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The Dance Insider Interview, 5-10: Sara Rudner
Marathon Woman

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- For "Dancing-on-VIew (Preview/Hindsight)," being presented this Sunday by Danspace Project and the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) at BAC, Sara Rudner revisits the concept of her 1975 marathon show in which her company danced non-stop for five hours. In the 2007 version of this idea of long distance dancing, her company will present mostly new and some historical material that Rudner has mined and fashioned from her years of studio movement studies, her dancers, and her 1975 show. By creating new work that reflects upon its own movement and patterns in real time while simultaneously following a pre-ordained trajectory and movement structure, Rudner plans to present a four-hour dance work that will reveal itself over time while continuing to be self-referential. All parts of the dance will represent the dance as a whole, she explains. The audience can come and go as it pleases and still get the essence of the dance. This work will be re-created in Ireland by the Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT), with a cast combining company members and dancers from the New York performance. Those shows take place August 15 at the Carleton Ballroom in Kilkenny, as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival; and August 17 - 19 at the former Church of Saints Michael and John, in Dublin.

Going the distance: Sara Rudner's company for "Dancing-on-VIew (Preview/Hindsight)." Adam McClelland photo copyright Adam McClelland and courtesy Danspace Project and Sara Rudner.

I interviewed Sara Rudner on April 22.

Philip W. Sandstrom: What sparked your interest in creating this, as you've described it, "long distance dancing" or "marathon dancing"?

Sara Rudner: My interest in doing this kind of work started in the mid-'70s. It was 1975, we did the first marathon; that was a five-hour event for four dancers. That was born of the ideas of context: where do you see dancing, how do you see dancing, what do dancers do, how does dancing fit into life in other ways other than going into the theater, sitting in a dark space and looking at dance?

(When she initially floated her idea of long-form dance works, Rudner explained, the existing standard was to perform two or three works per program.)

... When I told my management the kinds of projects I wanted to do -- long continual pieces without a break -- they said That's not going to work, we can't book you. So, I decided to be un-bookable, and continued to do the work that I wanted to do. (Consequently her bookings were few.) As you know, since then there has been a lot of thought on how to produce dancing and you well know how fashions come and go.

PWS: I've seen quite a few come and go.

SR: But I am still interested in this style, the same style (marathon-style), what I'm doing now, and what I have been doing, although I approach it differently than I did in 1975.

PWS: It sounds like you have created an installation dance of dancers commenting on dancing and choreography through the act of dancing. The genre of installation work and work such as yours has never gone in or out of style -- it's a constant.

SR: Exactly. At the time I did my first marathon, I had been thinking about Asian theater, and shows that go on all night. You bring your family, you bring your dinner, you fall asleep, you come and you go. I was thinking about various paradigms as well.

PWS: Did you derive any inspiration from Kei Takei?

SR: I don't know Kei's work very well.

PWS: Her "24 hours of Light" went on all day and into the night in the late '70s early '80s.

SR: Right, and then, Robert Wilson was also doing his lengthy shows. I think this idea was in the air, as these things tend to be.

PWS: What did you learn doing your five-hour dance "marathon"?

SR: It was a big challenge and that extra hour was even more challenging; you learn how to pace yourself, what it means to be in that paradigm. Now I am working with a number of young dancers, the oldest of whom might be 31 or 32. That's about how old I was when I did the 1975 marathon. You learn different things as a choreographer; it was a different compositional challenge to work in that format. It's a choice, not a popular choice, especially not financially; you can't program something like this back to back, like a matinee and an evening. But I was very eager to pursue that again.

PWS: So how did you approach this project with this group of dancers?

SR: I start with the dancers and ask, what do you want to do? New material? Old material? What are you interested in? Then we go from there; we start having a dialogue. There will be a certain amount of improvisation; these dancers have resources that will reveal themselves in performance. Their solos will be their own, the making and the choosing.

PWS: When and where in the performance will this improvisation occur?

SR: Sometimes in the midst of other performance activity, because there will be a lot of multiple focus work going on throughout the entire event.

PWS: Do you have any sort of map of the structure of the dance or of the choreography?

SR: The entire event is mapped. We have a timekeeper, Gillian Vinton; it's her job to keep track of who's dancing what and when. It will be posted for all to see and given out in a program. It would be too hard to remember all of that and keep all of that in your mind. It's like a score. It will be somewhat cryptic.

PWS: You mean the enigmatic phrases dancers use to identify the sections?

