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Laurel Tentindo in conversation with Christine Elmo
When Christine Elmo saw Trisha Brown Dance Company perform Brown’s early works at the Whitney in September 2010, the performances provoked questions that Elmo wrote about in Critical Correspondence. Elmo now addresses these questions with dancer Laurel Tentindo, in the context of the company’s January 2010 performances at the Museum of Modern Art.
Interview date: 1.22.11
Christine Elmo: Do you think Trisha Brown’s work demands audiences to watch in a certain way?
Laurel Tentindo: Performing in museums, outdoors or in public places versus a proscenium changes the approach to which somebody views the work. They don’t come to be entertained, they more happen upon an experience that they might be delighted by or feel curious about. But it is not approached as much as entertainment as things onstage are and I think that MoMA opening up its doors [to TB’s work] allowed the space to be changed by the movement and the things that happened. And they seemed really happy with how it went down.
The space was defined the way it was for the MoMA performance because of the piece Scallops (1973). It required a certain-size room and it just happened be to the size of the studio they [originally] performed it in or made it in. They taped that out at MoMA and they had the audience sit around it. But actually when it was [originally] performed, it was seen more from the inside, so that the viewer saw it from the inside out.
Christine: Whose choice was that to have the audience sit on the outside of the marked [area] versus the inside as it had been originally performed?
Laurel: I think it was the space’s choice. In a way, because of the design of the space and because MoMA is bigger than the space it was made in, the work got inverted. There is an improvisation that Trisha is doing with the space that the work gets performed in. It gets seen differently based on whatever space it is happening in.
Christine: Do you feel like there is a change in performance presence when performing in an art institution versus performing in a proscenium?
Laurel: In the early works, what I like is that we are normal people. We are casual. Normal people doing simple systems that hopefully transform perception while you’re watching them, but we are still normal people. That influences how the stage performances happen also. Even though there are lights and music, there is still that more casual demeanor within TB’s work.
We [the company] are proud that TB’s work is [at MoMA] and she is really happy that she is being acknowledged as a visual artist. That is very important to her that her visual art is being displayed at MoMA and that her dance work is also being acknowledged and integrated with that part of her life.
Christine: Does she talk at all about why it is so important to her that her visual artwork is being included or recognized?
Laurel: She took over rehearsal and showed us the book about the On Line exhibition. She said, “I want you to become familiar with the historical cannon that I’m involved in. Where my work came from.” I think the exhibit does that really well with starting with artists like Picasso and ending with TB’s painting that she did dancing with charcoal between her toes. She instructs us when she is making work through images and we are painting through the space. [TB’s work] is not about our personality or the ego of the dancer. It is not about the tricks that we can do. It is more about the strokes and the details: the visual painting that’s getting made. These little details intrigue her.
For example we might be building an eye poking through an armpit or something and that detail is what makes the whole picture for her. If that detail is lost, she demands to see it again. I think she views [dance and visual art] the same. She is using two different languages to describe the same thing.
It was cool because the other day she encouraged us all to be visual artists. She was secretly drawing while she was making dances for so many years. She told us, “I had a great friend Robert Rauschenberg, and who am I to show him my drawings? So I kept them secret, but then after awhile the drawings became more…” They were functional, because she was using these systems of ideas to make [dance] pieces.
Locus Solo (1975) is a cube, and you touch different points on the cube with different parts of your body to integrate multi-directional movement. She found a language for her movement style from drawing. So the drawing is really cool because it is expressing what she is trying to do with her body.
She encouraged us all to draw and paint or find expression in other forms, and that was really inspiring to me.
Christine: I’ve studied TB’s movement—it’s very hard work. What always shocks me about watching it is how simple it looks. It looks like you are doing nothing. Not nothing like in the sense of nothing but like… there is this ease in the way that the movement gets performed.
Laurel: TB’s movement comes from this organic desire to move and the kind of directions she imposes upon herself are visual or a kinesthetic drop, break in the knees, reach through the arms and fall to the side. I think she is a ready-to-move-at-any-moment kind of person.
