Maida Withers in conversation with Lydia Mokdessi


Interview Date: November 18, 2012

Dowload a PDF of this conversation

Washington, D.C. choreographer, director, and George Washington University professor Maida Withers talks with CC’s Lydia Mokdessi about her newest dance theatre work, the nature of Washington audiences, her freewheeling Utah upbringing, and her 55-year teaching career in higher education. Collision Course – a.k.a. Pillow Talk debuted on December 7, 2012.



Maida: The youthfulness of the field has always been one of the strengths of dance; we always have people emerging into the field. But on the other hand you have to have mature people performing maturely in conjunction with that, and even mixing those things- a youthful dancer with someone who has things under their belt. For my latest work, Collision Course- a.k.a. Pillow Talk, I wanted a small cast of four veteran dancers (equal men and women) who would be very comfortable in their bodies on stage in some rather exposed movements. The maturity of the dancers was an important factor. Each of the four dance artists brings rich personal expression and nuance to convey the innuendo and subtleties required on the topic of relationships.

Kelly Bond and Nate Bond, Photo by Shaun Schroth

I had wanted to create a work that could have a long run, like a theatre engagement. Why does dance prepare for months for two nights? Surely there can be more audience than that. There is a sophisticated theatre audience in Washington. They are smart and very savvy. But it’s hard for dance to garner that audience. There are so many theatre venues in Washington, but very few dance venues. The theatre venues are occasionally available for dance, but rarely. Since we don’t have a convenient and comfortable venue for dance that attracts that very sophisticated, interesting, global Washington audience then how do we get to them? I am asking, “what will it take to get a theater producer to actually produce a dance theatre work like Collision Course in a theater venue?” We know we must be able to do a minimum 3-week run, 4, 5 or more days a week, or the theatre producer may not invest in the work, since it may not be financially sustainable.

This was a dance theatre work from the beginning. It’s not like I shifted it from a dance work to become a dance theater work, it was intended to be in that genre with movement created accordingly. Early on I began asking, “what would this work have to do to sustain the interest of a theater audience?” By the time I spoke with theaters, the direction of the work was fairly stabilized. The work includes voice and text and live music as well as a pillow that actually talks when you touch it in the “right” places. Important questions for the work related to the projected voice and text and visual image of the poet as these connect to dance movements and dance episodes. We incorporated extreme text delivered by the voice of performance poet and philosophy professor, Alex Caldiero. The voice is like music but the content is fairly explicit in a story-like form. We felt this text might be too liberal for the DC dance audience, but, maybe not too liberal for the theatre audience.

After the debut performances we may continue to work on Collision Course, preparing it knowing more than we know now. We don’t know how the audience will react, how the text is going to function with the audience, whether there’s too much text, whether the person delivering the text is such a powerful character that his absence physically matters- does it support or distract?

Also included in the visual design are close up portraits and body parts of the dancers shot in the photography studio. They are beautiful white on white images. They will be projected on the white floor and white backdrop in the theatre creating dancers suspended in time and space. After the first public showing we will know more about the integration of the dance and the visual design sharing the space.

We have two venues now that want the work in the U.S. this spring. We are hopeful that the work will be good for general audiences, not just our urban audience. The text and movements are pretty straightforward. It’s not presented as camp, it’s not presented arrogantly, it’s presented with sensitivity, so it becomes more innuendo than a blatant confrontation. The thing is, we are dealing with fiction, not reality, so it is not of interest to have realism present. The edginess seems important to the work.

Lydia: Will you talk a bit about the content? Where did you find your primary materials to produce it and what has it become?

