BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder in November 2013 about the premiere of HIJACK’s redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye last year at the Walker Art Center.
Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography Project): At HIJACK, do you direct your performers? If you do, how? And, if you don’t, what else do you do that might be analogous to directing? Or, maybe you don’t consider that – directing – at all?
Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK): There are times when we deliberately do not direct and, actually, very specifically don’t even look at people as they’re working. And that’s a specific choice, to have everybody in the room working at the same time, including us, rather than standing apart as directors, separate and looking on.
Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography Project): Do you do that a lot, and rely on it as a strategy?
Van Loon: I like that privacy. We’ve worked with big groups: including ourselves, there are nine in this piece and there were twelve in the work last the winter. So often, we’ve done work with just the two of us in the room, and much of that time nobody is watching. We were really interested in expanding that experience of working to include larger groups of dancers.
Arwen Wilder (HIJACK): How is it, if you do work where you show somebody some moves, there’s a clear right and wrong, a quality of assessment enters the work – the sense that there’s a very specific shape you’re supposed to do. One of the things we have to try to communicate to our dancers is how to approach the instructions that they’re being given. We know how much they’re inclined to be rigorous and to frantically stick to the rules. But we want to hold on to a sense of humor about the process. It’s impossible to let go of the direction once given. As long as the approach we’re after is clear to our dancers, it’s our job to keep the directions, to keep the rules about what they’re doing, such that they don’t need continuous direction from us. We want them to have the space to solve problems and figure out how to be, how to do things in the moment within the scores that we’ve given them.
Ramstad: What’s your motivation for working this way? Is it about sharing the way that you approach a dance? Is it about instilling a desire for dancers to have to find the way in for themselves? Or, is it about letting the work be about something more, or other, than what you’d get with explicit instructions?
Van Loon: It’s just about finding the right people. It’s funny: you have to have inquisitive people for this approach to work. And, boy, have we hit the jackpot! We didn’t pick people with similar backgrounds to ours, or even to each other, but they’ve all been amazing. This way of working takes a sense of humor too. For us, the question of direction has come up pretty late in the process: like, “oops we’ve said almost nothing to them about what to do.” And actually, often we just don’t interfere because we love what they’re doing already. Sometimes keeping our mouths shut is the best direction we can give, because even telling them what we like can ruin it.
Bieringa: What percentage of your aesthetic, if you had to come up with a percentage, would you say is based on failure, in relationship to choreographing for other people?
Wilder: That’s such a good question! Failure!
Bieringa: I’m sorry, I’m just dying to ask.
Van Loon: We’re really into being non-sequential and bouncing back and forth to various things. We’re really into corrections, lately, so it helps to have…
Bieringa: To make it more difficult?
Wilder: It helps to have something be wrong, so that it can be corrected. We like to have both the wrong thing and the right thing present. For example: take a page with some of the writing crossed out. You can still read the words behind the crossed-out parts — you can see both the finished text and what has been done wrong. Both are still worth reading. There’s something valuable in simply seeing that it’s wrong, being able to read through the scribble.
I can’t give a percentage, because it goes around and around for me, in terms of what actually constitutes failure. I mean, what if the work ends up failing in the right way? Is that still failure? I don’t know. I love the way a mistake turns into success; it feels like a necessary duality behind what’s improvised and what’s set. I don’t even know where to define the two edges.
Van Loon: I actually don’t think failure is a part of our aesthetic. We could just as easily answer Otto’s question by saying 0% of our aesthetic derives from that. I think it’s clear for us and everyone who dances that the goal is perfection, always. That’s actually very important. Holding on to a sense of humor about failing is not the same as saying, “It doesn’t really matter if my arm is here or there.” That’s never a dancer’s feeling while executing a move.
Ramstad: Never mark it.
Van Loon: Never mark it.
Ramstad: Do you think about dramaturgy? Is it important to your work, or not? Does it even come up?
Van Loon: I need a definition, and then you might have an answer right away.
Ramstad: That’s part of my question though. What does “dramaturgy” mean to you?
Wilder: I mean, I hear the word dramaturge a lot. I know choreographers, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, are hiring people to do that with them or for them… I think of it as having someone who’s specifically paying attention to the way that the images and the arc of the piece are personally and culturally relevant.