Christine: But ready-to-move in a very specific way. Because doing the movement, it’s very specific, it’s not just shaking your hips, moving around on a dance floor. Or maybe it is moving around on a dance floor for her?
Laurel: I think that is her gift. She is unique, raw, organic and spunky with how she moves. It just comes to her. She has created all of these different games and tricks to organize that [movement], but I think that that kinesthetic gift is something she was born with.
Christine: What do you mean by organic?
Laurel: That she is moving from her guts. The abstraction, it frees her to do that.
Christine: What abstraction?
Laurel: The abstraction of abstract dance. She is not making a dance about fairy tales. She can be choreographing a big lift and then be on the floor doing a hand gesture. There are no rules for choreographing. Each moment leads to the next moment.
With these early works, like with Sticks (1973), you don’t see any of that. You see these systems and these games and then I think with the Roof Piece Re-Layed (2011), based on Roof Piece (1971) you see more of that—the game of mirroring through time and space and how it morphs. It is coming from improvisational choices of the sender. The signaler. You see more of that organic nature.
Christine: Scallops—it was so funny to me, I don’t know if it was because of the context of first watching you guys try so hard to get the sticks together and then to suddenly come out, stand right in front of us, making eye contact with us, as if we were the sticks and you were trying to put us together or if it was something else—but the piece had a very playful energy to me. It felt like that playfulness came from you guys being so close to us. It felt intimate. Can you talk about the direction that you were given in that piece? Did you feel that relief as well with the audience?
Laurel: That playful quality is something that is really present in her early works. Because we are doing something so simple, just flanking on each other’s shoulders and scalloping around the space.
It was funny because a lady’s purse was inside the square, and I had to say, “Could you please move your purse?” And she was like, oh they are performers, she didn’t even hear me. So I said again, “Excuse ma’am could you please move your purse, because it is inside the square.” It was just sitting there.
Christine: You broke during Scallops to say that?
Laurel: Before we started. And then they [the woman] figured out, oh, we have to pull our toes back because the dancers are going right along the edge.
Trisha says don’t stare off into the space. Look at the audience. They are right there. We are just people, and so the flanking had a nice intimacy. You could see everybody who was there, but you really had to pay attention to your shoulders. Lining up. I did enjoy that. That was the first time we performed that piece.
Scallops was half set and half improvised. The first two walls are set. You have to remember whom you are flanking on and whom you land behind and how you step in. And it is very rhythmic. Arrive. Turn. Go. You have to think on your feet. There is room for that playfulness, and if it is too serious it is kind of not interesting, in my opinion. It’s too self-important. TB’s work is playful. It’s not self-important. It speaks for itself. It doesn’t need any affect.
Christine: To mean, the greatness about the early work is that it feels not production-based. You’ve done the whole spectrum of her work. Any thoughts on how the work has evolved? How did it evolve from this simple work to this more production-base in the theater? Do you think that was just an interest of hers to move into the theater?
Laurel: TB studied with [Anna] Halprin before coming to New York. Being Simone Forti’s roommate and Judson and all that and so she already had this kind of free organic [quality]. All the movement stuff I already explained before about her innate ability to just dance, rip and shred it while she just moved. Then she was integrating these systems and games through the Judson time. I feel like it is a natural progression to move into the theater, because with a piece like Glacial Decoy (1979) you have the appearing and disappearing forth dancer as this horizontal line shifts through the stage and that is a spatial game, but there is really complex, full out, crazy dancing happening while you are paying attention to the space. It is really exciting, this magic and at one point a fifth dancer just appears and disappears. So you feel like the dance is endless.
That was her first stage piece. I feel like she was challenging herself to integrate the two. To have a very sophisticated form and to push forward with the rules of how dance goes down onstage. It doesn’t have to be based on a story and all of the things that Judson broke apart from. That you could have a pedestrian movement integrated with a virtuosic dancing, and they are all of value.
I think her relationships with the art world, with Rauschenberg and many, many, many other collaborators just continue to evolve her work. All her collaborations; she really allows people that she collaborates with the freedom to do their thing. And so I think people really enjoy working with her, so each piece is its own type of creation. That formed her language and way of working, and she kept making new pieces.
