Category Archives: Interview

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!

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

Bronx Gothic Notes by OKWUI OKPOKWASILI

Out of Print.

This chapbook contains select images and texts derived from the Okpokwasili’s solo dance theater performance Bronx Gothic.

“From crumpled hand-written pages, Okpokwasili takes us through a sometimes harrowing, sometimes darkly humorous account of the sexual, spiritual and emotional coming of age of two girls growing up in the coarse surroundings of the Bronx in New York.” —from the introduction by Ishmael Houston-Jones

20 pages
with introduction by Ishmael Houston-Jones
created in collaboration with Okwui Okpokwasili
edited by taisha paggett & George Lugg



Published by Show Box L.A. with the generous support of Joel Smith
in conjunction with performances of Bronx Gothic
at Highland Park Ebell Club
Los Angeles, California
July 17–19, 2014.

5 Questions for Christine Bonansea

Performer in Hybrid 2, Nov 2–3, 2013

What training systems, teachers, or other experiences have contributed to the way you perform, and how you think about performing?

I feel I’ve always danced, since my young age; learning a great diversity of movement techniques for performance stages. I’ve practiced ballet, Modern, Jazz, African, contact improvisation and additional somatic or experimental forms for specific projects. I have been pursuing my research and developing my work as a professional dancer and choreographer throughout the years in international scenes studying at the National Choreographic Center in France and performing for a number of companies. I had the chance to experience the work of master artists such as Mathilde Monnier, Mark Tompkins, Regine Chopinot, Catherine Diverres, Thierry Bae, Nancy Stark Smith, Louise Burns, Faustin Linyekela, Ralph Lemon, Tino Seghal, Sara Shelton Mann, Nita Little, Katie Duck among others who fed my practice and develop continuously new questions toward the performance form.

What are you currently reading, listening to, and/or watching?
My work covers a broad artistic field elaborated in collaboration with musician composers, visual artists. I follow composers and musician performers from the Bay Area and from Europe. The bay area scene is really inspiring, full of talented and sensitive artists. I listen to their music a lot; go to their concerts as much as I can and collaborate with them for my pieces and for performance improvisations series that I curate or participate (SONIC BODY SERIES). I read and look at any visual information that will feed my interest and my research. My current read is: “a briefer history of time” by Stephen Hawking and 187 ILLUSIONS from Scientific American MIND magazine.

What is your favorite thing to cook and eat right now?
Coming back from Japan, I just love the rice cookies so much right now, but my delicacy is always a tasty bread with cheese and wine. I like cooking, but I have never much time for sophisticated meals!

What is one thing working with Sara has taught you?
Sara is creating a container of energetic creativity. Her artistry has been influencing numbers of artists who worked for her for years. I found her impact on my artistic voice really sensitive. ONE THING…I’ve been being more instinctive, trust my inner voice to rediscover the potential of each time, each space. It opens a lot of possibilities.

What is/are your day job(s)? Besides actually feeding you, how do(es) it/they feed your life in performance?
I have at least 5 jobs! Each job informs or challenges my everyday world: dancer, choreographer, mother, dance medicine therapist and teacher. In all of them, the availability and humility is an everyday practice. There is no regular day or schedule. Then, the ability to be ready for any change, to be present, to improvise, or find the appropriate response defines my lifestyle. I believe this constant adaptability serves my performance practice and my creativity.

HYBRID 2 – Nov 2 & 3, 2013

5 questions from Jennie MaryTai Liu

Jesse Hewit


Performer in Hybrid 2, Nov 2 & 3, 2013

What training systems, teachers, or other experiences have contributed to the way you perform, and how you think about performing?
Sara Mann composes images in a pretty staggering way, and it has brought me back to a very curiosity-driven, very open-ended way of TRYING anything and everything. I practice making like Sara. She follows her sense of clarity, and it doesn’t often follow logic or trend or narrative. Sara uses imagistic nuances of connection and association in a very deep and mystical way. Working with her is incredible training.