SR: Exactly.

PWS: So there will be some sort of artifact so we can follow?

SR: Yes, the audience will know what we call each section and where we are in real time -- this will be important for the new audience members as they arrive. They'll see that it's 5:35 p.m., so the dancers must be at this point in the program. It's literally a program.

PWS: How are you structuring the concert? For example, will you recap everything in the last hour for the lazy people who decided to only show up at the end?

SR: Essentially all the material in the dance will be constantly recycled in many forms, so we're not going to do a re-cap. Everything is a variation on things that have come before. I like that. As a viewer I like my eye challenged. I like to see complex spatial organization, and rhythmic organization. I am VERY fond of making many variations on the same material. No one is expected to stay for four hours. We hope to convince people to leave and not stay so others may enter. It's not going to be easy to look at.

PWS: Considering who's in your cast -- Rocky Bornstein, Megan Boyd, Linda Cohen, Erin Cornell, Erin Crawley-Woods, Laurel Dugan, Maria Earle, Liz Filbrun, Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, Patricia Hoffbauer, Rachel Lehrer, Merceditas Manago, yourself, Vicky Shick, Maggie Thom, and Lori Yuill -- I think it will be very easy to look at.

SR: Oh well, that's true; I'm talking choreographically. The audience should get the gist of it in about a half-hour to 45 minutes. We won't have chairs for everyone so we hope that will help move people out after a certain period.

PWS: What's your role on the day of the performance?

SR: My involvement will be that of the choreographer, although I will be doing some dancing.

PWS: So what's it been like, putting all this together?

SR: It's been a very lovely studio experience for all of us. Very good for all of us, very supportive, very intense. They have to learn a lot -- it's complicated, with intense movement -- but it's been a labor of love from just about everyone. It has context in the sense that we are all women and we are performing it on Mother's Day.

PWS: So dancing with people that you like to dance with is a big part of the pleasure of doing this type of work?

SR: It's a big part of the pleasure. It has a lot to do with why people stay and work with certain groups; the choreography has a great deal to do with it, but it's relationships (as well). You can have all the smart ideas you want for choreography but you know who makes the dance?

PWS: And they never get thanked enough.

SR: Exactly.

PWS: You are choreographing "Dancing-on-View" for the upcoming four-hour performance at BAC, and for the Irish Modern Dance Theater. Are you setting the same piece in both places?

SR: I can't. It's the same idea and the same concept but I can't because I don't have (all) the same people, I have new dancers. The piece depends on who the dancers are and what they know. The dancers and what they know determine what the structure is and what is seen but the intention is the same and the concept is similar. The idea is that dancers dance and they are dancing whether they are seen or not.

Maybe it is born from my experience as a young practitioner working with Twyla (Tharp) in the '60s. The studio process was essential and many of us, for many years, felt passionate about the work -- performing really began to rely on the deep experience that we had in rehearsal. The spirit was there that working on the dance was sometimes as important and sometimes more important than the performance in those early years. Our performance ability and our early style rested on the fact that, even though we were dancing to Sinatra or Jelly Roll Morton, we were still the nerdy dancers. We weren't the Broadway gypsies, so our performance style was slightly different.

The dancers here in New York, I've worked with very regularly in the studio, some for five years, and others, like Patricia Hoffbauer, Rocky Orenstein, and Vicki Shick, I've been involved with for a long time.

PWS: In the IMDT press release, you state, "My collaborators helped me experiment with the physical training principles that form the basis of my work."

SR: That's Peggy Gould and Anneke Hansen -- of the group, we are the ones that have worked the most intensely together. We traveled to Ireland for the past two summers. There is a different cast for IMDT. Anneke and Peggy, who are in the New York cast, will also be in the IMDT cast. Others from New York may join us but that hasn't been finalized yet. Peggy also works with me and teaches at Sarah Lawrence. We have been working on developing pedagogic ideas for quite a number of years, along with other Sarah Lawrence faculty. (Rudner chairs the Sarah Lawrence dance department.)

PWS: Where did you meet Anneke?

SR: At Sarah Lawrence. After her graduation, Anneke approached me about working together in the studio, so I said why not? If anyone is willing to go through this, I'm willing to mentor them through it. In this cast there are about six Sarah Lawrence alums. There are also three faculty members, Peggy Gould, Merceditas Manago, and myself, and the two musicians are from Sarah Lawrence.

PWS: Although this is a bit of a sidebar, I am curious: The IMDT press release also mentions a "somatic keeper"; what's that?