She went through different cycles. I’ve been lucky to learn pieces from a lot of the different cycles. Early works; Set and Reset (1983), Opal Loop (1980) and Glacial Decoy all have this organic movement style. You feel like you are breathing through the whole piece.
Christine: What do you mean by organic?
Laurel: It means, pendulum movement. You feel the weight of your limbs. You flow through shapes instead of hitting shapes. You flow through geometry. It’s more swinging. The rhythm.
In For M.G.: The Movie (1991), which we are going to do in March at DTW, there is a phrase about a tumbling cube. So I get to play out my fantasies of being in the Merce Cunningham Company, because I am wearing a unitard and I’m playing with geometric shapes. But because it is TB’s work, it is never tight and held. [I’m] finding very linear places through the body. So when I say organic, I mean a little bit, there is not so much a correct and incorrect way. It’s more about the way it is being done.
[In her] zero cycle with Foray ForÃªt (1990)—that was this kind of more soft, less-is-more effort. I don’t know what cycle she is in right now, but there is a lot of partnering that she is interested in, and her piece PRESENT TENSE (2003) there was a lot of group partnering. And so we have these different decades that we are drawing from when we go out and we perform. I’m learning how to unify that, not feel like I am jumping into different qualities that you have to access to be able to perform in these cycles.
What is interesting to me about performing the early works is that causal, “I’m a real person and the audience is right there.” That kind of matter of fact-ness is hopefully always onstage. There is never this kind of, (she deepens her voice) “I am a performer, dramatic extra.” And I think that has been a real gift of doing her early works, because you can feel that onstage too.
Christine: Since you’ve done these different phases, going back and forth through the decades, have you felt anything that has been more focused towards the proscenium? In I love my robots (2007), for example, that versus the early works. As a viewer it is very different.
Laurel: Trisha is aware of the formality of the theater, and she has said that the theater is her every space, or something like that. I might not be quoting that right. She almost sees it as a neutral space. But she is so aware of where the audiences’ eyes are and the site lines and playing with the edges. Appearing and disappearing and so, I think the theater has become her everywhere.
You asked me earlier about the progression [of her work], and I think, quite simply, in the beginning there wasn’t the funding to be in a theater. You need that to pay dancers.
Christine: So you think that having her work being performed in theaters was something that she wanted from the get-go?
Laurel: I mean, in the beginning, when they were at Judson, they were a tight-knit community, just doing experiments. A rich time. But then people go off on their own trajectory, and this was hers.
Christine: To continue with it, to…
Laurel: …keep it going.
Christine: To let it evolve into this place, yeah?
Laurel: Yes. It’s like getting a bigger canvas and getting the right materials. Like a visual artist and getting your stuff in museums. By performing around the world. She has developed her work on a world scale.
I think she kept integrating and asking questions and she really allowed for a lot of collaboration between the people who do the music, the lighting, the set and costumes. It is very much about relationships, and I can imagine that would be very exciting. Yes, one project evolves into another and there are questions that are left from one project that maybe get answered in the next project. And also as dancers, she asks us to step up and use our imaginations and use images and play out these qualities through improvisations and through making phrases. It’s a collaborative process. I think she has developed a life long creative practice and that one of the outcomes of that is that things get performed onstage, but she just really wants to be working. It is really important to her.
Christine: If there was an Acoustiguide that patrons could take with them as they went around the museum, what do you think it would say while the viewer was watching TB’s work?
Laurel: What I heard behind me while I was dancing in the Roof Piece Re-Layed were people figuring out what was happening. I think [TB] actually likes to leave it up to the audience to discover. [The audience members] were like, “Oh! I saw that girl in the window up there. Wait! She is getting it from that guy in that little window across there and look they are doing the same thing.” People saw how we are doing different things and then trying to figure it out.
I think Trisha Brown would encourage, if you had an Acoustiguide, people to walk around and see the work from different perspectives. Like, “Go find the tenth dancer. Go up to the sixth level and watch it from above because it is the most beautiful view.” Guiding the viewer to rediscover the space.
That was the most exciting thing about the MoMA show that people could walk around and come upon it from different angles—there is no one right way to see it.