Maida: The centerpiece is the pillow. It is present in all scenes. The pillow is a character; it exists on it own, 25 or 30 of them in white cases. The pillow was the initial motivation for the piece. The original idea was that the pillow would be tied to the body with a rope. The pillow would be constantly part of the choreography; it was present, dragging you down, supporting you, whatever. I didn’t go that direction. I left that idea of it being tethered to the body. We went back to the pillow as a separate object. As the choreography began to be developed, it was more about revealing a relationship with the pillow. What kinds of relationships are possible? What is the symbolism of that relationship? Everyone has an association with the pillow. There’s an identification of the viewer to the pillow, so to a certain extent the work was designed around the human aspect. On that very simplistic thing, we’ve experimented with the pillow as a companion that is taken for granted; it is sort of not the focus of attention but it is always there under the arm, dragged, present but not always the focus of attention. At the end of the day we return to the pillow, the place where thoughts are shared and decisions are made. There’s pillow talk, then life happens.

Lydia: We leave the pillow.

Anthony Gongora, Nate Bond, Giselle Ruzany, Kelly Bond, Photo by Shaun Schroth

Maida: Sometimes the pillow isn’t present with the dancers body, but it is always present on stage. Sometimes it is an impediment blocking the relationship- sometimes there is violence. The most violent section of the choreography has no pillows involved.  The work is focused on relationships; what are the characteristics that are the result of love? When you give yourself over to love, what are the results? Humiliation, giddiness, remorse, exhaustion, exhilaration, delusion? Much of Collision Course is reality that is fictionalized; it’s real movement that is made fictional somehow. They’re not people who are in love, they’re not people revealing a relationship, but they are the result of a relationship. When you see Giselle dance with Anthony, you don’t see her as a character but you get an insight into the diverse levels of a relationship. How a relationship can shift, stabilize, skew, pull away. They are not in love or telling a narrative story. I do ask the question and so does Alex in the text, “is this a story? This IS a story, is THIS a story? History?” You think it’s a story but it disappears, it doesn’t follow through. I think it’s about love.


Perhaps it is more about “LUV for the digital age.” The spelling and shape of the word takes on mathematic meaning. We’ve taken photos of the artists and digitized them and put them back in the space as a digital still image. We caught them in this one moment and they’ve moved on to other things but their image is still framing them. Alex voice comes in. His words and ideas are like complex music and theatre.

Lydia: Alex Caldiero?

Maida: Yes Alex, he’s very much into the origin of words, the relationships of letters to words, and the sound of a word. He calls himself a poet and a sonospher. He takes the word war, and the root of the word, when you have a strong “ARRR” as in “WARRRR” and he goes into this whole thing and then he brings in another word; “WAR and LOVE, is there anything more warlike than love? War and NOT war, which is what love is.” Alex compares epilepsy to a form of ecstasy like orgasm. So there’s a lot of really intense philosophical material in his language, and that’s why I’m not sure how far we can go with this in dance because dance is always nice!


It’s nice! Alex goes on, “fffffffffff…kuh! Fecund, fecund, f, fu, fuck.” We didn’t use that segment in the work because it was, perhaps, too blatant and just didn’t seem to fit. We were not sure we needed it. I have known and worked with Alex for some time. I asked him to improvise on love for two hours and I videoed him, just framing his face and his hands. He was exhausted. We were both exhausted. He was riveting. Later we played the text with the choreography. As time went on, we felt almost all the text or extracted words were usable, especially when digitized. It felt okay and interesting. So I’m trying to decide how far I can go with language and dance. We’re cautiously uncautiously stepping into the territory of realism and fiction.

Lydia: Yeah, that’s an interesting thing- what you’re known for and admired for is going there, to extreme places.

Maida: A friend wrote, “Love? That’s an odd subject for you, that’s too common for you?” and I replied, “I maybe agree with you!” That’s my nature, to push to a place that interests me. And it may be a little beyond the boundary of the common person’s desire for exposure.

Lydia: But it’s important.

Maida: I think the theatre audience will be open to the extensive use of movement with text. Dancers and actors training is quite different. When we were in the photography studio shooting the dancers faces and bodies, we worked for some time trying to get the photographs I envisioned for the projection. “Just kiss her, hard!” I said. “I can’t.” Later, “could you take your clothes off and we’ll photograph you only from the back, grabbing someone and embracing them?” I was moving too fast without preparation and insight. Now the dancers are provocative, exquisite, moving with sensitivity and vulnerability.

