My work is about asking questions

Sarma 1 Jun 1992English

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Contextual note
This lecture was held by Meg Stuart at the CNDO in Arnhem (Netherlands) in June 1992. Transcription realized by Peter Hulton and the Arts Documentation Unit in 2004. Published on Sarma with the permission of Meg Stuart.


“My parents were both in the theatre. They both directed plays. I pretty much grew up on stage. It was always part of my life. I was also a runner and I spent a lot of high school time running track- middle distance, long distance, cross country. I had been performing since I was very young. My first performance was when I was maybe five or six, in “The wizard of Oz”. There is a witch and she gets water on her and she melts and drowns. How they did the trick was that the women who played the witch would melt and this little girl would come out. I didn't audition or anything. The girl who was going to do it was too afraid after the first performance to do the part, so I was a replacement. I was a substitute diminished witch!”

“Then somewhere I just fell into dance, when I was about fifteen. I began to take composition classes in high school. Instead of going to gym class, taking these dance composition classes, and I started making these little pieces- on a ladder, small group pieces with six people. I hadn't taken much technique but I was taking a little bit of modern dance. Then I decided I would go and study dance in College. Not an original idea but it seemed like a good thing to do. I just applied to different places and I went to New York University. And that is really where I got the base. I thought I had to catch up in a way, but it was not exactly the base that I wish I had got. I took ballet, modern, graham, music theory. It was really like a College dance program. I still felt that I wanted to get it right. I had this work ethic, this physical strength from my track work mixed with this need to perform. I think that this was an interesting combination. It was a good period because I made a lot of work. Even now, as I make work, I see the ideas that I began to explore then, coming back. I felt that the encouragement of work was really special whilst I was in College. It was a three year dance program and I studied in the summer in the Harvard Dance center.”

“When I graduated, in 1986, I got into Lisa Kraus's dance company and Randy Warshaw's at the same moment. I was really fortunate. But I didn't have any Release technique, except the minimum from school, so I found myself in a whole other way of dancing which I knew I didn't have the experience. I also didn't consider myself as a dancer who would get jobs. However everything changed and I spent a year, at least, unlearning things. I danced with Lisa for one year and then she disbanded her company and went to Naropa. And I danced ad toured with Randy for five years. I have just left the company.”

“When I was working with Randy in those five years I made a few short pieces when I had enough extra time and energy. I made two duets and a trio. One duet was concerned with the image of a head, which is in the present piece. I made that tree years ago. Though I officially left Randy's company in April, I was making the present piece at the same time I was dancing with them. Right toward the end I premiered it in October in Belgium. It was my first evening length piece, and the first time that I had a concert, though I had made a lot of pieces in school and college.”

“Working with Randy Warshaw, researching in a studio four hours every day for five years, has had a very deep, profound effect on me. I see our work as being very different and the difference, I think, has to do with what Is a choreographic idea or drama. I think the way I move, my movement vocabulary, is directly from him, influenced by him, but I can also see things that typify the work that I want to do which is the opposite. I would say one of the most important things I learned from Randy was that physicality in movement is enough. There is in this richness in his movement and more than anything an attention ti detail, whereas in my case there is more a heavy drama. I felt I was able to be fast on the floor, to make shapes but it was all kind of vague. The first piece I made with him 'fragile Anchor' is an amazing piece. When he first asked to dance with me, I was right out for school. He said: “Well, I will work with you in a limited way.. maybe one section.. but we'll see.” as I turned out he picked an international cast, incredible dancers but they were always busy and on the road. I wasn't busy so I ended making everything with him, just learning the movement. I felt from beginning to end that I was part of the piece. What impressed me was the way Randy was able to create his movement in the joints; for example, an attention to the hands and the idea that your hand goes through your neck to your shoulders- being clear at every moment at every time. His attention to every place in his body, every change, really deeply effect me. I also felt he always knew where he wanted the audience to look in his body and his dancing. We called him “the matchmaker”. He really made you work, improvise and create choices. There is a discipline in this precision that comes from him working with Trisha. I was also impressed with the idea that an action can create the germ of a narrative, just enough to make you feel something. For me, I'm always trying to put something on it, for me, dancing is not enough. I am always beyond the moment in the structuring of a phrase or the structuring of my body. I am always thinking as if I am writing a short story. “Look. I need a beginning, a middle and an end.” I am always thinking of other arts like film and art and poetry, and I am always trying to bring what I like about these other things in my work.”

“I do these lists of my favorite things, my favorite film, cartoon, artist, this word, that word so that I wan see what I am moves by at certain times and why I am not moved at other times. I like the sense of time in films, the cut back. Visual art is also clear to me because it seems the most obvious. There is a history of figure drawing in art. Artist make work with the body, with their hands, with what they have. It is such a complex thing to draw. When I started this current piece it seemed the most natural thing for me to see how body's are sketched, how you sit. I tried to explain this to someone and the person said: “So what you are saying is that you don't look for movement but for figure. When I started this piece I looked at my figure. My shoulders were this tense, my back was this. I was always trying to be correct, even though I knew I was never going to be this ideal image. Why does everyone who performs dances want to be this ideal, yes, I want to be like it too, but this body is what I have.”