I also like aerobics. I like doing hard and repetitive things that feel athletic and punchy. it brings me back from a strange ether that i often occupy when I’m making. And it let’s me play with simple systems of pushing my body. I like letting it show when something is hard, or joyful, or confusing, when I perform.

Amara Tabor Smith is another maker who guides how I perform. Amara often performs for dead people, and I find this to be really useful. For me, there’s just so much ancestor spirit action, swirling around everything we do, so it’s very useful and purposeful to just connect to someone who might not be right “there,” and let yourself be an appropriate channel for them. I find that every time I perform (which is a lot lately), I can easily find intense purpose, if I just let the dead folks in.

I have found great teachers in Meg Stuart, Keith Hennessy, and Robert Steijn.

Lastly, my recent collaborator, Laura Arrington, and I were working in an old gymnasium out at Headlands Center for the Arts, this past spring, and we were doing all these really slight and specific presence exercises; playing with doing nothing, etc. And at one point, she said to me: “Don’t manage anything.” This has been with me since. The practice of not managing anything, while still executing scores in a performance… powerful. Try it.

What are you currently reading, listening to, and/or watching?
I am reading GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND because I am in a book group and we’re meeting this Monday to discuss this book! It’s pretty engrossing so far. I’m somehow allergic to scholarly tones in writing, and Sarah Schulman is keeping me interested in what she thinks. I’m listening to the pandora station of Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown! and I’m watching about 3 different reality TV shows on the internets!

What is your favorite thing to cook and eat right now?
Oh my god I love cooking. My partner is so good at making soft scrambled eggs, and he has recently taught me some of his flair, so my recent fave is soft scrambled eggs with roasted broccoli, parmesan, and shit ton of black pepper. I’m also in a braising phase, so I braise a lot of pork shoulders, briskets, things like this. I am concurrently getting very clear and very serious about my favorite things to go out and eat, because I am very busy and I kind of just want to know that my eat-out food is really good. And this is what I proclaim are the best things to eat out in San Francisco:

  • the hunan smoked ham and green beans from Henry’s in Noe Valley – $8
  • the karahi paneer rolls at Kasa in the castro – $4.50
  • the caesar burger from Super Duper Burger (sounds gross, I know, but it’s so good!) – $5.95
  • the thrice cooked bacon and rice dumplings from Mission Chinese. magical. – $12
  • the smoked potatoes with ramp mayonnaise from Bar Tartine (fancy!) – $9


What is one thing working with Sara has taught you?
One thing working with Sara has taught me is that my power can be beautiful.

What is/are your day job(s)? Besides actually feeding you, how do(es) it/they feed your life in performance?
I do a lot of things for money. A lot of people have seen me in a few movies, a lot of people have been served various breakfast foods by me, and within the arts, I teach and curate and perform in other people’s work…all beyond my main thrust, which is making my own work. I dont actually know what effect the piecemeal nature of my economic reality is on me and my work. Knowing that would require stepping outside of it, and that’s a privilege I don’t have. I have often thought that my service job keeps me humble, keeps me hungry/angry, keeps me necessarily low to the ground. But lately I’m not so sure. There are a lot of class implications in making the kind of art that I make, and a whole other set of class implications in waiting tables. And it’s hard to know how and when to identify with which, because what I CANNOT manage to do is to be only half there, when I’m at any of these “jobs.” It’s tricky. I don’t know how this story pans out. Or even how I want it to pan out. I think that I am well and lucky. And I think that our economy’s grip on our cultural premiums is a grim grim tragedy. That’s what I think for now.

5 questions from Jennie MaryTai Liu

Jesse Hewit – Photo by Robbie Sweeny, in Peter by Sara Shelon Mann

luciana achugar and Michael Mahalchick

Nothing But Desire: An Interview with luciana achugar and Michael Mahalchick

by Stacy Dawson Stearns for Show Box L.A.

SDS is Stacy Dawson Stearns
LA is luciana achugar
MM is Michael Mahalchick

SDS: I am going to start at the obvious. “Puro Deseo” means “pure desire,” but desire is too numinous to regard as a singular entity. Can you discuss specific forms or personifications of desire that called upon you to manifest this piece? Did you wish to open something in yourself that you had not yet experienced?