Since the work has not been shown, I’ve had a little difficulty in communicating the depth of this idea. For the press, in our digital world we have four or five words and at the most one page to tell the story, attract interest. People’s notions about what dancing is can pose a challenge. What is “LUV for the digital age?” How do we tell about Alex in one or two sentences?

Text is part of the sound, and that influences immensely what the live music can be. With such explicit subject matter, what role can music play? Steve Hilmy has been the music director for the Company for almost 8 years and we are certain he can figure this out. He also knows Alex and has performed with Alex before so that helps. Still, what kind of sound can be tolerated when you’re in a dance theatre-type work? Steve is sensitive, wanting to be present with the dancer when they’re working, actually co-existing with them. But music for a dance theatre work will be different.

Lydia: And what do we expect from it?

Maida: The dancers gasp and make a few other dramatic vocal sounds, but at this time they don’t speak. Alex does the entire speaking, squealing, roaring… The dancers are not delivering lines. The movement is so pure in some way, but I feel it is okay also as a dance theatre work; it originates from real gesture and real emotion. It is a work performed by dancers that has been choreographed, manipulated, structured. Actors could be included I believe.

Giselle Ruzany and Nate Bond, Photo by Shaun Schroth

Lydia: People know you internationally for being a renegade presence in the dance world and for really pushing, all the time pushing; how did you get that way?

Maida: I was a desert rat, a westerner, a “cow girl” child who moved into east coast urban, and it’s a little bit by accident that I fell in love with easterner’s ideas and values but I still had the freedom and nature of my upbringing on the red Earth. Pushing is a work ethic of sorts.

Lydia: You were born in Utah and you went to BYU.

Maida: I was the youngest of eight children born to a free sort of family, and being the youngest I was never under supervision of anybody – just observing and no one noticed. I come from a long line of adventurists on my Father’s side. Mitt Romney’s 6th generation grandfather was my 5th generation grandfather, Parley Parker Pratt. Parley was an amazing radical, a visionary, a free-spirited thinker, a passionate, zealous and adventurous man with an immense imagination.  When the Mormons settled in the areas that later became known as Utah they had to create their own culture; an assimilation of the varied cultures represented by the people who had converted to Mormonism. Music, dancing, storytelling brought pleasure to a very tough life. So I come from a family and a people that I feel are open to culture albeit generally considered conservative… But the culture has a radical edge.

Lydia: That’s so fascinating. People don’t know that.

Maida: I was 1 of 2 democrats in my high school. That led to rigorous debates. We all know that often what is presented in public is not always what is accepted or embraced in private. Complete openness and transparency was important in my family.

Lydia: We think of the Mormon community as very composed, acceptable…

Maida: The history actually was quite radical in thinking. That depends, of course, on each person’s experience. Risky thinking and risk-taking may not be connected.

Lydia: Very creative people come out of that.

Maida: There’s a dichotomy there. So in the simplest way, I came from a very small town where I had complete freedom to do everything, everything. But it was a crazy town. There was a dream mine in the mountain where a person had a vision that “there’s gold in them thar hills,” and at the end of the world people could go there and be safe, have food, whatever… And I was listening to this at age 8 and thinking, “oh, that’s a crazy idea!”


Some of the Mormon philosophy is very outrageous.

Lydia: Yes.

Maida: I was influenced by being raised in a place where you’re allowed to think in an open-ended way… But on the other hand, it is more than likely just in my nature.

Lydia: I think so too.

Maida: …To ask that question and see what the answer would be. And one of the reasons I feel I’ve been able to collaborate… For example, I could make the backdrop for the love piece in a minute because I know what my brain thinks, but I’ve chosen to give away the materials to others and say, “see what you can find.” And I do that on most of my projects, like the Russia project, I handed the research to somebody and said, “see what you can make of this.” I’m open to, “what is another way of thinking?” In that place I become more of a director after I’ve assembled the materials.

Lydia: So your imprint is there.

Maida: I can’t account for this; people ask, “how do you find these collaborators?” And I think the universe just delivers them.

Lydia: VERY special people.

