Lisa Nelson: How Do You Make Dance?

BodyCartography Project's Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad interview master improviser, Lisa Nelson, who recently performed with Steve Paxton at the Walker Art Center.

1Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson in Night Stand. Photo: Paula Court

olive bieringaLisa Nelson, very nice to meet you. I’m excited to be interviewing you again after so many years. Tell me: How do you make dance?

lisa nelsonOne important thing is that I find one dance leads to the next. In my experience, it’s not so much that I make a dance, but that one curiosity leads to the next. For me, the process of making things is totally intertwined with context — it always has been. In fact, what I’m actually making are contexts, I think; I don’t make movement as such. When you’re in process, everything that happens through the day is put into the mixer of your making. That’s the thrill of being in a making process: you have that container, those questions that can be answered all day long. It’s not studio-dependent; it’s not dependent, even, on your collaborators being present all the time.

Through my 20s and mid-30s, I can’t believe how much I churned out – I made one thing after the other, in many different media; I made and performed all the time. Over time, circumstances changed and I found I needed more time, that I didn’t want to have performance dates lined up well into the future. Then, beginning in my late 30s, spontaneously finding performance opportunities when I was ready to present new work somehow eluded me. As a result, presenting work became a less important part of my practice of making— that was a big shift for me.

I also moved from working solo or one-on-one, to making dances as a group process. I wanted to explore what collaboration could look like if everybody was an equal contributor in the construction of something—it’s one of the bases of Tuning Scores.  The practice of Tuning with a group, particularly through the ’90s with the group Image Lab, embedded the practice of observation into the practice of action and the scores became performances in themselves, whereas the solo and one-on-one works really required an audience to supply the invisible forces necessary for me to be an instrument of the work, rather than the work being my instrument.  With the Tuning Score, a new contextualization arose that I call “Observatories.”

obLet’s go back to what you said about “making a context” for a moment. If you’re not creating movement, per se, but rather context – what sort are you making? Are you creating a context for more questions, for research?

lnWhen I was making and presenting a lot of work in sequence, the context I set about making could be a choreographic frame – that is, finding a frame to make visible some idea that I was working on. Other such “contexts” might have had to do with what kind of performance opportunity there was for the work, whether it was formal or informal, for example. Those were the two poles of what I mean by making performance context. Lead time was also an important factor, whether I was performing something in the middle of its development or ¾ into its development or closer to the beginning. The frame for performance actually had to be somewhat flexible — I had to define the minimum conditions that I could reconstruct in each performance, that could be repeatable in any space. I would call this a ‘dependable’ score.

obYou’re using the past tense. Is this way of making contexts that you developed years ago still part of your current practice?

lnYes. Though the latest work with Steve [Paxton] is a departure from creating for flexible contexts. We’ve created a completely fixed space to inhabit.

Early on, I rehearsed to develop with somebody a frame and an idea to pursue. Rehearsing was a way to share, at first, what each of us was working on, an opportunity to see what sparked in us some shared interest from which we could start to craft a form. Sometimes, the need to rehearse was just a practical one. I was also making a lot of visual work – video puppetry work – at the time, which was very anal and much more set. Coordinating these things demanded precise practice on stage before the actual performance.

obHow does teaching, leading workshops and the like, play into your process of making? You’ve done a lot of that.

lnTeaching was actually where my interest in working with a group came from. I never would have wanted to do so otherwise. But I found I had to construct ways of directing time in my classes, in my teaching. And I always went towards teaching long workshops because I just wasn’t good at conceiving short thoughts. That led fairly naturally to more ensemble-driven work, more collaborative ways of making. So, even though I hadn’t really intended my own practice to go that way, after a while I realized how much that way of teaching had led me somewhere that I could be interested in pursuing further in my dance making.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was only a very small tribe of people teaching what are now called “somatically-based” dance activities. There were so few of us that I felt an obligation to offer a lot of additional, underground work – in the use of the body, for example. I taught composition, so it seemed important to get to what was underneath that; I needed to spend a lot of time with practice connecting with the body in ways there just wasn’t a lot of support for here. That kind of instruction was always new for people, and I always was teaching overseas. Little by little, by the ’90s there began to be a bigger tribe of people bringing these kinds of synthesized ways of working – somatic training integrated into improvisational training, into technical training and such. Young people began coming to my workshops with more nuanced understandings about the use of the body and the individual empowerment of the dancer and the person. But that kind of synthesized dance instruction isn’t consistent; it’s not constant. I still don’t feel like I can just skip it in my workshops. We’re not at the point where we can assume this next generation of dancers has had training that focuses on somatic knowledge. I mean, it’s better now, but many young dancers are still starting from scratchola with regard to how to work with and within the body.

Photo: Paula Court

obCan we come back to your dance making? What happens for you when you’re making a dance as a soloist now? Is this a 20-minute dance? Is it a half-hour dance? Is it a 10-minute dance? Could you explain the frame, and then could you explain the working time before, the working time inside, and then the working time afterwards? What is that?

lnI can only give one example, because I just recently started doing solos again. I have a full evening of performance to do, so I’m gonna do different events in that time. I’ve been revisiting a dance I made in 1982, called Dodo, which I made as a kind of encapsulation of things I had been researching about vision for the 10 years prior. That work is a score for the relationship between my breathing and my visual activity, or the activity of my eyes. (The eyes are not only visual.) I performed Dodo for about six years. Then, in 1991, I used the basis of that score, and added a new challenge, which manifested as [a consideration of] two sticks and two sides of my brain.