LA: “Puro Deseo” means pure desire because puro means pure but in Spanish to say pure desire you must switch the words around and say “deseo puro”; on the other hand puro in front of deseo means “all desire” or “nothing but desire”. In other words, I was interested in leaving the title in Spanish, not only because it feels very different than when it is said in English, but also because it means both pure desire and nothing but desire, all desire – and there was no direct translation for this phrase in English.

When I speak of desire, I intend to embody a state of desire that to me is akin to embodying potentiality. I guess there is a religiosity within that state of desire, but that aspect permeates the state without my seeking it directly.

When I began working on this piece I had the fantasy of being able to create something that could remain in a state of potentiality, meaning that I was trying to create not to design a product, but to make a dance that could embody the desire to create, the desire to express, and the desire to affect change or possibly even heal the audience.

I was trying to be honest with myself and accept that as an artist my desire is to heal the audience, as pretentious as that might seem; that’s truly one of the underlying motivators of my creating and I wanted to access that possibility for magic that is within the theater and within my body (and Mahalchick’s). This was done both with humility and delusions of grandeur. Therefore, the desire is both vulnerable and full of fantastical delusion.

SDS TO MM: This makes me curious about Michael’s experience. Michael, how was it “to access the possibility of magic” within your body and in within the space of the theatrical setting? Can you characterize the way these ideas worked through or in your body during this process?

MM: For me, in this work, “accessing the possibility of magic” manifested itself as an exploration of presence. Because this piece starts in a place of “emptiness/nothingness” it creates a space where one can slowly build an embodied presence that isn’t informed by preconceived notions of character/identity. Each time we perform this work it feels like I am conjuring the movement and my character from nothing besides the desire to affect change on my own existence. I feel like it is the creation then transformation, by sheer force of will, of an embodied presence that has the agency to affect change on its environment in a way that is not necessarily based in materiality but is driven by a palpable energy.

SDS: Michael, you and Luciana have been collaborating for a long time, but this was your premiere as a performer/creator in this work. Did this experience shift the way you collaborate with Luciana as a video or sound designer/composer? What questions or challenges to your other art practices have arisen from your psycho-physical participation in Puro Deseo?

MM: I don’t think the way I collaborated with Luciana on Puro Deseo was essentially different than how I’ve collaborated with her in the past. Generally, when I work with Luciana we have a very close and open dialogue, artist to artist, about what ideas she would like to explore in the work and my role within the work is usually determined by our ongoing discussions of her ideas, not necessarily by the role she may have initially recruited me for. In order for my contribution to best serve her ideas my role sometimes needs to shift to accommodate the changes that occur in the development of the work. Within my own art practice, my experience in Puro Deseo has led me to a deeper exploration into ideas of time and presence in relation to transformation. Can the act of transformation be effectively dramatic to create meaning when the act is invisible in a material sense? This is, for someone who primarily identifies as a sculptor, definitely a challenge.

SDS: Luciana, you have identified Puro Deseo as an incantation. I have never known magic to sit by quietly when it is invoked, even as a muse. Did the incantation “work” in the way that you originally intended?

LA: No, I don’t think it worked. I think I failed, except for maybe the very first part of the piece… I think the only part of the work that is truly healing is the darkness. So I guess the fact that I somehow, not rationally, arrived at the decision to use darkness did work. But in all honestly I wasn’t completely intending for the whole piece to be a true ritual of enchantment, but more to find the intersection between incantation and performing dance in a theater and to ask questions about it.

I guess you could say that it is more a piece that desires to be an incantation, since like I said before I am not interested in accomplishment and completion or perfection of design but in what motivates it or drives it; which is more similar with what being/living in a body is like.

SDS: Your choreographic work involves shifting sensory experience/exploration into form. Is “translate” the right word to describe the movement of your material from initial discovery to expression on the stage? If not- how would you characterize the shift from primordial information to repeatable structure and vocabulary? 

