People outside of dance often ask how dance is made. How do we make movement? What do we actually do in rehearsal? For me, since each project is different, each process varies, but first, almost always we chat. We snack. We stretch. All at once. We address schedule changes. We have to do these things out of necessity but also to find our way into being in the room together.
Then, we start to work.
Dance takes so long to make—and not just because of the chatting and snacking and scheduling. It is partly because dance only exists when it is being done. With a play, you may have a script to come back to the next day. Or with music, a score. With dance, everyone has to show up each time, has to be uninjured enough to do more or less what they did last time. If you haven’t worked on a section for a while, you must allow time for everyone to remember what they did—videotaping rehearsals helps, but relearning from video is tedious and slow. Dancing itself is tiring—rehearsals can only be so long before everyone is out of gas, you can only work so many hours in a week before everyone is injured, exhausted, or fired from their day jobs. Thirty seconds of choreography may take weeks to make. For every rehearsal, I spend at least one to two hours on my own preparing. Copperhead took over two years to make, from my initial ideas in the summer of 2006 through production in October 2008. I started choreographing in January 2007. The full ensemble rehearsed six to ten hours a week for seven months prior to opening.
While much of my work is drawn from specific ideas and source material, I make movement in many ways—sometimes it is free-associative, impulsive, instinctive. It may or may not be drawn from a very concrete image. Sometimes it is pure problem-solving. At times, I know I want a particular feel to a section, and I try to make movement and choreographic situations that provoke that feeling. Other times, a move is simply fun to do. While I have been dancing for twenty years, my primary training is not in dance, but in theater. And the first art form I practiced seriously that asked me to make anything from scratch was poetry. So my mind is trained to think first not of abstract movement, but of feeling, intention, atmosphere, imagery, poetic reference.
During rehearsal, I didn’t talk in great detail about the source material for copperhead. At times it wasn’t necessary; we just needed to address action and images. But I also felt a degree of protectiveness towards the dancers—before rehearsals even started, one dancer remarked that she felt anxious about exploring the topics of violence and murder so intimately in the months to come. I was researching these harrowing stories on a daily basis, sometimes having nightmares, but also observing my own capacity to take it all in or draw a line for myself. Sometimes when I shared details of the research in rehearsal, I could see visible reactions in the group. So while there were some dancers who wanted to talk more in depth about the topic and who were fueled by knowing the stories, I tried to be selective about divulging back story in rehearsals. I freely and regularly offered up images to work with, but these were often secondary images, triggered for me by the original source material.
Drawing from real life
One section, which we called “cielo,” draws from a real-life event, although it is highly abstracted. I knew I wanted to make this section and had a few ideas in mind as to what it might look and feel like, and what might happen. To make it, I started with one image that had struck me from the original story, one that also happened to be first in the chronology of action: a male victim, sitting on a couch, reaches up to pull his female attacker down to the floor. We stylized and codified this one action quite a bit, with everyone trying both roles, in order to find combinations of people that worked well but also to refine the action technically. We created a complex version of this move, one that appeared to fast-forward and rewind itself. Ultimately, we stuck with the simplest, crudest manifestation because that’s what worked best in the context of the rest of the choreography.
I had brought the book that detailed the real-life events and, at this point, I simply opened it up to that scene. I would either demonstrate what I wanted or instruct the dancers what to do. You three run backwards to the wall. If the choreography was based on literal actions, I would sometimes describe very simply the image behind the moves. It’s as if you two are pulling a rope, or like you are jumping over a hedge. I tried to keep things in the “as if,” so that the dancers and actions didn’t become bogged down in literalism. Staying free of reenactment allowed things to morph over time into better things, due to the performers’ own styles and embellishments, beautiful, and strange. Sometimes I simply inserted movement instinctually, spontaneously, based on what I thought was needed from an intellectual or energetic standpoint.
Sometimes, choreography came by accident or serendipity. In an early rehearsal we played anti-tag, where everyone starts frozen and as they are freed by the tagger, they have to hang on to him or her. The primary point of this was to stimulate group cohesion, intuition, and instinct, to stir up spatial and group consciousness. But in one round, Max Wirsing was “it.” Max is incredibly strong and as he freed us and we piled on him, he continued to plow around the room, dragging us along. This image amazed me and immediately brought to mind a similar moment from the event that inspired “cielo.” So I put the “Max pile-on” in the section.
Choosing with the unconscious
A long process hones my unconscious, so I may make material that springs from a deeper source. At a certain point, process and content become so intertwined that some choices are guided by an immersed mind. I try to follow my instincts. Still, to make a good dance involves a tremendous amount of editing; you need to let go of a lot of things you like and care about or that are actually really cool. Sometimes, what you make is good or potentially good but there is no place for it. It’s so tempting to leave it in. Getting better at making performances means getting better at letting go, killing your sentimentality. I did a lot of this in copperhead.
Yet the time spent building things we never used was important for other reasons. Cast-off moments are shared history among the group. I knew that I wanted to pursue the spontaneous group glue that rises up during a joke or a mistake. Such moments are generated by incredible group synergy and represent a common language, shared sense of humor, and kinesthetic intimacy. I was drawing in part from experiences of several of the Manson Family women and similarly, the Mansons created their own code words, secret gestures, and randomly traded aliases. Any group living or working closely together begins to resemble “family” and develops shared joys, conflicts, and intimacies that may be leveraged towards any end—whether it be positive, such as making a dance, or negative, such as committing a crime.
Part of my premise was that our group mistakes and laughter were not just evidence of bonding, but potential performance material. So as we worked, I freely deviated from my intended path when something strange and unforeseen erupted. To me, anything the group responded to as a whole was worth pursuing . Often, these were folded into the piece in a modest way. In “cielo,” for example, Joanna Furnans repeatedly circles one hand around the other, inspired by when she jokingly mimed the unspooling of toilet paper in our poorly equipped rehearsal space. In another section, Anna Shogren falls quietly to the floor in the middle of a group pack, which then steps over her body. Nothing big is made of this moment. We laughed about it when it first happened accidentally, loved its beauty, and then turned it into something that, even if we no longer had feelings about it, represented a private group memory.
Years ago, I realized that many of my closest friends are those I have danced with. I think of them as my war buddies. I think of them as my family. Sometimes I feel weary of having my social and work worlds so intertwined. But putting aside the bigger question of why we make art—and why specifically dance—I believe in this rare intimacy, this unique method of bonding with individuals and groups. In all the talk about what we are trying to impart to audiences, I feel equally compelled by what we are trying to say, be, and feel with each other onstage. We rehearse because most performance work benefits from it but also because it creates relationships between us. In the end, we display some figment of that onstage—places where the process is in the product. ❦