Can moving image and dance perform together? HIJACK, the dance duo of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder, dares to dance in front of the cinema screen to works from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. In the Bentson Mediatheque, HIJACK displaces the common gallery exhibition practice of contextualizing moving image work: exhibiting moving image simultaneously with other work and curatorial ideas, rather than exhibiting as a singular cinematic screening. Once this contextualization is returned to the cinema, the collapsing of open space and compression of works on view, literally now layered one upon the other in a single plane, intensifies the tension between artistic expression and curation, or the appropriation of a completed work into a new idea, that is so often seamless in the gallery context.
HIJACK’s use of film is reminiscent of what Justin Remes in his “Motion[less] Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis” describes as “furniture film” of the ’60s, in which a static film played over an excessive duration as to redirect spectacle away from the screen to the theater house, such as Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964). The distinction between Making Dances and Empire, however, lies in direction: is the film prop or prompt, furniture or architecture? Both consider a means of film acting centrifugally—focusing from itself onto the surrounding environment—but as prompt/architecture the film affects its environment directly. For HIJACK the film becomes a base framework from which to build movement. In conversation with HIJACK we dig deeper into the displacement of dance from the stage to the Bentson Mediatheque, find points of entry into movement from film, and ride the tension within contextualization as transgression in cinematic spaces.
HIJACK’s Making Dances, Part 3: The Last One—Cling or Detach will premiere in the Bentson Mediatheque September 28.
Kelsey Bosch: I have very little dance background, definitely a novice, but to start maybe you could talk about how the idea for Making Dances began and how you got started with working in the Mediatheque?
Kristin Van Loon: The beginning of what you were saying is already very interesting to me. There is an interest in being in the wrong place, to be performing not just for the dance audience that knows how to find dance in the normal dance venues. It’s really fun for us to have people who primarily follow moving image looking at what we’re doing. It feels fresh.
Arwen Wilder: In addition to exposing our work to a new audience, being in the wrong place asks some questions about where dance belongs. Where do we notice bodies? Dance is very often presented in what has been constructed to be the most neutral space possible so it will work for lots of different things, and so any kind of personality and any kind of culture has been removed from it. What we’re interested in is cultural references and responses to architecture and space and objects which do have a resonance of some kind.
Bosch: It’s interesting to think of a cinematic theater in terms of performance because a lot of times I’ve noticed in performance spaces the audience surrounds the performance and in the Mediatheque you are on a single plane of viewing. How did that affect the choreography and how you developed the performance?
Van Loon: We anticipated as we were talking people into letting us perform in there that it’s going to have almost no depth, that the space between the front row and screen was going to be tiny and therefore flattening our choreography. And instead of feeling flattened or squished or dehumanized by that, we started looking at the flip-side of that, which is—I use the term “bas-relief,” when a painting has a little more relief than you think it will and it’s a little closer to sculpture or a little more three-dimensional than that flattened thing—even if we’re kind of hieroglyphic in our dancing we’re still fleshy and have depth and we’re popping out in 3-D in these conditions. Same circumstance and conditions just different attitude. Just being fleshy warm bodies is a condition that is taken for granted all the time in normal dance performance. We get to feel how exciting it is to be bodies in our art making.
Wilder: So I think you could say, “Oh, this floor is carpeted, it’s kind of hard, it’s small.” We could feel it as problematic or we could make the dance that makes that space feel abundant and see what can we do so that we feel like we’re moving really big and fully and three-dimensional even though the space is tiny and that’s a more interesting positive outlook on things.
Bosch: What drew you to the films you’ve been using, and how has the relationship between dance and film evolved?
Wilder: The collection is so large, and it’s really been daunting to feel like “how could we represent all of the collection?” or “how can we be expert enough in the collection?” We don’t have time to watch all of those films and choose the best one, so then comes the question of how we make some rules for how we’re going to choose. So we choose the short ones or the women filmmakers, or we choose from our birth year. We’ve come up with some schemes and some of those schemes have been fruitful. Or we choose schemes which involve chance, like roulette, swipe the pad and see what we get to or walk in when someone else has chosen something so that we don’t have to choose.
Van Loon: There were the years and decades before this project of us audiencing what happened in that room, before we had access to it, before it was called the Mediatheque. We saw curated films on a loop for a month, lectures, etc. Also, being in the Bentson Critical Group, I’ve been exposed to new filmmakers, so sometimes that’s sparked follow-through of more research into the collection.
Wilder: But I think there’s not just the question of what we like or what we find, because all of the films are in there because somebody felt like they were a full artistic expression. So how are we going to join or comment on or share space with films? Which have invitations within them, like white space, or are boring enough or the sense of time is elongated enough, so that we can dance. Is there enough repetition, or is there a connection in content? And can we pause the film because we don’t want to just contribute to overstimulation, or is there some way that the dance and this film can be experienced together?
Van Loon: I think how to share the space is a puzzle. We’re not automatically assuming simultaneous film and live dance presentation as the mode for this third performance. We’re thinking more about how taking turns is a strategy we can borrow from our ongoing collaborative processes. It can be overwhelming to find consensus between the two of us in coauthorship constantly for decades. So we’re using the savvy and strategies that we’ve been using to have a conversation between us and applying it to the conversation between us and the films.