LA: I wouldn’t call it translate because as I understand it, that would possibly denote a reshaping of some kind, and I think that what I am doing is more a compilation of content/material without losing its initial motivation during that magical improvisatory moment that birthed it. That is probably why I end up using repetition a lot, because instead of taking the material and following a kinetic or movement phrase from it’s initial discovery, I try to stay in it and repeat it to let it change me, my cells, my flesh, my organs and my emotional state so that I can become what that movement is rather than just “showing” it as a dance move.

I also repeat to try to find an inner logic that brings about it’s relationship to space that makes most sense from an intuitive rhythm that just plainly feels right; not without questioning it but trying to follow what feels exciting, natural or simply like it belongs to the world or new “body” that seems to grow out of the piece…

SDS: As a performer, you glow in a way that is feral yet vulnerable. Do you feel that this empowers you when you face external critique of the work? How does the eternal dialogue of review/commentary affect you in your creative space? Have you endured any press-related dismissal or indictment of your work that you would like to address here?

LA: Thank you, that’s a complement to me: “feral yet vulnerable”…!  It empowers me onstage; or rather being onstage makes this feral yet vulnerable side of me come out because that’s how it feels to me to be the object of viewing of the gaze of the audience. (I can elaborate on this a bit more but I can’t find the right words right now for it . . . something about the audience’s gaze representing western civilization and the status quo – somehow when I’m the performer, it is a space where I can be my non-socialized self). However, it does not empower me when it comes to external critique as I often feel misunderstood by critics. Yes, I feel like the raw or feral aspect of it makes most critics dismiss it as less serious dance, less formal. (For example my last piece was criticized for using a mirroring structure but not being perfect in its form; although it was obvious that we could not see well and therefore the failing of the structure was built into the work and part of its intention and exploration).

On the other hand, some viewers that are into more intellectual readings or that dismiss dancing if it’s not conceptual enough, seem to not connect enough with my work because it’s too humanistic or felt or maybe because it embraces theatricality and functions more as an experience than as an essay.

It’s hard to say really, this is when my ego and insecurities get in the way and it’s hard to really know how it is being seen by others. I am constantly dissatisfied with what I do as I am too self-critical, so any critique I tend to take to heart; until I take some distance from the work and the critiques and start my next work and get all excited about it again…

Miguel Gutierrez

The Miguel Gutierrez Interview, aka: Words on Work, Ghosts, and Sourcing at the Mothership

Interview by Stacy Dawson Stearns

As old models of colonialism and capitalist greed persist with their predictable soft-shoe in the realms of mass media, the multiverse of contemporary dance and performance continues to erupt with resistant strains of expression and thought. These eruptions are gifts for those fighting to stay alert and nurture pockets of live exchange despite the constant call to fork over for the latest installment of ‘blah blah blah it all ends now’. New models abound in which traditional tasks of creator/performer/producer have shifted away from the work of simply becoming hot commodities into multi-faceted modes of research, risk-taking, transmission and administration. What does this mean? It means there is room in arty-world these days to fuck with the system. It means folks have cool thoughts to think and ways to share them. And even better. . . .  they want to share them with you. 

Miguel Gutierrez is such a new model maker, bringing a bit of a challenge to the situations he meets through his dance work. He does not have much use for boundaries except to push, break, deceive and beguile them. Whether Miguel is divining exquisite ensemble dances such as Last Meadow, or inviting audience to become participants in DEEP aerobics, his works are part of an expanding body of active inquiry into the nature of material and immaterial life.

Recently I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Miguel about some aspects of his work that speak to me. We at Show Box LA want to share it with you in anticipation of Miguel’s performance and workshop this coming weekend. Don’t miss it!