I don’t feel the need to hire someone on the outside. That is probably because there’s two of us at the helm already, so we’re often doing the work of a dramaturge for each other. Besides, we make a point of showing work as we’re making it, especially using protocols where we glean a lot of description from audiences about what people are seeing and what it’s making them think of. We’re getting that information as we’re making the work. I think making sure there’s someone paying attention to the communication of narrative and imagery, whether it’s the choreographer or someone else, is really important. Otherwise, it’s easy to get myopic, to get swept away by the sensation of movement. We’ve definitely experienced that in group work over the years – times where we got lost in the beauty of the work of the group so that we lost track of the other stuff a dramaturge could see and hold on to.
Ramstad: We’d not really worked with any dramaturgical support until recently, with Super Nature.
Van Loon: Who’d you work with?
Bieringa: A woman from Germany: Stefanie Hahnzog.
Ramstad: Yes, and she’s trained as a theater dramaturge.
Van Loon: And did she come to Minneapolis while you were making the work?
Bieringa: No, we were in Germany. She came to Hamburg and dramaturged while we were in process and then we did a little exchange after.
Ramstad: She watched videos [of our rehearsals], and then we talked together on Skype.
Bieringa: Beyond that, Otto and I just did our own problem-solving.
Ramstad: Right. We thought: We don’t need to hire outside for a dramaturge because we talk about it already. The two of us talk about the piece all the time, so why do we need anyone else? But at the same time, having the advantage of more people there with us, talking about it, was itself very interesting.
Bieringa: I’ve noticed that you just call yourselves HIJACK. Other than that, do you call yourselves “choreographers” or “dance artists”? How do you refer to what you do?
Van Loon: We call ourselves a “choreographic collaboration.”
Bieringa: Your avoidance of labeling seems interesting, maybe important.
Van Loon: What do you call yourselves?
Bieringa: We do a lot of directing…
Van Loon: What does “doing a lot of directing” look or sound like for you?
Ramstad: I don’t know, Kristin; you’re in, like, three of our pieces. What do you think it sounds like?
Van Loon: The thing is, I don’t think of myself as feeling highly directed by you two.
Ramstad: Think about that duo you did with Karen [Sherman] on the table…
Van Loon: Do you mean then that, when you work, it’s tightly scored?
Ramstad: We would watch what you guys were doing, and then we would give you feedback. Something like, “Make sure you change the rhythm of the way you’re doing this, because if you don’t, I have a hard time seeing what’s happening,” for instance.
Van Loon: Yeah, and then I ignored you. (Laughter) I just don’t remember a sense of being closely directed.
Ramstad: That’s good, because you, as a dancer, have to be in it. I mean, the piece still has a score, and I did give you feedback. We said things like, “Don’t do this as much, do that more.” We’d let you know where we saw particularly vibrant moments; or something like, “This thing you just did really distracted me from what I want to see right now.” But at the same time, we know: you have to perform it. You have to survive that situation without the work being set. So, I can understand why that would be a broader experience of direction than the idea of us just giving you some little tips along the way.
Van Loon: This is common way of directing for us, too, I think. It’s actually a lot like what we do in our Contact Improv class every week: we just take turns watching. In a sense, someone else does your score. Then, sometimes, five of us might be doing a movement, including Arwen and I, and we’re really trying to get a very unified attack, a coherent energy and shape in our movement. One of my favorite ways to accomplish that is to have one person sit out and watch, each one of us in turn, while the others repeat the movement. That gives everybody power; and, sometimes, the act of watching is, itself, enlightening.
Bieringa: Let’s talk a little bit about the seeds of new projects. Where do you begin?
Van Loon: I usually travel with a list of every piece we’ve ever done.
Wilder: Usually, the way we start a piece is by trying to do the opposite of the thing we’ve just completed.
Van Loon: The MANCC Residency was a kind of seed time for new work: we articulated our interests and each of us had three hours a day to direct independently.
Bieringa: And you never talked in the evenings about what you were going to do, you just kind of did it on your own, in the moment?
Van Loon: The planning, directing, leading in the rehearsal was independent…
Bieringa: What about a vision for the whole, big picture? How did that fit in the process?
Van Loon: That’s how we were designing the whole commission project, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.
Bieringa: Was that the first time that you had done work that way?
Wilder: Well, it was the first time that we were thinking of making a single piece together. I mean, we’ve made pieces for each other when one of us was directing and choreographing and the other one was dancing.
Van Loon: We did that, for years, before we made something for ourselves jointly.
Wilder: We’ve had rehearsals where we specifically take turns for set amounts of time. But to go for multiple weeks with, you know, the morning is mine and the afternoon is hers – making things independently in the knowledge that the culmination of the work was ultimately going to be one piece – that was new for us. It presented a large problem upon leaving the residency, actually: we ended up with two completely separate pieces. And we came back and we performed a couple of cabaret evenings performing the work in progress: Friday night we did Kristin’s piece, and Saturday night we did mine. We were really stumped for a long time about what to do with the material that came from that process, because these separate pieces we created had been developed more fully than usual, on their own, without being connected.
