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Flash Interview, 5-26: Dunn, Recessing
Among the Undead with Bill Cole & Douglas Dunn

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2005 Philip W. Sandstrom
Photography Copyright 2005 Julie Lemberger

Tonight at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, Danspace Project presents "The Living lives Not Among the Dead. Why Seek it There," with music by Bill Cole, played live by the Untempored Ensemble, and dancing directed by Douglas Dunn. I spoke to Cole and Dunn Friday at Pangea restaurant in New York City.
Douglas Dunn in his choreography for "The Living lives Not Among the Dead. Why Seek It There," photographed at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church by Julie Lemberger. Photo 2005 Julie Lemberger.

Philip W. Sandstrom: What's the impetus for this collaboration, the third between you?

Bill: Actually, I think it's the fourth. There's "Unrest," (created) at Bennington...

Douglas: ..."Rubble Dance Long Island City," a film by and with Rudy Burkhart...

Bill: ...and "Coca Moca."

Douglas: So this is the fourth collaboration....

PWS: Okay, so why this collaboration and why now?

Douglas: Good question.

Bill: I did this (music) piece on my 65th birthday. I saw in this piece a lot of shapes and forms; I saw a lot of things in it that would work well in collaboration with dance. So, I sent a copy of the whole thing to Douglas and couple of months later he wrote back saying, "Let's try it."

Douglas: As for why now, we've been thinking about this piece for a while, this is a good moment in terms of schedule, we've enjoyed collaborating before so why not again? When you find a collaborator that you like, it's good to go back!

PWS: So the direction of this project is music-driven starting out with Bill's score?

Douglas: Yes, not only is it driven (by the music) but also because of the music and the way Bill approached me about the music, I decided to try something different. Because the piece is so rich, because there are seven live musicians present, I felt Let's have a music concert with some dance attendant to it, rather than a dance concert, or a mutual concert, or the music being an accompaniment to the dance. I wanted to see if I could create an environment together with Bill where the music was the foreground and the dance was, not a background, but a middle ground. In doing that we decided to put the musicians onstage in the (north) eastern quadrant near the altar, and we're going to dance on the altar and around them with the audience on three sides. It's a kind of an arena, the musicians are right there in the arena, and we (the dancers) are spread out. We're not focused like we would be if we were on one end or if all the audience were on one side. My idea is a playful open space with the musicians as a central element.

PWS: So do you have dancers doing different things in different areas of the stage, while the musicians are playing in their area?

Douglas: Exactly.

Bill: There's also going to be a narrator.

PWS: Why the text, and why Chief Fela Sowande?

Bill: I originally composed this piece with this text; it's taken from the epilogue to "The Learning Process" a two-volume treatise by Fela Sowande. There is so much music in the text itself, that's originally why I did this piece of music, to use it with the text. The text guides the work. I like the way the music and text fell together.

PWS: Are the words of the text to be understood or does the voice, that performs the text, serve primarily as an additional instrument?

Bill: The text is part of the whole creation. You can listen to the words, watch the dance, listen to the music, or all three at the same time. The text is going to help the audience work through the piece.

Douglas: The text is very clear. It occurs in discrete moments, short paragraphs, it's sung, or spoken-sung, it's performed, it comes out of the music. There is a strong dramatic element to the text; it has a great dynamic range, and it becomes especially powerful near the end of the piece.

PWS: So, the text was the basis for the original piece of music; do you use the actual words, the meaning ofthe words, to influence your creation of the dance?

Douglas: I have tried to take in the entirety of the score. Instead of following the music, I've tried to deal with characteristics of the score and get these characteristics into the dance. It's not a linear following of the music. Some of the themes (in the music), as mentioned by Bill, are chaos and order, wilder vs. contained. I tried to include these in various levels of the dance. In certain phrases of the dance there are classical kinds of movement interrupted by wackier kinds of movement and energy. I have not synchronized with the chaos and calm of the music, but it's in the dancing in the individual level and on a broader level.

PWS: So, what we'll see is your dancing reacting to different parts of the score but the movement and music are juxtaposed but not synchronized? How else do you work with the music?

Douglas: Yes, the score is implicit in the dance but not time-line explicit. I listened to the music very carefully; I really wanted to connect with it even in an oblique way. But there are other things that we vary, for example the piece of music is in two parts; we're not going to have an intermission but we're going to have a little break, so I divided the dancing into two parts. One of the analogies I made with the music is that this order/disorder concept in the music could be analogous to movement and stillness. In the first half the dancers have movement to do and positions in which to be still and they have some choice as to how much of (each of) those two things they are to do.