“I am a lazy perfectionist. I love to go to museums. I love to road. I feel like that is a part of my work. Right now, I am thinking about silent movies so I have to go and see Chaplin. So I have all this information but then I go into the studio and I can't put it together. It has to come from a movement. I can never really get the ideas clearly unless I am in a studio. No matter how I sit and think and plan, I have to get into that room first. I can't plan it on paper. It's got to to be in that working space- like a writer who has to be in front of the typewriter to think about writing. And then, usually how it goes. I made this piece about a woman and me and her head. First it was going to be a “dancey” dance. I am always trying to make a “dancey” dance but it never works out. It was me and the head of the woman I was dancing with. She was really tired and had just dyed her hair and had it cut, and I couldn't stop touching it. I thought it was so funny and I kept saying: “Your hair!” And then I started saying: “Just relay.” It was not planned. And I was starting to take care of her, and to play with her head. Then I think she reminded me of my grandmother who had been in a foetal position, like a baby, for the past two years. And I said: “Can I just dance with your head?” Is that enough? Can that be dance? How much do you need to make a dance? What do you need to do? So I tried to do that and I started to get exited about the possibilities of that. And then I found out, that night, that my grandmother had died two days before. It seemed like a psychic reason for doing it. I also have a friend who is sick and dying of AIDS. I think the dance crossed over into that area just from the physical problem of trying to isolate body parts, like isolating two legs and a head. However, the isolation of body parts is something that I am interested in in this dance. Usually when I hit an idea and it has many layers to it, then I feel it is rich, even though it might be hard for me to get that idea in the first place.”

“I think my pieces begin with an idea or an image. I am working now on a piece that is even more theatrical than the last one. I want to make pieces that are really human and personal and break down the barrier that I am performing in front of you and the expectation that I am showing off. Anyway, I just have this image of me standing in the studio ad a human coat rack. Imagining the absurdity of that image creates the dance background, which is the opposite to “what I want to make a dance about is my confusion of gender or male female.” It doesn't come out that way, for me. The interpretation is not up to me, though I love analysis. It is more action, making choices, and just putting stuff out there.”

“The whole thing of bringing other arts in is, I think, really important to dance. I keep wanting to bring in arts, writing. I think people could look more at how things are made, how a book Is written, how a story, a poem, is performed in order to shed light on how to make performances. I don't see enough people thinking about this.”

“I don't think I have found a daily practice yet, but taking care of myself physically is a big issue. And in performance, being meticulously clear about each moment; where you are, where you attention is, knowing that at every moment you attention can be in a different place. I think it is most interesting when I can shift quite quickly. You have to have honesty. Awareness is honesty. And clarity. Those three things. Being aware that you are being watched.”

“I don't know if you have to suffer in order to make art. I always have! I think you can't be too comfortable. And that doesn't mean that you can't have a grant or whatever. You can't feel too comfortable in who you are, too good in your clothes. When I feel like I get too comfortable in New York, I keep moving. I don't think I have to speak out but I think I have to care that much that I have to suffer. I think that intensity and passion has to come out. I don't think you can be a casual.”

“I have this weird thing that I think I can make work anywhere. In America I think we are lucky to have movement investigation. Movement invention is an American thing starting with Marthe Graham, with Judson.. that is our tradition. I am interested in the idea of theater but the movement how I move is completely American. But things are always breaking down.. everybody's all a mix.”


“I have been thinking about keeping up my body, and how my body has changed in the past seven years and how much it will change, what kind of change I am bringing on and what kind of change will happen naturally. What kind of dances will I be making when I am over fifty. I have been thinking about dancers and my desire to work with dancers who are young and open and clear and also dancers who have more experience and are older than me. It is like I am just beginning, but I have something just beginning to know what I know. So I have this desire to put myself right in the middle somehow. A lot of this is just decisions that are made intuitively. Like you don't know where you are until you are onto the next thing. You don't know where you are until it is time to leave. It's like now I know how much I have learned from Randy Warshaw, now that I have more distance. This comes from the process.”

“It's a big translation, a huge change, this change of mine to making my own work. I have just finished this long project on this one piece, and now I am just beginning to work on a new piece. So I am between two big projects, I would say. But I felt like the first piece was really growing inside me for years. Something just sits with you, and it's natural for me when it comes up, after a long gestation period. In that piece the sources were purely physical. The piece is about not relating, rather than relating. But it is extremely physical. The drama of physical action can rest on my own body. I am supporting a woman by her head.. physical problems that are juicy and you can't let go of. That's where it all really began. A lot of times it is like putting myself in impossible situations because then the whole narrative possibility makes it stronger. For instance, trying to chase another person without using your legs. Really the dance was based on actions. I was really working with the idea of the figure, my body as it is, especially with all its imperfections. I had to come to terms with that in my dancing, working on myself, with certain tensions in my body that were interesting to me. The solo is like I am trying to rescue my body, my own body parts, but in order to do this I had to start in a certain way... I began looking at a lot of figure drawings of certain artist.. Francis Bacon. I was using that as a natural place to make work from, that hasn't really been explored yet, in terms of movement possibilities, shape, the bodies sitting, standing, the sculpture... it's a natural link, a natural connection to movement. Instead of staring with movement I was starting with my figure, and then it became positions, and such questions as: “How do I perceive myself? How am I looked at as a woman? How do people see my body? How do I see may body?” In making this piece, I had a strong desire to work by isolating body parts, and to work with the idea of a study or sketch. It wasn't a question of a little bit of this or that movement phrase, and let's make a dance. I really wanted to focus.”

