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Rebecca Davis in conversation with Jodi Bender

Jodi Bender, who has performed with Rebecca Davis for the past year, talks with Rebecca about her work with Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, the artists who are representing the United States at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Rebecca choreographed the solos for gymnasts that are performed on Allora & Calzadilla’s sculptures.

Interview date: 5.16.2011

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Jodi Bender: We are here to talk about your project that is going to the Venice Biennale. The project was covered in The New York Times yesterday, which mentioned that it’s the first time that performance artists are representing the United States at the Biennale. It’s also the first time that there’s a project that’s an artistic collaboration instead of just one artist being involved. I was curious about what the project is and what your portion of the artistic collaboration has been.

Rebecca Davis: Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are the artist duo and they have six sculptures that will be going to the Biennale. I’m involved with two of those: Bodies in Flight (Delta) and Bodies in Flight (American). Those are two performance pieces that use gymnastics vocabulary in relation to a first class Delta [airplane] seat and a first class American [airplane] seat. I was brought in as a choreographer to create those performances or organize the movement in relationship to those two sculptures.

Jodi: The performers that you’re working with are Olympic caliber gymnasts…

Rebecca: Yes. They are incredible. I think three of the performers involved in the project have been on the Olympic team. Others come from a circus background and they do a lot of aerial work. They all have extremely flexible thoracic spines, which I do not. All of the performers were already selected when I came on to the project.

Jodi: Do you know if they’ve been involved in performance art installations before? Have they worked in this kind of way?

Rebecca: I know one of the women has worked with Sean Curran and Patrick Corbin Ballet. I think with the others, it’s more aerial work [and with] the men, it’s more hand-balancing and gymnastics, as far as I know.

Gymnast David Durante rehearses in May 2011 on a practice model of Body in Flight (American) at Circus Warehouse for the 2011 la Biennale di Venezia U.S. Pavilion exhibition Gloria by Allora & Calzadilla, presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Andrew Bordwin

Jodi: So how did you begin to prepare for this?

Rebecca: First, I began researching a lot about Jennifer and Guillermo’s work. I was familiar with their work. I had seen the Art21 documentary that they were featured in and I had recently seen their Stop, Repair, Prepare [Variations on “Ode to Joy” for a Prepared Piano] at MoMA, but I wanted to have a much deeper understanding of their body of work. When we began rehearsing, I was deeply engaged in Kathy Westwater’s work as a performer so I didn’t have a lot of mental space. I began those first few weeks of rehearsal just watching the performers and what they could do, taking it in. It’s a completely different movement style than what my training is in.

As soon as Kathy’s performance was over, I immediately switched gears and began watching gymnastics clips on Youtube, just devouring clip after clip. It was in that time when I began to notice and be drawn to these moments that are completely trumped by the larger skills but are so poetic and powerful and completely loaded.

Jodi: Like what?

Rebecca: Like for example, the moment when the gymnast approaches the balance beam and they place their hands about an inch above the beam, just hovering there. It’s just completely loaded and for me, is as powerful as anything that proceeds it, any of the back flips and leaps. There’s a sense of expectation. I began making lists of all the possible skills we could do and a second list of these subtle, mysterious moments like this beam moment. Then, we began making short sketches incorporating things from each of the lists based on things the performers came up with and suggested. Then we would email them to Jennifer and Guillermo for feedback. In the beginning, we were working at Chelsea Piers with cushions to simulate the [airplane chair sculptures] and then referencing photographs of the chairs.

Jodi: How early or late into the process did you actually have access to the art objects that they would be performing on?

Rebecca: I think the performers started working together in January. I came on in late February, and we received the sculptures in late March. We had about one month of working on the cushions, referencing photographs, me taking in this new world, new aesthetic. Then once we got the chairs, the works moved along very quickly. That was the whole point. To create work in relation to the object that explores the object. There were ledges that we couldn’t really see in the photographs. The possibilities became much more obvious once we had the physical objects.

Jodi: Watching the showing yesterday from a performer’s standpoint, even as a viewer of them as art objects, one of the immediate things I thought of was the texture of the objects. They’re made of wood but they’re representing these soft things. I guess this is more of a question for the performers, but did it take any getting used to the texture of those objects as being different from what they’re used to doing skills on?

Rebecca: Definitely. I think they’re all used to getting banged up. The women work with lira hoops that hang from the ceiling. I think there’s a fair amount of bruising in general in what they do. They definitely got bruises in strange places as a result from this work. Like on the chin from a chin stand.

Jodi: I noticed such a great individual sense of their kinespheres. There are moments of danger, and [they] have to know exactly where they are so that their chins don’t hit the object.