lnI can only give one example, because I just recently started doing solos again. I have a full evening of performance to do, so I’m gonna do different events in that time. I’ve been revisiting a dance I made in 1982, called Dodo, which I made as a kind of encapsulation of things I had been researching about vision for the 10 years prior. That work is a score for the relationship between my breathing and my visual activity, or the activity of my eyes. (The eyes are not only visual.) I performed Dodo for about six years. Then, in 1991, I used the basis of that score, and added a new challenge, which manifested as [a consideration of] two sticks and two sides of my brain.

obBut you thought about adding to it once more?

lnI had a very short period of time to develop the performance – just a few months. I was invited to perform that piece after someone saw a 1985 version of it on video. I said, OK, That’s interesting. I think I’ll try that on. When I revisited the old score, it was so interesting to me, because my body now is so different. My abilities are so diminished from what they were then, too – miniaturized physically, but also massively more sophisticated, internally. I found it an interesting challenge. In one of the performances, after the solo,  I invited some colleagues to do a series of blind unison trios.

I’ve used blind trios in performance in various ways over the years – I find them fascinating to do– but, mostly, I never tire of watching them. It was very informative, for me as well as  the audience, to see the trios in proximity to the solo, to see both those works as a choreographic continuum.

I come to a venue prepared with a piece, but I don’t really know how to frame something well until I’m right there in the space where it’s going to happen. I’m so aware of the looking experience that I’m always making a bunch of decisions based on the venue and the context: whether people have been waiting for a while, or have just arrived, if there is sound leaking in from outside the space, how the sight-lines are, etc. All of that matters, and improvising based on those circumstances is very much part of the finished material.

obAnd what about the piece you’re doing now with Steve Paxton, Night Stand — you’ve performed that how many times?

lnIt’s been almost 10 years since we made it. We performed it in, maybe, six venues over its first six years. Not so much. And then took a three-year break in that time until we performed it again last year.

obAnd PA RT, the duet you made before that—

lnWe made that in 1978 and performed it occasionally but continually for 24 years.— at least at one venue a year, sometimes more, and in very different contexts.

obAnd the frame for those two pieces — what differentiates them? What defines the dance? Is it the soundtrack? The scoring?

lnThey’re totally different works. PA  RT was very open-scored, but it had a fixed sound track—an opera by the composer Robert Ashley called Private Parts— that provided an unvarying environment; the costumes were always the same; as was the structure of solo/duet/solo/duet. Each of our inner movement scores and our interaction with each other (or not) were totally open. The work itself was quite open, though it made its own history over time.

obAnd fixed props, too, no?

lnNo, we didn’t have props in PA  RT. It was just dancing, and the lights were different depending on the venue. The first, maybe 15 years of performing it, we didn’t do much with the lights. And then we tried a very simple shaping for the last number of years, when we found ourselves more often on stages. We performed in the widest range of settings imaginable, formal to most informal. It was an infinitely malleable dance.

The new piece, that we made in 2004 with lighting designer Carol Mullins, Night Stand, is vastly different in that we made a non-variable spatial setting to inhabit. And built props with which we can constantly reshape the space.

The soundtrack and lighting design, and set pieces were all built for this dance, built for a specific sized space, and they provide a setting for the dance to happen in. The music is constructed from a number of musical pieces and kinds of sound and a lot of silence. For Night Stand, Steve and I have a shared focus which is more concentrated on the space and the time than on the dancing per se. This dance is unrehearsable outside of the theater, and the first version we made in 2004 felt unfinished. Last year, we finally had an opportunity at DIA:Chelsea in NY to work on it for a couple of weeks and we felt like we finally finished constructing it.

obThat’s interesting. How do you know that it’s done?

lnWe knew. It made sense to us, so that we could live inside it.

Doing it again at the Walker Art Center, we’re not going to have the prep time we had the last time, sadly. Because this dance needs a very deep big space with an intimate house, it’s hard to find venues. At the Walker, we’re only going to let nine rows in. We want to keep it close.

obIs there anything else you’d like to add, that we haven’t covered, to address the question from the beginning: How do you make a dance?

lnBesides the idea of making as a “habit “– that is, you’re constantly making — my feeling is that the dances make me. The very idea of making a dance kind of freezes me up; then, I have to think about what to make.

What’s important to share? I always have needed to have a good reason to show something, and so, for me, that question was part of the context building I did for myself: Why do I want to show this work? That was so important, I would choose not to show something if I couldn’t really feel the necessity of doing so. For example, I rarely perform where I live in Vermont. I just don’t see what it would offer the life here. It’s wonderful that people perform, I’m glad they do. But I never felt my work was entertaining, so I somehow needed to understand the context of the work in order to frame it. My conversation is much more concerned with how to live, how to be in the world as an imagined and constructed being. To be frank, I’m not looking so much for affirmation in performance: I don’t need to hear that I did a good job or that the work is beautiful. I’m actually a very shy person, and even from childhood, it’s made me uncomfortable to receive compliments. Even so, I like to tell people that I see things. But I want to engage in a different kind of conversation with audiences after I manifest something. My best audiences are people who are asking the same questions I am – about what it is to be embodied. What it is to live in a body and go through this short lifetime? What’s the potential of our imagination in so living? I mean, it’s not really the potential of our bodies that matter, but of our imaginations.

I like that. That’s my question. And what I haven’t achieved with that, as a performer, is enormous. Maybe if I had stayed in the grind of incessant making, maybe if I’d stayed in the passion of that, I would’ve passed through that question and onto another. But here we are, and that means I get to talk to you guys, which has been, for me, just a joy.

Lisa Nelson performed as part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton, at the Walker Art Center November 13 through 22.