“The process was about asking questions. How much is needed to make a physical dance? I had these images or words like: “If you loved me so much, you would kiss my feet.” Is that a dance? What is dance? Can you make a dance with one head and two feet that resonates and has meaning? I felt that I had done a lot of sequencing and attention the body parts with Randy- my arm, my hand and my elbow. I could initiate my movement with any body part, but how to go into depth, how to concentrate it so that there was narrative, so that it was not just me traveling inside my body? How to isolate the eye, trying to be as specific and clear and 'bare bones' as possible. Not “this is my favorite part and then there is a dance.” I didn't want anything further, anything extra. How direct can you be, how close to the bone? How much do I need to do the dance, and how personal and how close can I go? How exposed? How can you break that feeling that I am showing you what I can do?”

“I started work on this piece in a basic way. I made a really personal solo for each person, because I had one for myself. So I made these movements for them. I always had an intention to make a “dancey” part in the piece, however, the whole process was to do with elimination and coming to terms with the fact that there really could not be this “dancey” part. It was back to the question, staring me in the face, which was, even though I was making all these experiments or studies, what do you need to define a dance or a dance section or a choreographic idea? What is the nature of an idea? It was really quite a struggle right up to the end, when I realized that I was finished. I had reams and piles of material. But it is really not material that is important, it is strength of idea.”

“For me, it is really important to find dancers whom I can really pull out. Only these two people- the Portuguese dancers Francisco Camacho and Carlota Lagido- can do this dance. The dance really has to be about these people. I think that this is an important way to work. I think it comes out of the process of replacing people in Randy's company which I found really emotional and difficult. I don't think people address this enough. I think it is great to be able to see work over time but I don't want to do that. For me, it is interesting how to work with particular people, how to bring out their personal movement, and to connect them to a part of me, to what is on my mind. For example, one of the dancers is very particular. He has it rituals and a sense of posing. He can turn and present himself in different ways. This seems to have fitted him and to have been connected to the whole idea of the figure of the full body.”

“I am just beginning on this road so I don't have that much experience. I find I have to do the hardest things myself. So there are some things I wouldn't ask of people. I have to have the hardest job or the most exposed. I am really interested in pushing the boundaries of how I present myself in this piece. I become this very aggressive person. It is difficult ground to show yourself in such a position in you own work. I show this very intense base of aggression, along with care taking. Someone might be dead or injured or be manipulated. And then in the next scene I am vulnerable. It is important that we see all sides.”

“In the material I am working on now, I am wearing a women's dress and a man's coat. I take off the man's coat . I take of my clothes. I am just wearing my underwear.. I am exposed. I want to go that far, into the embarrassment and the vulnerability and yet just be clear. I know the audience is present watching ma. I ask myself what is that I expect of myself and what is that the audience expects of me. These kind of intense situations taken from life are really important to me. In a way it is funny when people say my work is so personal. I just feel: “Where else can I go?” “Where else am I going?” And the line of development comes from work that is interesting to me. I am not interested in making confessional dance, like confessional poetry. I think it is about the exposure of personal experience.”

“Dancing is difficult. Movement is difficult- when you get it or you don't get it. Just what we are trying to do? It is such a poetic act to move. Just to perform is difficult. It is also fun. I am not saying everything is heavy. I am talking about the essence of being on stage. I like it when things have many layers. I love all the layers of making work. It fascinates me. I love structure, time. And I feel everything needs to have a beginning, middle and end, and I relate that to short stories or writing. I read books, and I think of how they open, of how they develop the characters and how they end. I watch a film and I look at the images and I see this one image dissolve into the next image. I spend so much time being inspired or drawing information from other forms, not just dance, not just my body and how it feels in movement. I feel that this information is sitting right there and could walk right in, bleed right into dance. For me, I don't see this happening enough levels. In making a dance, I feel I can really pull things in, looking at art, for example, how colors balance. Besides making movement, besides dancing, I just like playing- how do you create a scenario, how do you create your elements? I list my favorite things- my favorite movie maker, my favorite words, and I try to make a sense of what is that touches me. It is not just one kind of stuff. “Moving for me” doesn't have enough meaning, even though I am really interested in dance as a form, purely as a form. Right now I am fascinated by silent movies... Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It's very clear. I am enjoying looking at the physicality. The physicality was so much stronger with Charlie Chaplin than it was with Gary Grant. You think of him and you think of his body and how he moves. It creates all these images and feelings as well as the humor. It seems very natural to me and not that separate from dance. This time it is theater, this time dance, this time... I don't know, it seems things are connecting somehow.”