Yanira Castro in conversation with Peggy Cheng

Choreographer Yanira Castro speaks with Peggy Cheng, a dancer who has worked with Yanira since 2004 and been following her work since 1998. Peggy will perform in Yanira’s newest piece, Paradis, which premieres at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on June 2-4, 2011.

Interview date: 5.11.11

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Peggy Cheng: I would love to talk to you about Paradis as a companion piece to Wilderness and some of your approaches to movement. Maybe [we could] even go way back and [talk about] how you came to choreography.

I just want to say, and you know you can disagree with me if you think it’s not the case [both laugh], but for me, there has always been a very strong picture to your work—a visual, scenic frame. When you look at it, it seems very specific, very detailed, very controlled. Everything is considered, which I think is a good thing. I also know that you have a strong desire to create a sense of the unknown or chaos. How do you think that creating the unknown fits into your process as a director/choreographer?

Yanira Castro: That’s a complex question. I spent some of last night thinking about that. Part of it is that I get frustrated by perfect pictures even though I’m also compelled by them. The mastery of that [perfection] is a difficult thing to pull off in a really genuine way. When I see it in other people’s work, and it’s rare that I see it, I’m really compelled by it. In my own work, what I’m really interested in is where the flaws are, where there might be the possibility of this perfect picture, but then something is rubbing it the wrong way. It’s kind of like this little friction or underbelly thing that happens. That has something to do with awareness of what you’re seeing. [There’s this Brechtian idea] that if the image is too beautiful, perfect or complete, then the audience doesn’t question it. Obviously, that’s not true for every audience member, but that’s something that I question. What I try to do, and this was unconscious for a really long time, is to create this space where there’s something that just doesn’t quite jive with the picture.

In Wilderness, I tried to do that very consciously with the audience. In other words, there’s a certain world that’s set up and then something comes in to subvert it. [It doesn’t happen] in an obvious way. It has to be a tiny uncomfortable feeling like “This is not quite right.” Or “This is not quite complete.” But you can’t really put your finger on what that may be. For Wilderness, [the performers and I] talked a lot about how to look at the audience and what that gaze was. We also talked a lot about the dancer gaze. When you’re in an environment that’s submersive and the audience is right next you, the dancer gaze is looking past the audience. It’s like “I’m dancing and I’m doing all of this and it’s very effortful and I might look at you as I’m passing by you but I’m not intently looking at you.” What [would it be like] if you were to go to an action of wilderness and this was a space inhabited by certain animals? [When you] enter that space, what are you? Who are you? What are you doing in this space? What is your intent in this space? Are you safe? We went into Wilderness really trying to develop a particular gaze in which to look at the audience that didn’t say “I want you to do something.” But [rather], “I know you’re here. I’m watching you. What you do is going to somehow affect what I do.” Without exactly knowing what that effect would be. For some audience members that was not necessarily uncomfortable but maybe like, “Oh you’re looking at me? Why are you looking at me? What is my role here?” That kind of questioning of roles and intent was really what I was going for. That little rub that I’m talking about is really nuanced. It’s hard to get at, and I’m not sure that we achieved it every time it was performed. Every [time the piece was performed] was so dramatically different because of how the audience approached it and how the performers reacted to that approach.

Vail, Darrin Wright, Luke Miller, and Kimberly Young dance on black turf in "Wilderness". Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Peggy: That makes me think about your choice of environment. In Wilderness, it was so specific with all the black and turf underfoot that felt strange to walk on as a performer and audience member. What is behind those choices of your setting in Wilderness and the [Brooklyn Botanic Gardens] for Paradis?

Yanira: I’ve been lucky to have been [in collaboration] with some really wonderful people for the creation of the environments. Roderick Murray did the installation for Wilderness. I’ve also worked with Charles Houghton. He did the installation for Dark Horse.

The way that I think about the environments and the way that we often speak about the environments… in some ways, it comes first for me. How is this performance going to be contained, or what are its parameters? That was a big question in Wilderness. Rick [Roderick] and I kept talking about boundaries. The image that I kept running up against was this idea of fog and something in a distance and you don’t quite see where land and water meet but you know it’s there. From a distance, it’s this nebulous space which we talked about metaphorically for the performers. For Rick, it became important that the piece happen within an ellipse, because the parameters of a space feel less fixed in a way. In other words, [there isn’t] a corner to hide or disappear in. An ellipse is a lot more, for lack of a better word, open. I was really interested when audience members decided to step out or in.

Peggy: I was just going to ask if anyone ever stepped out. It never occurred to me to step out but when you were just describing it, I thought, “Well, what if I just stepped out of the world?” [both laugh]

Yanira: I often feel like these pieces are experiments for audience behavior. The way they entered into Wilderness was one audience member at a time. That was for two reasons: One was so that you could experience the environment before the piece began. Also, the [piano] score was created by each audience member coming into the space and their stepping pattern and getting into a place within the ellipse.