As part of the containment aspect of the piece, that I feel in the music, in the first half the dancers must stay in a specific part of the space -- they can't go out of their territory. Within this containment, with the dancers never connecting, never leaving their territory, after 35 minutes you begin to feel a kind of pressure, the kind of pressure that I feel in the music. This is another analogy that I'm trying to translate into dance terms.

Then in the second half I decided to make the whole dance flow: It goes downstage, they return upstage, it goes down, it just flows. The four (other) dancers do that while I'm the stuck one. I represent: Can we get down? Can we flow? Can we move?

Whether the audience sees these aspects behind the movement, that I see in the music, is not important; they'll see that the dancers are contained in the first half and flow in the second half. They'll pick up stuff that they're not aware of that will give them a sense of having been through an experience.

PWS: How is this collaboration the same or different from your other collaborations together?

Bill: In the other collaborations the dance came first; Douglas had an idea of where he wanted the dance to go and he also had some ideas on how the music should go. But in this collaboration the music was already set, the words were already set, so the dancing is going to be around the music. Neither the music nor the dance will be central -- I see it as one creative effort. That's the key in collaboration using different mediums.

Douglas: I don't see it as a dance piece, I see it as a combination of all these elements. I see the piece made for this type of space -- I can't see it on a regular proscenium space. The audience will be in the space on three sides. With the altar it's sort of a landscape with performers on different levels.

PWS: Could you explain the title, "The Living lives Not Among the Dead. Why Seek it There"?

Bill: It's explained in the text. It's about the chaos of the day, in human beings and throughout the world. You don't want to live with the dead, you want to live with the living.

PWS: (to Douglas) How did you respond?

Douglas: I wasn't literal; I responded to the idealism. I don't make grotesque dance, I don't make comic dance, I try to make beautiful dance. You have seven musicians, texture is very rich, and an overall sound, and you still hear the individual. I want the audience to be forced to see individuals doing complex phrases. I made very specific phrases, that are tricky and complex for each dancer but we all learn them, the phrases. So the audience has the chance to see the same thing repeated in various ways at various times in various parts of the space by different performers. Each phrase is a specific aesthetic thing; I want them to be as beautiful as a plant or an animal.

PWS: "A phrase." Okay, what's your definition of a phrase?

Douglas: A phrase is a unit of movement that has some arc to it. For me it would be.... First of all it's a counted measure, then you put another measure next to it, so on and so forth until you have a dance. There are two levels, the detail -- the actual unit of movement -- and then what it grows into. Phrasing has to do with musicality; some dancers have it and some don't, some choreographers work with it and some don't. I've always been very interested in musicality. You can't remember movement if you don't have any music to dance unless you understand the rhythm of the phrases. Many dancers that learn to dance to music, if you take that music away, they can't dance. They could learn to but it's just not a part of their training, because they haven't learned to internalize the rhythm without the aid of music. I mostly work without the rhythm of music; that's how I was trained, to have my own rhythm without depending upon music for a source of rhythm.

PWS: When you get into the theater, what's the process? How are you going to go about putting it together?

Douglas: They play; we dance! What my interest is going to be is that we coordinate the dance and the music. We've timed the dance with the music, and if he goes too fast we'll run out of music.

PWS: How do you coordinate with the music? Do you have landmarks in the music to guide you to achieve the proper placement of dance to music?

Douglas: Landmarks -- that's the word. We're just learning them. It's not so much that we have to coordinate exactly with the music; we just want to end at the same time.

Bill: My group is an improvisational group, and all the musicians have worked with dancers. I want them to be able to respond to the dancers. We collaborate with the words and with the dancers.

PWS: So you've given your musicians the freedom to react to what Douglas is doing if they see a certain synergy happening. They can go with it?

Bill: Yes.

Douglas: But the piece, the structure is pretty clear, right?

Bill: Oh absolutely.

Douglas: The sections, the sections, that's going to stay, right?

Bill: Oh, absolutely, no, no, I'm not going to play any tricks on you.

Philip W. Sandstrom is a theater consultant who has worked in production and lighting design, management, and producing, as well as a consulting editor for 2wice Magazine. Disclosure: Philip W. Sandstrom and Laurie Uprichard, the executive director of Danspace Project, have had a near-familial relationship for a number of years.

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