Gymnast Chellsie Memmel rehearses in May 2011 on a practice model of Body in Flight (Delta) at Circus Warehouse for the 2011 la Biennale di Venezia U.S. Pavilion exhibition Gloria by Allora & Calzadilla, presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Andrew Bordwin

Rebecca: That came from many hours of rehearsal. They’ve been incredibly dedicated and spent many hours doing the work over and over and figuring out where exactly they need to set themselves up and where exactly their foot needs to be or their hand needs to be.

Jodi: In the pieces you created, the performers rotate but the sequences are set. I’m curious if you worked with one person to set things and then teach it to the others? How collaborative was that?

Rebecca: With the mens’ [sequences], I primarily worked with Dave Durante, so it was very much made to his body and what he could do. Then, we taught the sequence to the other performers. With the women, I worked with all three of them. I would say [I primarily worked with] Sadie Willhemi because she had more availability at the time. Rachel Salzman was performing with Patrick Corbin Ballet a lot at the time of the building process, and Olga Karmansky is in school so her availability was limited. But with that said, they all definitely contributed to the score. I know exactly what each of them contributed, so I can see Rachel’s really comfortable in this passage because I built it with her, and Sadie’s comfortable in this passage because I built it with her, and Olga’s comfortable in this section because it features her strengths. Really, they’re all extremely talented. It just takes rehearsal. At this point, they’re all equally comfortable on the structure. But I do agree that they highlight certain aspects of the score. That, for me, keeps it very interesting to see those subtle differences between each of them.

Jodi: I found that really fascinating when I came to watch, too. I stayed long enough to see more than one person do it, and I hope that others, when they go to see it, see more than one person do it. It’s very fascinating to see the differences.

Rebecca: I hope [the audience members] maybe one time stay in one position and watch the whole thing and then another time circle the object as it’s being performed. One could watch the work several times and keep seeing new things.

Jodi: You spoke a little bit at the showing about wanting to keep revealing new shapes either of the object or the performer, which makes sense in terms of getting to see it in a round or multiple times with multiple people. What other sort of intentions were you thinking about in the process? Or what things came out during it that became interesting or important to you?

Rebecca: Well really, the aim was to explore every aspect of the seat. That’s what Jennifer and Guillermo wanted. At times, it’s more abstracted, it’s more shape-driven. At other times, it’s classic gymnastics vocabulary. For the women’s [sequences], sometimes they’re wrapped around the object, sometimes they’re inside of it, sometimes they’re on top of it. Each of those positions creates a very different dynamic of that relationship between the performer and the object.

Gymnast Rachel Salzman rehearses in May 2011 on a practice model of Body in Flight (Delta) at Circus Warehouse for the 2011 la Biennale di Venezia U.S. Pavilion exhibition Gloria by Allora & Calzadilla, presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Andrew Bordwin

Gymnastics already stands for so much. I didn’t have to worry about that. It already stands for beauty, power, flexibility, perfection. So I didn’t have to worry about any of the content. I was really just driven by the relationship between the performer and the object. With the salutes in the beginning—they’re repeated several times—that was really pushing that idea of competition and that tacit request to the audience to look at me, look at me. Most of the time, it was just to keep a constantly evolving relationship between the performer and the object that kept you seeing the body and the chair in a different way. Like, “Oh, I didn’t notice that ledge before.” Or “Oh, I didn’t see that curve of the object before. Isn’t that amazing that she can make this parallel line in her body that is in this wooden object?”

Jodi: Suggestibility regarding politics and images of flight kept coming to me. I agree with you that it feels built into the vocabulary and the concept already. It was so nice to see your touch, getting it to a level of detail and continuing engagement on a more abstract shape that is interesting to look at durationally.

Rebecca: Yeah, the aspect of flight is definitely something I remember Jennifer and Guillermo mentioning that they wanted. This idea of gravity and anti-gravity, that these performers are incredible, their capabilities are amazing, that they can look as if they’re flying.

Jodi: They look suspended, but you can see close-up that there’s a lot of muscular effort, which was fascinating to see so close because you don’t normally get to be so close to bodies engaging in that way.

Rebecca: I agree. I definitely alternate between feeling extreme awe and extreme empathy whenever I see their muscles quivering. My heart just expands.

But yeah, I didn’t have to worry about any of the connotations. Jennifer and Guillermo are very smart about their pairings of elements, so I didn’t feel I had to contribute anything further than that.

Jodi: Did you learn language for the movement vocabulary that you were using?

Rebecca: Yes.

Jodi: How did you communicate with the performers?