Stacy Dawson Stearns:   Hi, Miguel! The Left Coast is anxiously awaiting your mini-tour. I am thrilled to be in this role of interviewer. My hope is to release some of your soul aroma among the LA scene, and also to act as diplomat from this City of Angels in the ongoing efforts to bridge the coastal dance/performance scenes at the street level. We all are happy that big houses are bringing in NY hard-hitters out West with more frequency- 

Miguel Gutierrez:     Yes I wish that the “big houses” would bring me more, or ever for that matter…

SDS:   (agreed, consider this a wake-up call to the suits, ahem…) -but there is something more somatic, more instinct-driven that needs to occur across the miles besides presenter/artist partnerships. There are maker communities who want and need relations. Let’s make contact. 

MG:     Yes!!!! 

SDS:   I would like to start with your statement that you are “working against the idea of dance as a non-verbal ‘language’ “.  We dance artists often rely on the concept of dance as an alternate language in order to stimulate an audience to get their feet wet. It seems this accessible idea gets bandied about because the audience is seen as a unit that needs translation before they can go deep into a live experience and relate. Can you tell us more about your views on this? Is this dismissal of the standard concept of dance-as-language an invitation to engage on pre-linguistic or subconscious levels? Does this view reflect an interest in phenomenology or meta-physics?

MG:     AH- Ok, this is a long complicated question for me but it’s a good and important one. I guess I am interested in looking at dance from a variety of frameworks that, while possible to use language to describe, are not about placing language at the forefront of our understanding. One of my main reasons for saying that I don’t like the idea of dance as a language is that it relegates dance to being a kind of secondary, coherent relationship of signs and signifiers that rely on “primary” language to decode them. It also suggests that dance is only the operation of abstract action, when for me dance (and its extension into what I call the “choreographic”) is a mode of experiencing environment, action, bodies, internal thoughts and feelings (which can be verbalized or just observed in the somatic sense). I think it also bogs us down as art or dance makers when we exclusively think that our job as creators is to create a coherent and recognizable dance “language” (like Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown or Stephen Petronio, whose physical “vocabularies” – another word that bugs me – are instantly recognizable, which satisfies that capitalistic, commodity loving aspect of ourselves and of culture). More interesting to me is the interrelationship of actions, elements of performance (sound, light, situation, space), and qualitative experience of movement. I also have a lot of questions in performance and dance about the role of “understanding” what I see. At this point in my performance-watching career, I am most intrigued by things that I don’t understand, that I can’t immediately relegate to my pre-determined experience through knowable language. Of course, the role of language to create reality is a longstanding discussion in philosophy, but I believe it is possible to “understand” or “feel” things without words. So in this sense there are certain ideas of “pre-linguistic” value that I’m thinking about. Knowing that you’re gay before you know what that means, being attracted to someone or something, feeling the urge to pick up an instrument, or walk across the street without knowing why… these are all simple examples of how you can “know” without using language to know.

SDS:   You are interested in philosophy and intersections between neuro-science and dance as it pertains to human perception. Do you engage in discourse with academic scholars or scientists around this topic? If so- can you share some of that experience? I sense that you do not shift yourself to “fit” into the predictable modes of elbow-padism. Are you a breath of fresh air, or a menace in these scenarios? 

MG:     I have been trying – somewhat feebly — to find sympathetic thinkers in other fields. In a recent residency at MANCC (the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, a choreographic research center located at FSU in Tallahassee) I was able to meet with Richard Shusterman, a philosopher and Feldenkrais practitioner, Charles Ouimet, a neuroscientist, and a group of “ghost hunters…” to discuss some of these ideas. Ironically the person who was the most open to my ideas was Dr. Ouimet I think, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily a commentary on his field as a whole. I think that many people in many fields are looking at these ideas – meaning the role of perception, history, language, and body to experience and “create” reality. What I’ve found from these interactions is that even though there are crossovers, MANY OF THEM between these fields, there are specific architectures of thought and history in each of the fields, and it can be daunting to approach that. I am looking to this stuff, not because I fancy myself a scholar or scientist, or because I think that I need to “justify” my experiences in dance, but just because this is where the events in my life took me to, and I’ve needed different language to look at what I’m trying to do with my work, and very often, or maybe MOST of the time, I rarely see dance written about in the way that I experience it. The more I learn the more humbled I am by the extraordinary legacies of research that people are doing all over.

