Eight dancers move through in an imaginary house, a dream space of empty rooms and corridors. Deborah Slater’s voice enters their reverie, encouraging them to abandon the notion that they know where they are, urging them to “get lost in the architecture.” Travis Rowland, one of the dancers, gets so involved in his reality that when pondering how to transition into the next section of the piece he argues that there isn’t a direct path to his next cue because of “the walls.” Slater laughs, reminding him that this is a dream reality, the walls can dissolve if he needs them to. This interaction illustrates perfectly the way Slater works with her dancers. Inside her studio there is a special atmosphere where the dancers, director, scenographer, composer, and dramaturge become so deeply enveloped in the process of creation that the reality of the outside world slips away. It is a special environment where code words fly, dancers interpret the briefest of instructions, decisions are made and changed, and ideas are introduced and deconstructed.
Slater is a busy woman. In the past twenty years she has premiered more than 15 full-length productions, received an Izzie, 9 NEA Fellowships and numerous grants, Co-founded Circuit Network and Dance Bay Area, ran her own studio, reached out to the community through teaching at public schools and putting non-dancers onstage, served on numerous boards and is currently one of three choreographers nationally chosen to work with master choreographer David Gordon in the Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange Across Borders grant. Her dances have generated a loyal fan following and are generally appreciated by critics. Her aesthetic is dramatic and quite emotive, a dash of Martha Graham’s grounded anguish combined with demonstrative interactions and airy lifts reminiscent of Romantic Ballet. Slater’s background in theater seems to lend itself to a regular presence of props and furniture. Though Slater’s work is not revolutionary or ground-breaking in terms of form or subject matter her thoughtful crafting and her abundant prolificacy since the 1980s have made her a key player in the evolution of San Francisco’s dance scene. I talked with her in the midst of the creation period of her upcoming 20th anniversary work, Men Think They Are Better Than Grass, an interactive evening length work that will premier May 1, 2010 at Z Space / Theater Artaud in San Francisco.
Reiter: Who your dancers are as individuals seems very important, both in the creative process and final product. What do you look for in a dancer?
Slater: I guess courage is the first thing. When I have an audition I have people do things that I think will challenge them and I make them try things that are really emotionally and physically hard. Talking, laughing while they are dancing. I’ll have them make up a phrase and then tell them, “cry your way through it; now laugh and cry your way through it; now laugh, cry and sing ‘Mary had a little lamb.’” Tasks that pile up so that I can see what they do when they have multiple tracks of information to deal with and where they pull back and say “uh-uh.” I need people who are fearless to act the fool. You have to have courage to go there. A lot of what these guys have [gestures to the dancers in space] is a kind of humanity. They have a real presence, they inhabit whatever they’re in. You get a real sense of human beings on stage. That’s a gift. Not everybody has that.
In Desire Line there was such a strong theatricality to the entire piece. The dancers played specific characters that were in relation to each other and seemed to be moving through a particular story. Will this quality of theatricality and drama be a part of Men Think They Are Better Than Grass?
I think in Desire Line the characters were very specific emotional archetypes. We used a painting that had strong dramatic image as a starting point and then developed characters based on what we thought was happening in the painting. We spent a lot of time talking about the motivations of the characters. They always knew where they were going, where they had been. Because I spent a lot of time working in theater it’s important to me that the performer has an idea of the inner life of the character. It’s not so important to me that the audience knows exactly what’s happening. If the dancer is clear then the audience is held in a safe place to watch the voyage or be provoked by it.
In this new piece, I think that the dancers will each have a character but not in the same way. I think it’s more about each person having a sense of time. They might be standing at a point when they’re looking back on their life, or they’re right there in the moment or they’re looking towards the future. The piece is made up of many poems and each poem is its own little playlet with its own reality. They have to find themselves inside that reality each time and each of their realities might be different. Then they have to figure out what is their emotional response to that reality? Are they fighting it? Are they in it? Are they relaxing? My dramaturge and co-director, Jayne [Wenger] is working with the dancers to understand the emotional underpinnings of the poems; what the text means. The dancers take that information in when they are making their decisions.