[There was] this one audience that did not enter the space for a really long time. The first person that walked into the room saw the ellipse (I’m not sure if it was a man or a woman) and wasn’t sure if he or she was allowed to go in the ellipse. They picked a place to stand around and watch what was going to happen inside. So then, each audience member that came in saw that person. I think we had like 30 people lining the ellipse which of course meant there was no music. [Stephan Moore] and I thought we might just possibly have the first performance completely in silence [laughs]. Someone got curious and stepped in. It was an amazing moment watching that first person make that step in and then how each person after that eventually gave in or decided to be curious too. Then finally the music started happening. That interests me how each audience as individuals and as a group creates the experience of the piece. That’s also that thing about chaos. I don’t know, the performers don’t know, the designers who are designing this environment that’s open to the possibility of different things happening, the score being completely created by the audience, we don’t know what that’s going to mean. We’re leaving it very open, yet we’re being very specific about the choices: [there’s] a piano, it’s one piano, we picked a piano player who is an excellent sight reader so that he could pick each note as it came flying to him. All of the elements are carefully chosen but ultimately how they manifest is a real open question.

Peggy: When you chose the environment [for Wilderness] with Rick, I’m curious about how much you wanted to think about the audience’s actual sensory experience, not just with the environment but with the sound and the performers. In Wilderness, the performers actually (at times) carry the audience members, and the audience carries the performers.

Audience members carry performer Pamela Vail in "Wilderness". Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Yanira: With the environment, what I kept saying to Rick and what made a lot of sense to him as well, was that I want the audience to feel that it’s different from the moment they step in.

Peggy: You mean a different world than what they came from?

Yanira: A different world than what they came from, but also… it’s sensory. There was a short period there when we couldn’t do anything financially [and thought] “Maybe it will just have to be marley.” That is not going to feel different. You cross a boundary and then it’s… marley. [both laugh]

We really wanted it to be dirt. That was the original idea. We couldn’t do that because so many of the places we were scheduled to perform just would not allow it. They would not allow any organic material even if it was dirt that had been cleaned and had no organisms or bacteria inside of it. We had to reconsider and we looked at a lot of different types of rubber mulch. For a while, we couldn’t find anything that we liked. Rick finally found the rubber mulch that we used and the reason we chose it was because of how soft and dense it was and yet completely unnatural. It didn’t feel like a gymnastic mat or mulch in the real world like wooden chips. I kept calling it an outer space material. Then it had that stink which totally brought a whole other world and a sense of this fabricated wilderness. Coming back to Paradis, when I originally wanted to make this piece, I wanted to make the piece in two settings. I wanted it to happen outdoors and then I wanted it to happen indoors in a really fabricated environment where it was just so false, so fake, so not natural. Financially, we couldn’t pull that off. We couldn’t take the audience to two different locations. It was just too much.

Eventually, we were invited to do it at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and the Invisible Dog, but those two worlds could not meet. The piece had morphed in such a way that it wouldn’t make sense to do it at both places anymore. We stuck with this really fabricated wilderness with the Invisible Dog, which I thought was really strong for that space. For the garden, there is no installation. It’s the garden. In the beginning, I thought the piece was going to be very similar in the garden. Somehow we were going to transpose what we’ve been doing for this really fabricated environment to a garden, which is also very fabricated but in a different type of way. It’s very manicured, but it’s an organic manicured garden.

When I got [to the garden], I started looking at the space [and] I realized it’s not the same piece. It’s amazing how I keep letting go of this idea of it being connected at all to wilderness. On Monday, I was having a rehearsal with Peter and at a certain point I was like, “It shouldn’t even be called Wilderness Pardis. It should just be Paradis.” Because at this point, it being a companion piece makes absolutely no sense to me [both laugh]. It’s its own world. So that’s the evolution of that piece. In some ways, it’s becoming less and less like its cousin.

Peggy Cheng & Darrin Wright in "Paradis". Photo: Kevin Kwan

Peggy: The idea of it being outdoors and the fact that it’s called Paradis, which [brings to mind the] Garden of Eden. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yanira: Often times when there’s a seed of something for me, it comes out of seeing something or reading something that for some reason becomes a point of obsession. I saw [Jean-Luc Godard’s] film, Notre Musique seven years ago when it originally came out, and the film is broken up into three sections. It starts with Hell, the middle is Purgatory, and the end is Paradis. That’s where the title Paradis comes from, that last section. It begins with this woman walking into a field, and for some reason, I became obsessed with that clip. At the end of the film, she sits down with this male performer, and they share an apple. I’ve just been obsessed with these two moments. Over the years I’ve used them in composition classes.

I’ve been trying to be as true to the film as I can be. I get in my way all the time [laughs]. I thought it was going to be this simple walking pattern to begin with and that was where we started, but it’s now become this full-blown aerobic thing through a field. The way I think of that section in the dance is as a representation of those two moments in the film. It is uninteresting to me whether or not the audience understands that it’s inspired from those two clips. It’s a place to start for me. There’s something about those two moments that speak to me, and so I trust that as a place to begin.