Rebecca: In the beginning, it was like “When you do that thing where your feet are touching your head…” [both laugh] And for the men’s, we kind of joked that everything was a planche. But now I know the difference between an L-seat and a planche and wide-arm press and a crocodile. We’ve also created a whole internal vocabulary. There’s the up-donut and the down-donut and the hospital-bed.

Gymnast David Durante rehearses in May 2011 on a practice model of Body in Flight (American) at Circus Warehouse for the 2011 la Biennale di Venezia U.S. Pavilion exhibition Gloria by Allora & Calzadilla, presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo by Andrew Bordwin

Jodi: Those things sort of happen in any rehearsal process.

Rebecca: Exactly! And that’s been really fun. That’s one of my favorite things about each rehearsal process; the internal vocabulary that’s share among the cast.

Jodi: You were in The Artist is Present with Marina Abramovic. You also did Deborah Hay’s [Solo Performance Commissioning Project]. Did you give notes or guidance to these performers regarding performance presence?

Rebecca: One of the things I’m very drawn to is the eyes of the performer. That was one of the things we worked with. I did share with them a couple of Deborah’s quotes, [for example] “Invite being seen in the practice of the performance.” I don’t know if that resonated with them at all, but I wanted to share it. It took me like a year of repeating it like a mantra before it made sense to me. They didn’t need a lot of guidance but I did try to share with them [things like] “Look at the audience if you see them. . . . It’s obvious if you are seeing what you are looking and if you’re not. The audience can tell.”

We used video a lot in rehearsal, and they would do a run-thru and tape it and watch themselves. They corrected so much just on their own. I would be curious what they felt that I contributed [laughs] aside from the choreography, of course.

Jodi: How is this project different from the work you normally do?

Rebecca: It felt more like solving a math problem. Jennifer and Guillermo gave me all of the variables. I didn’t have to come up with any of them. It just felt like solving a problem of figuring out how all of these things fit together. I also found it incredibly freeing to work with a codified movement technique. Trying to generate original movement vocabulary is one of the most paralyzing endeavors in a creative process. I constantly edit myself like “Oh. That looks too much like Trisha [Brown] or Kathy [Westwater] or John Jasperse.” Whoever, you know. To just know that these are the parameters that I’m working with, it was so liberating.

Jodi: The performances are much longer than what the gymnasts would do in the gymnastics world. There’s a durational aspect to them.

Rebecca: Typically, gymnastics routines are 30 seconds to a little over a minute. The men’s routine is 12 minutes and the women’s is 17. In the beginning, [Jennifer and Guillermo] wanted two 30-minute works, but just through the development process, we all came to the agreement that the works were complete as they were. It wouldn’t be good for the performer or the audience to go any longer. The audience is standing, so it’s a bit of a physical challenge for the audience as well, I imagine. I do remember that Dave’s initial reaction was “30 minutes? That’s insane!” But they can all get through them comfortably. Basically, the body adapts to whatever you ask of it. It adapts to repetition.

It’s been a great pleasure. One of my favorite projects of all time.

Jodi: Are you going to continue working and collaborating with the same team in the future?

Rebecca: Actually, Jennifer and Guillermo did ask me to work on another project with them, with different performers, for the Manchester Festival.

I was concerned in the beginning actually. I asked them, “How do you see my role in all of this?” I thought it might be a situation where there were too many cooks in the kitchen or perhaps too many egos colliding. But that has not been the case at all. It’s been extremely smooth and organic with everyone contributing ideas and the piece is fitting together. I feel very fortunate.

Jodi: When are you going [to Venice]?

Rebecca: We leave Tuesday May 24th, and the works premiere the first weekend of June. We have about a week to get used to the actual sculptures that are painted in a room with costumes.

Jodi: I would say, “Merde,” as someone at the showing said yesterday and then said, “Is that what we’re supposed to say?” [both laugh]

Rebecca: I had to ask the same thing. I don’t know what gymnasts say to each other. It’s funny because some things are new to me. For example, slapping hands after a run.

Jodi: Yes. After their run, I saw shaking hands.

Rebecca: …high fives. I mean we never high five after a performance. But it’s kind of fun. It feels very much like a team endeavor.

Gymnasts performing as part of the 2011 la Biennale di Venezia U.S. Pavilion exhibition Gloria by Allora & Calzadilla, presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art; (Left to right) Rachel Salzman, Sadie Wilhelmi, Chellsie Memmel, Olga Karmansky, Rebecca Davis, David Durante, Matt Greenfield (red shirt, back row), Mike Moran, Steve McCain Photo: Andrew Bordwin

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