Your work has a very intimate, personal quality but there is also a political undercurrent. How does ‘the political’ enter?
I think that politics are always an undercurrent in my work because of the culture we live in. My dancers don’t all look like traditional skinny ballerinas. I have an attraction to working with strong people with normal bodies. There’s a sense of going against expectations. Women in my pieces tend not to be delicate little things. There may be a moment of delicacy but it might just as easily be done by one of the big men, like Travis Rowland, a former football player and wrestler. The women are all really strong. Kerry [Mehling] is incredibly strong and she can pick up a six-foot tall guy and tote him around. Those contrasts—there’s an implication about what’s possible. I think that this sensibility has an inherently feminist point of view.
In terms of the new piece, the overriding theme that we’ve been working with is environmental. The notion that here we are as human beings, destroying things outside ourselves with no apparent consciousness that if we harm these things, we harm ourselves. We seem to hold ourselves separate. W.S. Merwin, the poet whose work inspired this piece, emphasizes in his writing that we’re not separate. Men think they are better than grass; they have some sense of themselves as superior beings, but we keep making choices that will ultimately hurt us. If we weren’t so arrogant about our position [of power] we wouldn’t be in this situation.
What have been your biggest challenges career wise in the last 20 years?
Dance is project-oriented instead of company-oriented so in order to keep paying people you have to keep producing more and more projects which means at some point the work suffers because you can’t take the time you need to build something. I’m not fast. It takes me a long time to create. Even by the time we get to the show I will just be beginning to understand what’s possible with the other artistic mediums that are involved. My collaborators will start bringing me ideas and I’ll think, “Gee I wish I had a few more months just to integrate that idea,” but that’s not the way it goes. It’s time vs. money.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
I think most of all it’s the fact that I’ve managed to keep going, in the face of great odds. I’m really proud of that. I’m proud that I’ve had a studio since 1980. It has given me a kind of base, a sense of solidity and home. I’m also really proud that I have been able to make a lot of dancers look great onstage. When I work with a dancer I’m aware of who’s in front of me and what they can do versus what they can’t. I don’t ask them to do things they can’t do. Which isn’t to say that I don’t push them into territory that might be uncomfortable or challenging. I push them to discover what they don’t know. And when the piece is crafted, they’re going to look powerful onstage. That is one of the things I’m most proud of: that my dancers receive feedback about how great they are as performers. Since that’s what they do and since they are really emotionally and physically engaged in the process, it’s incredibly satisfying to watch. And in the reverse, I’m proud of the caliber of dancer who wants to work with me, and how generous these dancers are with their talent. That’s very, very heartening. I could not make the work without their incredible gifts. The last thing that comes to mind is that I’ve had people say something like “I saw this piece you made 20 years ago and I can still tell you images from it; things that I continue to remember, that have stuck in my mind.” This is such a gift, when someone says that the work gave them something important and contributed to how they see the world.
Do you have a strong memory of the first work you ever choreographed?
Yeah. It was a solo [laughs]. I was all of twenty something. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know to be afraid; that came later. It was at Franklin & Marshall College. There were no dance classes there, no nothing at that time. I had decided that I wanted to dance and there was a kid teaching on the campus, so I started taking her classes. I wanted to perform so I cleared a classroom, it was a carpeted room, my mother made my costume and I danced to a Theodore Roethke poem that my then-husband read.
There’s something coincidental here, your first dance was choreographed to a poem and now in your 20th anniversary piece a poem is at the center of the work.
Yeah it’s true. Quite funny how these unexpected cycles show up.
Deborah Slater Dance Theater celebrates their 20th Anniversary with the world premier of Men Think They Are Better Than Grass previewing April 29, premiering May 1 (with a post-performance Gala) and running through May 9 at Z Space / Project Artaud, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco. For more information visit deborahslater.org.