Bieringa: So, what did you do next to bring them together?
Wilder: We made something completely different from them. Little by little, we have put some of that independently created stuff back in. But it was a huge quandary for a while, how to create one, united work from that material.
Bieringa: When you’re choosing a title, or figuring out the starting point for the next piece – does it always feel like putting on awkward clothing? I mean, do you need the new work to begin in a place of discomfort? I mention it because, earlier, you brought up the word “comfort”? Is that unease the starting point?
Wilder: No, not always. I can think of specific examples where we’ve actually started with an idea to create more comfort and more ease – maybe in the dance-making itself, or in our collaboration, in our conversation.
Van Loon: There is some movement, some stretches of dancing, where A and B are next to each other and are very uncomfortable in sequence. It’s very inconvenient to have your body in once place and then need to lurch into the next. And if it does get convenient, then we change the score. Or, some movements are selected specifically because we love them, they’re favorites. We’re interested in watching what happens to something over time, especially what happens when we put those very inconvenient moves next to each other. And if you do the movements, even inconvenient ones, the same way for months, everything smooths out, regardless, with practice. If you perform the movements with the same music playing, even if you think you’re ignoring the music, you’re not. You’re starting to dance to the music.
Ramstad: When you go about making an evening-length piece, does that change the way you’re making the work? I ask, because when I watched smithsoniansmith — and I only saw it at Bedlam, I didn’t see it at the official opening – my feeling was, this is not evening-length.
Van Loon: You wanted more…
Ramstad: No. No, it’s just that what I saw were smaller pieces put together. It just didn’t seem like something conceived as a single, evening-length work. And I‘m curious if the process of making that work, because it was just the two of you and Scott Heron, someone you hadn’t worked with on other pieces, affected the outcome. But it sounds like that “commissioning a piece” sort of feeling was a force in the room for the whole three years of development of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.
Wilder: I felt the same way about smithsoniansmith. Our thinking about “novel” movement and slow development in this latest project — things coming back around, unraveling — absolutely came from a reaction to that “commissioning a piece” feeling. A lot of the other longer pieces we’ve made were like a bunch of little pieces strung together; we believed that those individual pieces informed each other, but there was less of a sense that we needed to work toward a single, evening-length sort of feeling in the work.
We did make a number of small pieces, short pieces, as we were making this, but the way that these new pieces come together and overlap – the way the individual elements kaleidoscope and splinter off each other, how some of the same vocabulary is used in different pieces – allows each section to have a very different character, but when you put them all together, it feels less a string of pearls and more of a whole.
Van Loon: From the very beginning of our work on redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, we were intentional about seeking out pleasing examples of wholeness — things that were almost a little too big, or too complex, to keep that sense of whole alive and perceptible. For example, I started making an effort to read, and stick with longer books, novels. I tend to prefer shorter things; I love short fiction. So, I wanted to deliberately find sustained activities, routines and cycles that pushed toward longer durations of time and that require an expanded attention span.
I mean, you can make something that’s 60 minutes long, but still just episodic – just episodic — and maybe that’s what smithsoniansmith is. That said, the two of us like dense things. But we’re also anti-filler; we have a strong aversion to wasting anyone’s time. So, from the beginning of making this larger work, we struggled with: How can we tolerate asking an audience to look at one thing that lasts so long and still have it feel rich and specific the whole time? How do we do that both compositionally and as dancers, performing in the moment?
Wilder: Trying to figure out, compositionally, how the sound was going to work was a big part of figuring out that sense of the whole. It presented a challenge, because we like to work with found sound and often with pop sounds and those all have complete arcs of their own…
Bieringa: And those songs are usually three minutes long.
Wilder: Right! So, what do you do with all those distinct beginnings, middles, and ends? How do you move away from an episodic feeling to something more unified? That was a big puzzle.
Bieringa: So the music for redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye is also found sound?
Wilder: It is.
Bieringa: And you guys have mixed it up and played with those sounds? And you’re the mix master, the cutter, Kristin?
Van Loon: There’s a huge question in that, about whether a pop song from the radio counts as found sound, whether or not we should ever manipulate or edit anything so “found.” Where’s the thread in those smaller parts, the “whole”? We wondered: Can we find any sound sources that we like that are already 60 minutes long?