SDS:   The humble feeling. I feel it is important to allow the somatic state that accompanies that word to live in the body while approaching boundaries in thought disciplines, yet I wonder if movers occasionally take a back seat in the think tank because we allow the humbling to reinforce hierarchies that place value on one mode of expressing thought over another….I notice this tendency in people who deal with fleshly concerns and sweat, so I begin to wonder what might happen if intellectual conversations occurred away from tables- skin to skin- or at least in a relationship of breath and movement.

MG:     I totally understand the frustration here. Something that I’ve thought about in relationship to my research is how, in the most reductive sense, intellectual research (philosophy, medicine) lives in an archetypally “masculine” domain – the rational, hierarchical, the knowable – and body based research (healing, somatics, dance and psychic experience) is often relegated to the “feminine” domain – irrational, multiple centers, mysterious. I find these poles useful as a way of measuring when I feel like something is being de-valued because of its apparent association with one of these domains, say, when a scientist ignores the experience of a bodyworker as quackery, or when a somatic-loving dancer resists medicine as a western evil.

as for stepping away from the table, I am definitely interested in situations where “research” and intellectual experience is not a “chair” based experience. I feel like that’s what I’m doing in my workshops and classes. but it is daunting to imagine getting a person steeped in academia to roll around on the floor. Richard Shusterman is an exception to be sure, but then he’s also a Feldenkrais practitioner so that makes sense. This again speaks, though, to the difficulties of getting people to move beyond the “architecture” of the way things are dealt with in their respective fields.

However, all of this has emboldened me to realize that the knowledge that I’ve acquired as a performance-maker, dancer, and person interested in all of this stuff is invaluable and valid. I may not be able to quantify it in the same terms as a doctor, philosopher or scientist, but I know that it holds its own weight and meaning in the world.

SDS:   I share a passion for this subject matter and direct my attention to intersections of somatic intelligence and the hard and softer sciences. The Dalai Llama has made significant progress in opening dialogues with the science community regarding the nature and experience of consciousness. Are you interested in perception and consciousness as a tool for human relations? If not, can you characterize the nature of your fascination?

MG:     Yes I’ve read a little of that work that the Dalai Lama has done. I guess I just think that it would be interesting if these fields didn’t work in isolation from each other, and I really wish that people in the fields of philosophy and science would interact more with dance artists who are interested in this work. Similarly, I wish that somatic practitioners and neurologists and philosophers could interact more. To be honest, I’m not totally sure what I expect to happen from these interactions. At MANCC we had a panel discussion with Shusterman, Michelle Boulé (a dance artist who’s worked with me for over ten years but who is also incredibly eloquent in talking about her work as a BodyTalk practitioner), Dan Wagoner, choreographer, and Betty Davis and Christine McVicker from Big Bend Ghost Trackers. It was sort of tough to moderate this panel, hahahaha. But I would like to do it more, I would like to find ways for these people to all talk to each other since they are all dealing with conceptions of Mind/Body that are challenging. I guess something that all of these fields share is that they are isolated from a larger cultural conversation about perception (although where the fuck is that conversation happening at all in the larger culture actually)

SDS:    Maybe it is only happening here…(it could happen more if everyone threw the TV out of the hotel window and started asking the mirror for “Bloody Mary”. Sorry did I say that out loud?)

MG:     I think that our understanding of “reality”, healing, life/death could be richly informed by an intersection of these conversations.

SDS:   Maybe you are like fascia, running the length of these related subjects. Can you put any of the Florida conversation on a bumper sticker for us? Do neuro-scientists believe in ghosts?

MG:     some do I think. Dr. Ouimet had had some kind of paranormal experience.

SDS:   Do ghost hunters somatically sense presences?

MG:     Absolutely. 

SDS:   Do ghosts haunt bodies as neurological events?

MG:     Well there are those who think that all of this stuff (ghosts, spiritual phenomena) is just right brain hyperactivity.

