Pure Alchemy; A Roundtable Interview with the Artists of Kate Mitchell

By Kate Law Hoflich


I spoke with Kate Mitchell and her collaborating guest artists, Brittany Brown Ceres and Katie Faulkner, about the upcoming project, “Spirit House,” its themes, and the process of building a collaborative work. It is a seven section, evening-length work for seven dancers. The theme is based upon the concept of the human longing for transformation. Many of the visual elements come from Thai Spirit Houses which are built as containers for spirits. In this work the imagery is the result of asking how to house spirits in a modern western context.

How have the themes of transformation and spirit informed each of your choreographic processes?

Brittany–I had the good fortune to work with a section that is actually completely about transformation. I came in wanting to know who the dancers were as individuals and what they were going to bring to the table. I had a preconceived notion of a starting place of a phrase that I wanted to see in my body and instead of showing it to them, I wrote it down and read them the words. That’s where the individual choices came, so that I could use their first instinct as a starting place.

Kate–In my choreographic process I’ve moved within each section from a transmission of data- it started out with clear concept and specific dance steps- to evolution and transformation within each section. This piece started out with ideas that I have been thinking a lot about. One was becoming aware of the degraded state that our President has put us in as torturers. How can people do that? If they can do that it suddenly means that every human being has the capability, and then how do you contain that? How can you transform that? And then secondly, reaching a certain age and looking back and realizing that life is not infinite. And wanting to make sense of that and make peace with it. At least try to really put myself out there while I am here. Even though I often find otherwise, the more I go out on a limb, actually the better it is. The more rewarding, the more satisfying, and I think more satisfying for other people, because then other people can respond to something specific and tangible as opposed to something vague.

Katie–What I was really drawn to was the challenge of it. Could I choreograph something that really came from me despite it having been some one else’s idea? My section is the fifth section, and the ideas that Kate gave me were a small palette of words: communication, connectivity, lushness, green. So ostensibly there has been a transformation that has already been occurring through the process of the piece, to the point that we are at this connectedness between the dancers. I had less of a spiritual anchor and more of an interest in the choreographic puzzle of it.

The structure you have created for this collaboration is quite unique in that you are each creating sections separately and then coming together in the end to co-create the final section. Have you seen each other’s sections or is it more independent? How much input is given?

Kate–We have each been choreographing independently and visiting each others’ rehearsals during the process.

Katie–When I started I hadn’t seen anything, and I really didn’t see anything for quite a while, until I was halfway into having made my section. Which was both terrifying and interesting.

Kate–I have offered some input to both Katie and Brittany because I have the overall view, the steering wheel. And I’m hoping that they will have some input for me. As the work evolves we three are becoming more connected. One thing that I found fascinating was that working independently we have already come up with dance motifs that echo each other and trace invisible lines from one piece to the next.

What process do you use when co-choreographing the collaborative final section, section seven?

Brittany–I think that Section seven has been a lot about listening. Particularly because of the journey the dancers have been on up until now, and it is the last thing that we have attacked. We wanted to listen to them in a way that was different when creating the other sections. And I think that has come into play also with each other. We’ve really paid careful attention to the energy, as opposed to walking into the room with any kind of agenda.

Kate–We also all sat down and free associated what is meant by the word “spirit” and what is meant by the word “house.” And there was a lot of synergy.

Brittany–We asked the dancers to pick movements that would represent each section. They came up with things that we wouldn’t have said “Oh, that’s a quintessential movement!” But to them it spoke and that’s a really exciting thing. Because I am thinking of my own individual journey of things that pop out as learning moments are not necessarily this great class or this one individual, they are just these little moments in time where something finally sunk in. Which is exactly what this is about.

We’ve spoken a bit about how you have had themes pop up by serendipity through the work, but what have you done to cultivate continuity so that it does read as a complete piece? Do you foresee changes in choreography happening?

Kate–I don’t think that major choreographic changes will need to be made. It’s going to be a subtle aesthetic tweak here and there. But we don’t want to hammer people over the head.

Katie–The reality is that we are each contributing our own take and that being the case there is going to be some diversity in the way the whole evening plays out. Kate, what was it about this particular project that made you want to collaborate with other people?

Kate–I had been wanting to work with other people on a project. I’d thought about working with other people before, particularly as a designer with another choreographer. Then also I really like Brittany and Katie’s work; I just think that it is so fresh and dynamic. I guess maybe subconsciously I wanted to learn from them. And yeah, it is risky. You know, a lot of times people say to me, “Wow, you are so brave!” Which usually makes me feel more nervous. Like, oh I must be doing something really stupid if they’re saying that. But you know, we all took a risk and it is turning out to be really, really fruitful. Collaborating turned out to be really, really well suited to the whole concept.

Brittany–Yeah, here is inherent reverence in the concept. Which might mean that we come to it from a different space.

Kate–In the past I felt isolated as a person attempting to make interesting work. I don’t have people to talk to about it or to throw ideas around with. So this has really been great to be able to talk to other choreographers. It’s really been so wonderful for me to see how they work. Which is very differently. Katie I think works very much from the inside and expands outward, and then from what I can see of Brittany, she almost does the opposite.

Katie–I think that one of our challenges for section seven is that we all have a real gravitation toward form in our manipulation of material. I think that we all can get really seduced by just that. Our challenge is to really deepen it and have it maintain a sense of meaning because here it is, the point of arrival and we’ve gone on this long process together, and what, WHAT is this?

Brittany–So “make the point” as opposed to continue investigating.

Katie–But you know, I think that maybe we were drawn to working together because manipulation of material, form, structure and architecture and all of that is so appealing. So how do we allow that to have more layers?

Brittany–Speaking of architecture: Kate threw us a curve ball in the middle of the rehearsal process, which was that the audience is going to be on both sides. And who ever makes a dance that is going to be viewed from the back? And suddenly changing that whole concept of what is the back. So that was a very cool thing.

Katie–I was really nervous about it at first, but then it became really satisfying.

Brittany–And it’s been really exciting for the dancers. In talking with them they are just completely on. There is just never a moment when they’re not facing the audience no matter what they are doing.

Kate–Basically now there’s two downstages and then one center stage. There’s no upstage. I didn’t plan that. I had a more traditional seating arrangement in mind. But then after talking to Walter Holden, our lighting designer, and Wendy and Eric at ODC, we cooked up this alternate plan.

Brittany–I think a great opportunity for the audience actually too. To look through the dance and actually see a reflection of themselves on the other side. And think, “Wow, I am watching myself watch this.”

Kate–It squares off the room and creates more of a sense of a house.

This is Kate Mitchell’s third season collaborating with lighting designer Walter Holden and sound designer Richard Friedman. What has it been like to work with them this time around?

Kate–Richard Friedman is composing three sections of the work. He and I have really developed a shared language which we didn’t have in the beginning. I would say, “The dancers are flowing.” And he would say, “Huh?” It is important to note that he is actually serving as music director. He has included the works of several other composers, like Jacques Poulin-Denis, Alarm WillSound, and Evan Zipporyn. So with Richard, we’re trying to also create an arch of sounds and musical textures, so each section is individual but it makes sense that they come together.

Walter Holden has always listened to my ideas and then bounced back with a whole set of additional ideas expanding on my thoughts and improving them. I love to work with him because he is so enthusiastic.

Kate, I know you are the Artistic Director; have Katie and Brittany’s ideas changed your original concept?

Kate–Definitely they have changed how I’m thinking choreographically. Their ideas resonated with mine but also shaped and reshaped mine. Their energy is infectious.

This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of In Dance.

Kate Law Hoflich is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community. Katelaw.org, bowandsparrow.org