Bosch: In thinking about the process of selecting the films and working with them, adding to them in a screening/performance hybrid, how do you translate idea into movement?
Van Loon: We like finding many many ways to do that. We’re always looking for new ways to make movement at the starts of new projects. We try many ways and then we’ll choose a few and commit/play out that process.
Wilder: We’ve been looking to the films to give us some direction on that. Sometimes we’re literally doing the dumb thing, like: OK, here’s a dance film, this is Maya Deren, she makes dance films. She makes dance films where the movement is very romantic and luscious and that’s not generally the kind of movement we make, so let’s use some of her longing, romantic, luscious movement but then mix it with other things. We’ll put it with another film and make it so that it feels like it’s ours. Or maybe we make up a move a different way, but then the way the camera moves tells us that we rotate that movement, that it used to face one way and now it’s a rotating move because the camera rotates. We might take direction from whatever the subject matter is in the film. But mostly the movement of the camera or the timing cuts in the film so we really look at the construction of the films.
Van Loon: We also generate movement without any consideration with how it’ll work in here and with the films we use, just to have that end of the spectrum, combining things that weren’t made for each other, instead of always responding to the films. Even if we tried to be super responsive and harmonious with the films we’re likely to be kind of clunky anyway, so what’s the far end of clunky and what feels a little more harmonious?
Bosch: Right, and that refers back to dance in a cinema space being out of place, so the movements are out of place. What challenges and opportunities have been created by performing in the Bentson Mediatheque? Have you found that your relationship to audience changes in that space?
Van Loon: At first we underestimated how challenging it would be to share the image space of the films with our bodies. The March show taught us that. We’re very grateful that the Walker has allowed us to install 3.5-foot-tall platforms to raise us up into the films’ image space for the July show. Really to help the audience see what’s going on and to help us have more than head and shoulders in the film image space. With our feet on the floor, in March, we danced with tall headdresses on and long sticks held overhead to extend our short bodies above. We really believed in meeting the conditions of the space on its own terms. So I’m really glad we did that March show without the platforms.
Wilder: If we love the Mediatheque, why try to change it, why are we going to try and make it more like a theater? I think it’s an ongoing question of what is respectful joining versus bold commentary and who is going to be offended that we’re in front of a film they love no matter what we do. How do we make the rules for what is bold commentary and what is respect for someone else’s artwork? We knew that was a problem coming in, and we’ve been chewing and chewing and chewing.
Van Loon: Choreographers use “found music” all the time, willy-nilly. We do too, and we create our own code of ethics—working the spectrum of respectfulness, legality. We are sensitive to and think about how we pull someone else’s art, art that was intended for something else, and place it inside of ours. It feels so much “stakier” with the films so we get to share that awareness with everyone in the room. Is it because image is viewed differently than sound or some high art, pop art, low art, pop music dynamic? I’m also very interested in thinking about responsiveness and influence. We’ve been wrestling with how responsive we are to each other—like hearing the beat of the music and joining it versus resisting it. And it’s interesting to have these films that were completed 50 years ago or a year ago or whatever, but that we can respond to the films but the films and the filmmakers aren’t going to respond to us; they’re done. So sometimes it feels great to not have our dance be responsive to them so we’re playing the same game. So a juxtaposition of something made outside of the influence of the films themselves is one approach we’re exercising.
Wilder: I’d mention two other challenges. A lot of dancers who we tell about our performances in the Mediatheque don’t know what it is, and that’s kind of a fun challenge to me. And then, in the making and trying to be very precise and learning a lot about the films, we noticed that we were becoming the kind of people who spend an enormous amount of time staring at small screens, and that is not what we’re in favor of, and so figuring out how to rehearse and become so familiar with these pieces, so we can perform really precise choreography in relationship to the films without spending all that time with tiny screens.
Bosch: What was your answer to that? Have you solved that challenge?
Van Loon: Sometimes we do it without the films.
Wilder: I think we’re getting better at figuring out the kind of movement to make and the kind of responsiveness to the film that allows us to be really precise some of the time without being so precise that we spend too many hours doing it.
Van Loon: I think we really like to be clear inside ourselves and to have the audience feel that we care about perfection and that we know what the perfect synch would be both spatially and temporally and that we’re honestly trying our hardest. And also we set up conditions where, it’s an interesting effect when we’re not perfect.
Bosch: You mentioned this earlier, how the structure of the first performance was different than the second. Will the third performance be different in structure?
Wilder: We are thinking of a different structure, and it’s early enough that we’re not committed for sure.
Van Loon: We’re thinking about what is gained by having a repeating program to give people an opportunity to see it multiple times. I think that was an asset of part two, where we broke up the allotted two hours with a half-hour program run four times. We are curious about other kinds of repetition, like the possibility of seeing the same dance in front of different films. There was something we really loved about doing an almost all-Miranda Pennell program last time instead of it being hodge podgy… really digging in and in that way really shining a spotlight on the filmmaker as well as the whole collection.