SDS:   Does the conversation start to revolve around physical sites of cognition or measurable data, or does it meander toward the ineffable feeling of being alive? I imagine that people might be afraid to utter things that could de-legitimize their work. . . .

MG:     Well I haven’t spoken to SO many people so it’s hard to say. After the panel in Florida, though, I had an interesting conversation with Shusterman, where he felt like the Ghost Hunters were wacko, and I found myself defending them because I said, look, they are talking about personal experience, something which they feel as a somatic truth. And for me, this is quite close to what he’s talking about when he defends the role of the body in philosophical traditions by arguing that we have to look to the subtle senses to perceive things more acutely.

I also need to sophisticate my own relationship to my work and to dance to understand how to continue with it, so that it doesn’t merely become about my ego and about my aging body and what I can and cannot “do” as a dancer anymore. I know that my work is ultimately dealing with grandiose philosophical questions and I need to amass information so that I’m not just asking pompous and ponderous questions as if I’m the first person who’s ever asked them.

SDS:  I want to challenge you to let that last concern go.

MG:     haha! ok!

SDS:   Of course you are not the first person to ask the questions, nor will you be the last. What is of note is the bravado with which you are laying crucial concepts out for trans-disciplinary discourse. Sure, amassing info is logical (no one wants to get caught with their pants down in the middle of a debate), but the nature of philosophy is so similar to that of dance: these disciplines animate questions rather than seek absolute answers. I admire your inertia and frankness. As audience and as a maker of work, I am tired of pondering the personal, emotional, historical contexts of choreographers. When folks dare to discuss something that could potentially go beyond their “reach”, it is an invitation. The choreographer becomes a lens somehow. 

MG:     Absolutely. A choreographer, any artist for that matter, is proposing a set of values, though, and I think that, as my work continues to evolve, it becomes important for me to understand what those are, how they are shifting and why. This is because I want to be interested in what I’m doing and I have to often trick myself into staying interested. I know that that sounds strange but it’s true. 

SDS:   We have been discussing dance and language here. The piece you will share with the LA audience is, in fact, mainly text and song based. How does this piece sit within your personal lexicon of work? Does the rejection of dance as a “language” bristle or shift when you perform text? I am interested in the relationship of embodied instinct and the mental/intellectual organization that occurs when we sequence and encounter spoken and sung words. Without feeling obligated to explain or reduce the mysteries inherent in the creation of solo work, can you share some of the elements of expression you are dealing with in this piece? How does this solo compliment or challenge your group work?

MG:     Thanks for this question. It’s hard for me to answer it, though. I have a longstanding relationship to writing (poetry and prose) and to song making. I often think of dance as the mothership and these other elements in my work (sound and text were there early on in my work and then re-emerged starting in 2005) as extensions of my interest in body-based expression. somehow when I talk or when people talk in the work or when I’m making song I think of it as choreography. InLast Meadow, my group piece from 2009 (which I’m very sad never made it to any California venue), words are layered, smeared, difficult to understand, frustrating, meaningful and meaningless. In this sense words/talking became more of a sensual texture than ways by which meaning was construed (although enough meaning is conveyed through the words so as to guide and then frustrate the viewer.) I always think of myself as a dancer who makes performance. Nevertheless this has created problems for me (to myself) at times because I want to be considered a poet or a musician/music maker as well. In this sense I think of someone like Jenny Holzer, whose writing was so central to her work, although she never accepted the title of “poet” which is sort of absurd cuz her writing is fucking incredible.

I don’t want to explain too much about the piece before I do it but I will say that in terms of solo vs. group practice it IS different and I am always interested and frustrated in the difference because I want to believe that the group practice is an extension of the solo practice but I’ve come to believe that they interrelated, though neither one necessarily stems from the other. The solo practice is great because I can do it whenever I want, without waiting for permission to start. And the fact is, I always need to be working on something or I go crazy.

SDS:   This is good stuff. Let’s not go any further. Thank you, Miguel. See you soon!


Stacy Dawson Stearns is a contributing writer for Show Box L.A.

Photo by Alex Escalante.