and persistence seem particularly relevant.

Milka: We have been working intermittently in these intensive periods, and along the way we’ve scheduled showings at points when the vocal stuff was new and intense. I was interested in having us be able to sing when it was new and fresh, because adrenaline affects the singing so much. I wanted that experience of trying it, to understand it under those conditions.

We showed excerpts last December at Pieter in L.A., where we learned a song in two days before the showing, added ideas of pitch and harmony the morning of the showing, musical stuff that we never thought we’d be able to do. When we did the showing, we had our music in front of us; we were very transparent about it being a work-in-progress. As we were singing and dancing, we kept starting and stopping. The audience was laughing a lot, not because we were bad, but because of our intensity—wanting to do it right, being nervous, shifting in space, trying to find the notes and being in front of people. It was about the attempt, not the mastery.

Afterwards the dancers, Kyli Kleven and Jessica Cook, were not feeling good, they felt they had failed. I said, “You know, this is what this piece is about.” It’s about the fact that we don’t want to fail, and that struggle. We’re dancers, this is how we work and think. We’re used to doing things that we don’t feel good about by practicing until we get it “right.”

Heather: Much of our practice and training is about achieving an ideal. Even if we’re not good ballerinas, we’ve studied it. If your leg isn’t at a certain height, you’re not cutting it. So putting the failure on stage is what the piece is.

Without being a spoiler can you talk a little bit about the songs?

Milka: Chris is a master at working with untrained musicians, great at finding techniques to work with people. We started with songs we knew already. Something like karaoke, you know the words from it, how to sing it, and the idea was to know it and play with it—like sing slower, sing it together, try to find pitches in relation, so on… that was really early on in the process. And then, I think Chris started to realize we could sing a little bit.

Heather: So he was prepared for you to just suck, basically!

Milka: We did work on projects in the past, with dancers who had trouble hearing a pitch and matching it. But the three of us can hear a pitch and more or less match it. We like to sing. We’re not “good” by professional terms, and I’m really the worst.

Chris realized that he could actually compose songs for us to sing. He’s a great songwriter. In relation to our conversations about the project, he started to write a sort of subtext about the piece. Sometimes he used that text as a lyric place holder, but after a while he realized it’s not a placeholder, it’s what the piece is.

A lot of MASS is about the three of us really being a unit, three parts of a whole. The beginning is less about the singing, but configuring our bodies, isolating body parts, perceiving them differently, the otherness of our bodies together, the material of the body, and how that material and the isolation of body parts turns in to dance. And how that’s what dance is about.

And then the element of the voice is added, which is a way of not being the voiceless dancer, being less anonymous, but somehow still anonymous as we are singing and dancing together; being together as an ensemble and a group. Chris was thinking about vocal equivalents, like a barbershop quartet or the Andrews sisters or girl groups, etc. And in addition there’s this other subtext in the title MASS. It’s not necessarily about religion or church, but there’s liturgical dance where singing and dancing match, that kind of Mickey Mousing; and how experimental dances happen a lot in churches in New York. So that churchy, liturgical thing also incorporates musically into chanting, early music harmonies. It’s a lot of different things at the same time.

Heather: How many projects have you and Chris done together now?

Milka: We did a piece at the Chocolate Factory in 2009, An Evening with Djordjevich & Peck, a series of short pieces in concert format together, which was the beginning of our collaboration about the music/dance relationship. It was an even collaboration, a co-authored thing. Then he did the music for my solo, Kinetic Makeover, which was a more pseudo-traditional process, where I choreographed and he did the music. But because we have this relationship of collaborating, the music was really tied to the dance. And this project, for MASS, we are sharing, co-headlining.

Heather: Yes it sounds co-authored, but separate.

Milka: Totally. We’re both getting what we need from our individual practices in the work, but also so tied together, that we have that conversation. Working with Chris now, he just gets so much, he knows what’s happening without explanation. I get him, too.

Heather: You’ve achieved a lot of trust together.

Milka: Yes, a lot of trust. But then I’m performing in this, which is tricky…

Heather: That makes you the best and the worst dancer!

Milka: Exactly! So I had a moment when he was asking about the relationship between the music and choreography and I was like, “Argh, I don’t know if I can do this! It’s already so hard. I don’t know if this is possible.” I understand we can do more than we’re doing, and I’m definitely pushing that—but on the musical aspect sometimes it gets overwhelming. It’s like, “Not another harmony when we’re doing this weird arm thing, noooo!”

Heather: How great. It seems like you’re teetering on this edge, allowing yourself to be witnessed teetering. It’s beautiful!

Milka: Yeah. We’re in the thick of it; we’ll see how it goes!

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Photo: Model of Sara C. Walsh’s scenic design for MASS.