Peggy: Having been in the process, I know you started with this very simple walking phrase. You had everybody start watching these clips with you over and over and then start to move based off of their ideas from that. So in a way, [the movement] was pushed by the performers and what they chose to do. Maybe they chose to be aerobic or do these crazy things.

I want to go back to something we were talking about before this interview officially started. What interests you about movement and [how did you come] to it? You didn’t necessarily have long dance training, so why choreography? I know that your vision is not simply movement-based all the time.

Before I forget, I also just want to throw this out. I would love to talk about Peter [Schmitz]’s solo, because that happens in both Wilderness and Paradis.

Yanira: What really interests me in movement is the effort and failure of it. I think that has a lot to do maybe, with the fact that I was not trained as a dancer, and I came to it very late. I started dancing in college and when I first came to New York, I felt really unable to achieve what I saw the other people in class being able to achieve [laughs]. That was a very personal experience, but I think it also comes back to this idea of the perfect picture. I’ve since gone to ballet performances, and there is something beautiful in the high achievement of it, but for some reason, not that it’s better when they fall down [both laugh], but there’s something about the effort of it that really engages me in a way that the perfection of it just does not. This goes back to this idea that we were talking about [before the interview] of being able to completely perform a movement and then to not even have it be heard. It’s this very balletic tradition of an image that has no sound. I’m interested in something that has effort that makes it awkward and yet in that awkwardness, achieves something that’s really compelling.

It’s not just physical effort, it’s not even being able to achieve a really difficult physical task, it’s seeing the brain active in a really specific way. I guess it comes down to some of the structures that we’ve been working on where you have this phrase, you chop it up into eight sections and then you roll a dice and then you do that section in 4-3-2-2-1-5-7-8. The reason for that is [to make] the movement more awkward and not really organic but for me, it’s purposeful to make it so difficult that maybe you can never really get it and so you’re constantly thinking about it. To then put rules on top of that that are affected by what the audience does. So then [the peformers] might have been able to perfect a phrase that they have to think about in numbers, but now, if an audience member next to me does a certain behavior, they have to stop doing that and start doing X or Y. Having to be able to switch creates a certain physical and mental presence that interests me, because it activates space in a different way.

Peggy Cheng, Luke Miller, and Heather Olson in "Center of Sleep". Photo: Julieta Cervantes

One of the things I was interested in after Center of Sleep was that the performers always knew what was going to happen next. While the performers and the audience were sharing the space together, what they weren’t share was how the piece was developing. For Wilderness and Paradis, we wondered how we could make it so that the audience and the performers shared how the piece developed even if the audience is not necessarily aware of how that’s happening. That’s the unknown space for me. It’s not clear. It was important for me to share the feeling that the performers didn’t know everything, that I didn’t know everything. There’s this unknown possibility that could come when everybody came together into the room. For me, this is the essence of live performance. The more and more I do this, [the more] I wonder how do I really make something live? How is it really live? It’s live if the audience somehow has a way to impact it so that it is different each night.

You asked me about Peter [Schmitz]. I’ve known Peter for a really long time. He and a professor that I studied a lot with in Amherst College… her name is Wendy Woodson. [Peter and Wendy] were collaborators, and so I got to see him perform in her work and I just thought he was really captivating. I’ve never forgotten those performances. I’ve always been drawn to him and I hadn’t seen him in a really long time. When I started thinking about Wilderness, I felt that there was this older male performer in the piece and that the piece had a need for a very specific type of body that [could not have been] a young performer or even an older performer that’s still pursuing a certain kind of heroism in their movement. I wasn’t interested in that. I contacted [Peter] out of the blue, and he was about to go through hip surgery and he said, “Is this really the right time for us to collaborate on something?” and I said, “Well actually, you’re about to go through surgery and your body is in that … place. This is actually the perfect time.” [both laugh] I’m sure he felt really great about that. It was a window of opportunity for both of us to explore what this meant.

Peggy: At the Botanic Garden in Paradis, he’s in a very different setting than he was in Wilderness, and it was probably not a transposition of the exact same solo in your collaboration with him and thinking about the desert pavilion [at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden] in this sort of arid desert. What sort of things were you thinking about in creating that solo?

Yanira: We started in the same place. We looked at that same woman walking through the field. My process with Peter is very slow and laborious because what we did to make Wilderness is spend three months improvising for hours and hours and then taking little chunks of that [improvised material] and graft them together. We started the piece in October and didn’t finish that solo until September [of the following year], so that’s 11 months. With Paradis, it has had a much shorter gestation period, which has been really difficult for me to have to push it.

The piece has been about theater not as perfection, but this space of fabricated glory. Peter and I have been looking at a very specific performer and type of theater to present within paradise.