Maida: Very amazing people. Somehow I’m always open to that new experience and I think one of the attributes of my character is this; I’m very conservative, I would never jump off abridge with a bungee cord. I would never do that!


Maida: But I would dance on the top of a cliff that drops 2000 feet to a rock bed, and think, “I’m dancing, of course I’m out here, I’m dancing!”

Kelly Bond, Photo by Shaun Schroth

Because I was born of a generation of the 60s that was part of what people refer to as a revolution, I got a very strong foundation in structure. We pushed every foundational structure possible. But opening a door where we didn’t know it was going and not being afraid… I take a very long time to make work. I do believe that there is opportunity in just entering. If you have an idea that is ill formed, it isn’t about dance, and that question comes to you and you go with the question, the result of offbeat work comes from being curious about that question. It’s not about, “because I’m making a dance, I’m going to be curious about that,” but it’s not being afraid of your own experience as the resource for all your outgoing perspective. It’s important to dance about what you know, and that’s why it takes a long time, because you have to live it out. And then it comes to that place you’re talking about which is, “how far can I go with this? And is the material I have too conventional?” I’ve always been afraid of, “that’s too common, don’t do that!” And what turns into another edge is that my perception of what is common and avoiding that, which may already be uncommon. Maybe I don’t know what is outrageous.

Lydia: My outrageous isn’t your outrageous.

Maida: Of course, and I don’t know. Movement just has come so easy to me, I’m so freewheeling and it flows out of me somehow, so I’ve always had access to not struggling with what movement is possible. I feel like I’ve had this capacity physically. So my works are all movement based to the hilt, and that is a lot of the freedom I feel I’ve enjoyed is the voluminous amount of distinctive work that isn’t like a signature. There is a signature, for sure, but it’s not a vocabulary like how sometimes people get defined by their vocabulary. The movement in the love piece is a language.

Lydia: It comes from the material itself.

Maida: Movement is always the source.

Lydia: You been teaching for many years now…

Maida: The first class I ever taught was when I was in the 9th grade. Conventional, small town America studio dance. We taught 4 and 5 year olds, “I can do the boogie-woogie-woo,” and so forth.


One of the things that happens when you teach is you improvise a lot. The people give you the material, they show you what they know and what they don’t know and who they are. I think teaching can be very important part of creativity, it demands that you behave that way. For my generation, teaching was one of the only ways to make money, to have a salary and a profession as a woman.

I like interaction with people and ideas. It can be a gift to teach and be inspired by young people who have the world before them and who are hoping and planning to make changes in the world. It is possible to interact every day with the future.

When I was at the university there were few dance teachers and because I had been teaching so much, I was invited to teach a class at BYU.

Lydia: Oh, wow, that would never happen now!

Maida: So true. My junior year I was teaching Beginning Modern Dance and improvising music for classes using the piano and drums. At that time, we did everything. Certainly the field has matured. My interest in performance and choreography and teaching all reveal my curiosity about the human aspect of dance as it relates to the human experience.

Lydia: That’s exactly what I wanted to know- how your life as an educator enriches and is a central part of your creative practice.

Maida: It’s a burden and a source of wealth at the same time. Some in my generation embraced education but continued their company work, creation, performing… Currently, many artists come from professional dance back into the institution. Still, many dance professionals do not continue to make work or perform once they carry the responsibilities of the institution.

Lydia: It feels like a safe place.

Maida: The identification of the artist with education is still an unresolved issue in dance. This issue may be less unresolved in music and visual art. I am not sure. In my case, the volume of artistic work I have created is quite astronomical. There are about 31 evening-length works, and 75 to 100 total works including museum events, works for locations, and dance films. Many of the multimedia projects are large and complex, like Thresholds Crossed, the Russian/American project, and others. Creating work and setting a creative environment in the classroom can be similar, perhaps. “What can I do? Who am I? Who are they?” “What is possible? What is worthy of my/our time, intelligence, and energy?” And, “where is my passion?”

Giselle Ruzany and Anthony Gongora, Photo by Deborah Candeub

Comments are closed.