Bosch: You emailed Miranda to tell her that you used her films?
Van Loon: We did. I actually think that’s significant even though the conversation is just beginning. She acknowledged getting it and said, “I will write you soon.” We haven’t gotten more response than that, but that already is huge.
Wilder: Just that she knows we’re doing it and she didn’t say “cut it out.”
Van Loon: When we were first starting out, like in our early 20s, and we were making our first dances, we hand wrote a letter to Dolly Parton, and we did the best we could before the internet to find an address to send it to, and we said, “By the way we’re dancing to your songs and we’re fans and it’s intended as homage and just wanted to let you know.” We never heard back from her, but I feel connection to that moment because we didn’t contact Stevie Nicks or the Stockhausen Estate (when we made redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye at the Walker in 2013). We again get to feel what it means to reach out to the artist.
Bosch: Do you think that’s one way of leveling that hierarchy or power dynamic between using someone else’s work in your own choreography, in a new way, in a way that it wasn’t intended?
Van Loon: I think it’s kind of interesting that it doesn’t feel any better or worse often. It often feels a little bit right and a little bit wrong at the same time and so we keep trying different things instead of just sticking with one way and accepting that. That’s kind of vague but it’s honest.
Wilder: I want to make dance with an interesting social commentary element to it. But I don’t want to make dance with lofty platitudes or telling people what to think. For me, direct reference and response to the culture is the most compelling way to be in conversation with the culture. So “being in someone else’s art” places our dance in a specific time and place and not in an abstract, nebulous neutrality.
Van Loon: I feel consistently throughout this project the way we’re working with the films feels like a pointing to them or shining a spotlight on them, like, “Hey, please come back here.” We’re in the room where anyone could come and watch these films again without our added gesture, and that’s a really wonderful and special condition. Because it’s self-select, people can literally come in and watch it again, and Ruth Hodgins, the Walker’s Bentson Archivist and Assistant Curator, has made playlists of the films we use in our dances, so taking someone’s art and chewing it up and doing what we want with it and spitting it out feels like the opposite. It feels more like homage and appreciation, which maybe gives permission in the dances themselves to go further into smothering. I mean we’ve made some pretty bold destructive choices during the films, including smothering the sound with other sound, or whiting out with really bright lights, just censoring out whole section of the film. We employ these redaction techniques because we’re obsessed with real-time-ness. It is our integrity standard, therefore we choose layering or smothering over pausing or excerpting. What is interesting, what is respectful, what is pointing at things, and saying, “Isn’t this fantastic”? What does it mean to use films because they keep time for us or offer a lot of light in the right places?
Bosch: I wanted to ask you about your essay in the program notes, how you’re thinking about the notes in relation to the performance and how you come to write them.
Van Loon: The first one was written before we started making. It’s a speculative document: what are the things that might happen when we make this? And the second one was written when we were most of the way through making Drum Room Practice Drama [Part 2]. That one was corrected up until the last minute. That one reads more like a play-through of what happens, chronologically from the beginning through the end of the dance, but also embedded in it is commentary about the making it. We took advantage of the opportunity to reveal the references and sources that we were pulling in that would be totally mysterious otherwise. Like we reference Sam Durant’s Scaffold and that experience for all of us and the Walker because that interruption happened smack dab in the middle of making Drum Room Practice Drama and delayed our performance.
Wilder: We have a general theory about program notes and about how you communicate to an audience. We think that it’s important to teach the audience how to watch the piece that they’re about to see and that every piece needs that primer but not necessarily within the program notes. The piece should do that. We don’t intentionally hold back information; we’re real wonks in terms of theory and we have a lot of conceptual inspiration or choreographic methodology we could discuss with any piece. But we don’t believe that you need that backstory in order to understand the piece. We don’t believe that program notes should tell you how to feel, what it’s about, or how good it’s gonna be, so what’s left to go in those notes?
Van Loon: I think in these cases the act of making the dance became a machine for generating a piece of writing. It’s like an inverse practice.
Bosch: Right, and a way to give clues into some of that backstory.
Van Loon: We’ve been having a lot of conversations about the value of being able to watch Drum Room Practice Drama multiple times from people who were there and saw it three or four times that night. Anyone who saw it once and stuck the program in their purse and read it over breakfast a few days later could “see” the dance another time, in their imaginations.
Bosch: That’s maybe a solution to the screen time issue, just read chronologically the film instead of watching it.
Van Loon: Yeah, I’m a paper waster, and if I’m gonna read an article that’s online I print that thing, and I feel it’s a lot like that. It’s kind of a parallel experience. Taking something from the screen and putting it on paper to read it.
Wilder: I also like the idea of describing the dance by what we’re doing even if some of the things about it sound mundane, like, “Oh, we picked up the receiver, because you know so often dance is described through what it’s about and metaphor, and instead we’re saying no, this is what it is, and the magic is putting it together in your mind when you put those things together, but really what we’re doing is picking up a telephone and putting it down.” That’s really the dance.