Wilder: We both listened to a lot of movie scores – looking for a “whole” sound with a significant duration.
Van Loon: The problem is that’s someone else’s story.
Ramstad: Changing the subject: Are you going to tour the piece?
Wilder: We’re not opposed to touring the whole thing, but right now…
Ramstad: (Singing) — it’s a Walker show…
Wilder: Yes, and we’ve been trying to figure out: What does that mean?
Bieringa: Yeah, we’ve taken our shows all over, but there’s just no space that’s like the McGuire Theater. The luxury and the height of its space, what the lighting designer (Heidi Eckwall) was able to do in the Walker – it’s really hard to replicate in other spaces.
Van Loon: We’re getting ruined by the Walker. (Laughter)
Bieringa: It’s gorgeous! But you get so in love with the beauty of the space and with being able to use the proportionality it offers, that the timing of everything gets shifted. Every time you remount the work after it’s been produced for the McGuire Theater, stuff that was maybe happening in the back corner of that expansive space, you just can’t see in less well-appointed venues.
Van Loon: I’m laughing, because everything that Arwen said before about abundance and fullness — big space, big time, big cast — is very true; we both say it a lot, and we mean it. But at the same time, especially at the very beginning, we thought and talked a lot about avoiding that “doing the big show at the Walker” thing. We want to, somehow, stay outside of that; otherwise, we’d be making something that wasn’t really of us. So we thought a lot about the everyday reality of our dance lives, and said, “We’ve been teaching Contact Improv Wednesday morning, every Wednesday morning, for 12 years. It must be important to us.” So, we decided, that experience needed to be a building block of the new commission. And that wasn’t only about including Contact Improvisation, but making sure to put what we do at the center. We very deliberately sampled from movement that happened in that class in our rehearsals for the new work — specifically, every week. The cast of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye was influenced by people who were dedicated to that class. We wanted the work to be about “practice” and “class-ness,” in general.
Ramstad: Let’s talk about the brass tacks of collaboration. Both HIJACK and BodyCartography Project have been in two-person collaborative teams that have worked together for 15 years or more.
Van Loon: Okay: Sex or no sex? Which is the better model? (Laughter)
Ramstad: Well, if you have sex — if you’re hetero – then you just end up making more kids. So, stop doing it after you got one.
Wilder: We’re very civilized. We keep sex and procreation separate.
Bieringa: And that’s a wrap. Awesome! Thank you!
Wilder: Yeah, thank you!
HIJACK is the Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration of Kristin Van Loon & Arwen Wilder. Specializing in the inappropriate since 1993, they insert dance where it is least expected. HIJACK is best known for “short-shorts”: pop song-length miniatures designed to deliver a sharp shock and collaborations with po-mo hero Scott Heron. The duo has taught and performed in New York (at DTW, PS122, HERE ArtCenter, Catch Series/Movement Research Festival, Chocolate Factory, La Mama, Dixon Place), Japan, Russia, Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Fuse Box Festival, and Bates Dance Festival. Commissions include DTW/Tere O’Connor’s “Nothing Festival”, James Sewell Ballet, U of MN, Bedlam Theatre. HIJACK has taught a Wednesday morning Contact Improvisation class at Zenon Dance School continuously for 14 years. Van Loon & Wilder are currently at work re-imagining their Walker Art Center-commissioned nonet, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, into a trio for small and/or awkward spaces.
As co-directors of the BodyCartography Project, Olive Bieringa (NZ) and Otto Ramstad (USA) investigate empathy and the physicality of space in urban, domestic, wild and social landscapes through dance, performance, video, installation work and movement education. Our works range from intimate solos for the street or stage, to large site based community dance works , short experimental films in the wilderness, to complex works for the stage. We have created numerous performance works, short films and installations across the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Russia and South America and were recently named Dance Company of the Year by the Twin Cities City Pages. Recent works include Super Nature, with composer Zeena Parkins, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Performance Space 122 and PADL West. Symptom, with Minnesota twins Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Mammal, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Our triology Holiday House (2005-2007) was commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and was the winner of two Minnesota Sage Awards. Our site spectacle Lagoon was the winner of the Perlorous Trust Creativity Award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in 2003. We are featured artists in the first book about site dance in the USA published by University of Florida Press entitled Site Dance, the Lure of Alternative Spaces.
Note: A version of this interview was originally published on Critical Correspondence and that conversation is reproduced here with permission. The original transcript has been edited for clarity as published here by mnartists.org. Read a related exchange between these artists, on “How to Move Bodies in Space” here.