Joanna Haigood, the Artistic Director of San Francisco based Zaccho Dance Theater, is a well-known creator of site specific apparatus based dance. She has been creating work world-wide on various buildings, terrain and stages. Dancers’ Group and YBCA commissioned Haigood to create a new work that will premiere in August amidst the lively activity of downtown San Francisco. The frame of the work, The Shifting Cornerstone, will take place at the corner of 3rd and Mission Streets leading to the entrance of YBCA at 701 Mission Street. The following interview was conducted by Wayne Hazzard to find out more about her background and approach to art making as well as her vision for this new undertaking.
Wayne: What do you like about being an artist?
Joanna: I appreciate the fact that I have an opportunity to explore challenging questions and ideas within the context of a work environment; the dialogue with other artists and people from all walks of life; that, in my case, it is a practice that demands the constant balancing of the mind and the body; the research aspect helps me to stretch out into the world in a meaningful way; that personal perspective and expression are nurtured and demanded; the mystery of the creative process and the insistence that we stay comfortable wandering through the unknown.
Wayne: Let’s say I’m someone who’s never seen your work, but I am genuinely interested in hearing you talk about your art. Leaving all jargon and assumptions behind, how would you describe as plainly as possible what your art looks like, why and how you make it, your intentions, and what you believe your art means?
Joanna: For the most part, I consider myself a site artist working within the medium of dance. My work is non-linear, impressionistic in nature, highlighting the facets of a place in an abstract way.
I am fascinated by how we define place, individually and collectively, and what part memory plays. Investigating histories has been an important part of my creative process. I consider personal truths and historical documents to have equal value as resources as they demonstrate the intricate and inextricable relationship between memory and history.
I am also interested how we perceive time, and how the character of time changes based on the situations we find ourselves in.
Generally, I use aerial techniques to extend the physical perimeters of the performing space, give the dancers a greater movement range and as a tool for magical or surreal imagery. Aerial elements vary depending on the site and the focus of the piece. I work closely with designers to create set and rigging elements that best articulate the features of the architecture or environment while at the same time contain strong metaphoric content to support the overall vision of the piece.
I hope that my work is contributing to the larger dialogue about life and our relationships, both fragile and stable, and that it will inspire others to see the value of the creative process in broadening the way they view and understand the world.
Wayne: Your Company is called Zaccho Dance Theater. What does Zaccho mean?
Joanna: It means foundation of a column. In 1978 I co-founded Zaccho new music and dance with composer Thomas E. Barker and choreographer Jim Chambers. During our name search Thomas suggested Zaccho. We all liked the idea of art as foundation.
In 1980 we decided to create Zaccho satellites. I moved to San Francisco with Zaccho Dance Theatre and Lyndy Reiman (a performing member of the original Zaccho company), Thomas established Zaccho Music Publishing and Jim went on to directing theater and filmmaking using variations of the name. Sadly, Thomas passed away in 1988 of bone cancer – he was 33. Jim settled on the name Field Hands Productions for his company.
Wayne: Where are you from?
Joanna: I am from New York City, although the first seven years of my life were spent on the move…my father was in the military.
Wayne: Over the past 25 years I’ve seen you create work for the stage, for galleries, in parks, on buildings and for other artists. Are you motivated by one performance setting more than another?
Joanna: I like to work on a large scale and tend to be attracted to places with long perspectives, height, distinctive architecture and a great story to tell.
Wayne: Do you think of your work as political and if so are you, or is this current work, influenced by the impending Presidential election?
Joanna: I think that my work has always addressed social and political concerns, although I wouldn’t say that this is a specific mission or commitment. That said, I feel that as a citizen it is my responsibility to speak out against injustice when I see it and participate in the dialogue of progressive social change, local and global.
This year Zaccho’s arts education program focused on the history of voting rights in an effort to educate our local young people about the importance of their participation in the democratic process. I think it is paramount that young people are included in political discourse. If we expect our country to move forward in a positive way we need to teach our young people to think critically and to learn how to ask questions. We also did a voter registration drive at our year-end arts ed performance. We are not allowed as a non-profit organization to campaign for any one candidate so we encourage people to do research, participate in the national debate and vote with their hearts.
In terms of The Shifting Cornerstone, it has not been my intention to speak about Presidential election but it might happen. I certainly have strong feelings about it.
Wayne: A shifting cornerstone evocates many images for me. What can we expect from this site-specific dance?
Joanna: It’s a little difficult to answer this question before I’ve made the piece but I can say that at times the piece will be hidden in the landscape, so the audience will need to expand their focus in order to discover the whereabouts of the performers and events. After the structure of the piece is revealed, the audience can draw from their memory of earlier sequences to interpret meaning. The movement and dynamic of the street—the weather, the rhythm of the traffic, the pedestrians, the architecture —will play an important role in the way the piece is designed. I am hoping that the performance will be so deeply integrated into the environment that the audience will no longer differentiate between the two. Rather they will have a more enhanced and poetic experience in a familiar setting.
Wayne: What is something about your art that you think is important that viewers generally overlook or misunderstand?
Joanna: It is sometimes difficult to know what people really think of it. I generally work many levels at once during the creation of a piece of performance, from the larger scale physical settings to deep introspective states. And working with a group of collaborators increases the number of aspects of performance that the audience can perceive. I always hope that the audience will be willing to interact with my work with a quiet mind and with a muted sense of expectation.
Wayne: One of the collaborators on the new work, Wayne Campbell, is also your husband. What’s it like to work together?
Joanna: Wayne and I have a tremendous amount of respect for each other’s work and ideas. We have some of the most dynamic and stimulating conversations at home and at work, ranging anywhere from metaphysics to the technical advances in hardware. This I value so much in our relationship.
Wayne is a great artist and his aesthetics are well aligned with mine. However, Wayne and I work dialectically, attacking the same problem from different directions. There is a lot of critical analysis and editing. The outcome is more far reaching than if we were in lockstep.
Wayne: Will we get to see you perform in the new work at YBCA?
Joanna: You will definitely see me wandering around the installation. I am not sure of the level of my performance—but there might be a cameo here and there.
Wayne: The audience will experience a self-described series of vignettes, continuously looped for five hours each day of performance. What motivated you to work with repeating images or scenes over five hours?
Joanna: I enjoy working in this format. What is most interesting to me is how recurring images and events begin to transform and change meaning over time. Memory plays an important part of the experience of the work. It is also an extraordinary challenge for the performer. Stamina, engagement, investment, commitment, focus are all demanded at a high level.
Wayne: What other projects are you working on?
Joanna: I am working on a piece about race relations in the U.S. with visual artist Charles Trapolin opening this June in San Francisco; BREAKING GROUND—a dance charrette I curate and produced by Dancing in the Streets in New York City this October; a project highlighting a collection of early African maps in Boston in 09—commissioned by Suffolk University; hopefully the final installment of a project called Picture—in this case Picture Bayview, about the hopes and aspirations of Bayview residents. This piece is designed for the grain terminal at Third Street and Cargo Way.
This article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of In Dance.