SR: I don't use videotape.

PWS: I don't get it, what's the root of somatic? What does that mean?

SR: She keeps the movement in her body; it's mostly Anneke. She knows all of the material. She keeps it in the old-fashioned way, in her body.

PWS: No Labanotation? Videotape? Sketches?

SR: We do write ourselves some notes, and for this project I have looked at some videotape of our past projects. The last taping I was able to look at was before Anneke came along; she's only been working with me for the last five years. So there is some material that we are revisiting that was made before she arrived.

PWS: When did this particular iteration of this marathon project begin?

SR: I've subtitled this work 'Preview/Hindsight'; the thought of doing another marathon was on my mind. I knew when my sabbatical would be. At the same time, John Scott (who directs IMDT) was interested in my work. In order to test the waters, and to introduce his company to my work, we did a series of workshops over the last two years in Ireland.

PWS: Who are 'we'?

SR: Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, and me. We went, we taught, we tried out material, we introduced working methods. A lot of this work is about how you go about stuff, how you do the hard work of splicing different phrases, coordinating arms and legs, and keeping that stuff in your mind and in your body. That's the work I'm interested in. Both developing movement from the ground up and looking at it visually and how parts of the movement vocabulary resonate with others. What goes together, what doesn't, do you want to present those that don't go together, or those that do? How you organize the space and the time, the visual field, and how you deal with it in terms that are usually considered musical, in terms of harmonies, dissonances, repletion, development, etcetera.

Last summer John Scott started talking more seriously about a production. He took me around to look at spaces; we found a lovely one where a marathon would look good.

When I first started working on the BAC effort it was to be a preview of what we would do in Ireland. Then in terms of hindsight I knew that I had to look to my past, to what I have always been interested in, and find new variations on that and new points of view of what I have been interested in. So that's why it's named "Preview/Hindsight."

PWS: So, the idea started with IMDT, which led to the BAC show.

SR: It started with IMDT but it also started with my sabbatical and knowing I would have the time to do studio work. I knew I was going to do something; John's invitation gave me that extra kick. Even though I teach at Sarah Lawrence, I (have) work(ed) in the studio in the city every week for the past eight years.

PWS: Working...?

SR: Working with dancers once or twice a week, whenever they can make it. I produce a certain amount of work, although not to this extent. I knew the sabbatical was coming up, I knew I had already been doing that work. Then there was John's invitation. All these things floated around and now will actually result in two very different works with some of the same material but with very different people.

PWS: Earlier you mentioned two musicians; what about music? Will there be any amplified sounds?

SR: The musicians (William Catanzaro and Jerome Morris) will start this week; they'll have about two rehearsals with us before we have open rehearsals. They are great improvisers. It will be a give and take structure where they will try a variety of things. They are both classroom musicians at Sarah Lawrence; of course, they do other things. They've been around dancers forever. This is not like commissioning a score and making a piece. It's not atmospheric. It's all acoustic.

PWS: They're percussionists?

SR: They are percussionists. What we need for dancing, since most of it is ensemble dancing, is unifying time. The musicians will help us with that. Unified time, because it's tightly choreographed with intricate canon work, and choreographic monkeyshines. They support our work and add a dimension in what they choose. They are our collaborators in the true sense.

PWS: Have you ever chosen music for your work before you make the dance? Or do you make a work and then find music for it?

SR: I've worked with composers before, such as Michael Soll, and I have chosen classical music and made a dance to that music or I've chosen music and working with a metronome. I've worked against the music so the music stands on its own and we dance to a different tempo.

PWS: Do you have an internal musicality?

SR: I attempt to make dance that is musical and expressive and abstract and contextualized and whatever I can pull out of movement itself. The challenge is how to make movement do this. I know it can't do it all on its own. But sometimes I think that it can, sometimes I operate that way. Huge chunks of this dance will be done in total silence. The big question is, are people going to miss music?

PWS: I don't think so, certainly not in New York. So, in short, setting your work to music or music to your work is not part of your process, certainly not your current process.

SR: No. I've been trying to set dancing to dancing; a lot of the structures in this dance are made that way. The work is done in layers: a phrase is going on in one part of the space, and another phrase, that is built upon that same material, (is going on) in another part of the space. It is all presented in reference to the dance that you're seeing, like a riff. Layers of riffing upon riffing, all on what you are seeing, with additional material added continuously and simultaneously. Dancing to dancing, just dancing to dancing.


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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