Imaginary Conversations with Mary Overlie

On the passing of a mentor and how art lives after dying

Two black and white portraits of women with hair pulled back, looking into the camera.
1Image courtesy the author, including photo by Peggy Jarrell Kaplan.

Black and white photo of Mary Overlie, looking into a mirror with heel raised off the ground.
Photo courtesy the author.


Setting: A phone call. Split screen of Erin cross-legged on her bed in Minneapolis, a cell phone pressed to her ear. Mary is sitting at a desk in her home in Bozeman, Montana, a wide picture window behind her showing the mountains and sky. 
ERIN, Age 38, choreographer, writer, and mother of two. 
MARY, Age 73, choreographer, dancer, teacher, Viewpoints, etc.

erinHere in Minneapolis, we have a few spaces. Cold in the winter, but bright in the sun. Wood floors, brick walls…you know the type.

maryYes, reminds me of the Lower East Side, Alphabet City, all those spaces. We would just live in complete squalor.

erinYes, it always reminded me of grunge…

maryYes, it was very grungy.

erinNo, I mean the grunge movement, like alternative music, bands from Seattle. The flannel shirts and ripped jeans and all that. Dirty, greasy hair.

maryWe just wore sweatpants and literally danced all day. Sometimes I would just eat cold lentils once, and then fall asleep.

erinYes, I knew you all were skipping the cheesy potatoes, partially hydrogenated oils, and high fructose corn syrup.

MaryYeah, they didn’t have that shit back then, excuse me, but that shit.

erinOh, I know. You can see it in the black and white pictures. 

maryWhat do you think of dancing in socks? 

erinI’m just afraid I’ll slip and hurt my back. It’s not as if I have a physical practice. Unless you count yoga once every two weeks. 

maryI don’t.

erinNobody really does.

maryWell, what did you expect? All your energy must go to your children. Two of them, my goodness! Why didn’t you tell me? 

erinI didn’t want to interrupt the art conversations. 

maryReally, Erin! I just assumed you were more like me, fully committed.

erinNope. I mean, I want to be more—hence, the bringing you here. Oh, who am I kidding, it was really Jeff’s idea. He’s got more of a head for planning. I just sit around wondering where I went wrong. How do you have confidence in yourself?

mary[laughing] Oh, I don’t! I don’t. I just try not to think about it.

erinBut if you start writing, then don’t you think about it?

maryYes, that’s right. Rosemary told me you were a writer. And then it all made sense to me, your thinking. But I am not a writer. [laughing]

erin I just think dance and writing are very similar, the way you have to face yourself. And I am not my kindest friend.

mary Yes, I have a different relationship with myself than you. I was always so separate from others, so interested in the natural world and how things worked. And so it made sense to just leave home, and strike out on my own, completely.

erin Economically, things were different back then. I mean you could live in New York on $150 a month. And you could earn that working for pennies, literally pennies. 

mary Yes, we didn’t have to pay rent because we were basically squatting. The landlords actually appreciated us being there because, to some degree, we kept crime out of their abandoned lots. So even if they started charging us, it wasn’t very much. 

erin Yes, I saw RENT.

mary Well, was that grunge?

erin No, that was not grunge.

mary But they were wearing flannels…

erinIt is decidedly not grunge.

maryI don’t really like musicals.

erinI only like certain ones.

maryWhich ones? 

maryWhich ones? 

erinI can’t really think of any anymore.

maryI don’t really like reading “lines.” It is just not something I have experience with. 

erinBut you wouldn’t have wanted an actress to play the part of Mary Overlie!

mary[laughs] Oh, wouldn’t that have been weird? No, I don’t think most actors really get—they don’t receive Viewpoints training the way dancers do.

erinIf at all. They are very accustomed to imaginary circumstances.

maryI don’t really read plays. I don’t understand why you would start with that. When so little is really known, plays seem to sort of claim that they know everything.

erinHow people talk and walk and all that.

maryYes. They assume that we have legs for walking on, and mouths for talking with.

erinAnd we should probably wear clothes.

maryRight…and eat, and sit, and gesture. 

erinOh God, the gesturing. And if they know they’re in a comedy, it’s already ruined.  

maryIs this a comedy?



erinBut they would play it that way. And then they would get glowing reviews for their spritely turn. 

maryYes, yes, they call it a turn. 

erinLike, “turn on me.” A betrayal. An accepted betrayal. A Joyfully Welcomed Betrayal. The American Theater. 

MaryBut I think we both feel comfortable enough ignoring the theater from here on out. We are not in one; we are in a dance studio. Invited, yes, but removed. So why dwell on it? 

erinTheater is the playacting of life. Art is the escape. Something like that.

maryYes, but not an escape, so much as the whole purpose of being alive. It really is.

erinWell, that, and keeping others alive. Small others.

maryRight, right. That must be a trip.

erinIt’s the most unpredictable cliche. Ups and downs, all that. Emotion at every turn. And peace and comfort and cuddles, and messiness and failures everywhere. And exhaustion. I could go on and on. But we came here to talk about art. 

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  1. Disclosure: The editor of this publication was also scheduled to attend the residency as a collaborator.

  2. Mary Overlie, Standing in Space: The Six Viewpoints Theory & Practice (New York, 2016), 119.

  3. Rosemary Quinn, Wendell Beavers, Paul Langland, Lisa Sokolov, Kevin Kuhlke, Catherine Coray, Terry Knickerbocker, Raïna von Waldenburg.

Erin Search-Wells

Erin Search-Wells is a founding member of SuperGroup along with Jeffrey Wells and Sam Johnson. Their work has been presented at the Walker, Southern, Red Eye, Bryant Lake Bowl, Joyce Soho @ Invisible Dog NYC, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and multiple tiny cabarets and basements. We are into the horizontality of performance (as opposed to the traditional, often exploitative, hierarchical model), and we explore this both in our performance materials, and our relationship to audience. …   read more