Technological Conversations: Talking About New Work with Sara Shelton Mann and David Szlasa

By Sonia Reiter


When meeting Sara Shelton Mann and David Szlasa to talk about their new collaboration tribes/dominion premiering at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on May 20, my goal was to speak as little as possible. Hopefully I would just dangle topics that they would like bait and fly together, and I could simply sit back and witness. Luckily David and Sara are so intellectually and artistically enamored with each other that this is pretty much how the afternoon goes. At the time of this interview they haven’t begun their real creation period yet, though the piece has been logistically in the works and on their minds for over two years now.

Sara is a well-known San Francisco dance maker. Her company Contraband reached national fame from 1979-1996. She has received four Izzie Awards, been a Guggenheim Fellow, taught throughout the world and her work has been supported by numerous organizations and artistic fellowships. David also has an impressive resume. In addition to his own critically acclaimed multimedia work, he has collaborated with internationally known dance artists such as Bill “Crutchmaster” Shannon, Rennie Harris and Marc Bamuthi Joseph among others. He received the 2008 Future Aesthetics Artist Award and has worked in the production department at Dance Theatre Workshop and was the production manager at Theatre Artaud. David is in his thirties and Sara is in her sixties. They have worked together on a number of projects already, some with Sara assisting David and others with David assisting Sara. Their personalities are complimentary: Sara flickers and floats like fire or air, jump-cutting from the concrete to the abstract. David also traverses easily into the abstract realm but he gets there in stages and always keeps an anchor in a tangible reality. These sensibilities allow the work they make together to fly into the 5th dimension and yet stay connected to the daily experience of being human. For example, the piece they are making is concerned not only with how the rapid development of technology is affecting the ways in which people connect and interact in business and life but also with the feeling that there is a transcendent and divine shift taking place in the energetic balance of the planet. This is some serious stuff to get into on a sunny afternoon in a San Francisco cafe, but Sara and David go there and go deep with ease, laughter and lightness.

Sara, what is your first dance memory?

Sara: First dance memory? [laughs] I started dancing when I was 21 years old. I went to New York with $500 in my pocket and the name of someone I could stay with for a week. I applied to the Henry Street Playhouse to study with Alwin Nikolai and I got a scholarship and from the moment I walked in the door, I was in the studio 17 hours a day. I was possessed. I also fell in love with New York. It was spring and I walked all over downtown. I can even smell and see the trees right now and the next day I was so sore I couldn’t dance and I had to sit there and watch class and cry.

David, what is your personal dance history?

David: I grew up in western New York State near Ithaca in a town called the Big Flats which was a farm town of about 2,000 people and moved to New York City after high school to study acting. In the undergraduate program at NYU I got into contemporary dance and within the first two months of living in New York my whole mind blew up in terms of what performance was about and I really quickly started to redirect and realign myself with performance art, experimental performance, dance theatre. I was working interdisciplinary from day one, so I really wasn’t making concert dance ever. By the time I graduated I was producing my own work. I had incorporated my own company and as many small companies tend to do, we did everything ourselves, design and production, super grass-roots style. That lasted about two years and then I took a job at Dance Theatre Workshop (DTW) in the design/production department. I realized a lot of the hands-on skills I had developed had less to do with performance or directing and had more to do with production management, tech and design. DTW is a full service presenter. They give you a designer, everything when you come in. Under the awesome mentorship of Phil Sandstrom who is the head designer at DTW I got tons of experience. DTW turns every week so I worked on something new every week and really learned design there.

How did the two of you meet and start collaborating?

David: We first met when I was the production manager at Theatre Artaud in 2001 and Kim Cook, the director of Artaud at the time introduced us. Sara lived in the building, obviously had a long history of working in that space. [To Sara] You were involved in MONK at the time at ODC and you came by, a tremendous ball of energy and creativity and I was like “daaaaang.” We first started talking when I was on my way out of San Francisco so we sort of brushed each other then and when I came back to town in 2005 I had plans to do a show I did in New York here called Gadget and asked Sara to choreograph Sherwood Chen for that production which came about in fall 2006.

Sara: That’s right. There was that recognition thing when we met. We knew “Okay, one of these days we’re gonna work together.” Then after Gadget I was doing Telios/Telios and I had all this movement and I was working on 2012 and I had this enormous dream that the world was on fire and you just don’t have a little dance with that, so I called David and said “Heeellllp!” He did the lighting and created the images. I remember rolling clouds and the space shuttle burning and buildings colliding and collapsing and the marley was white so it was really stunning. He did this thing, he called it a “shutter technique.” I’m sitting in the house and all of a sudden everything kind of stutters, things flickered, like they weren’t working, and I think “Oh God, this is a mistake,” and then I realize, “Oh, it’s on purpose.”

David: What’s important to me about the relationship of technology to live performance is the challenge of constantly reinvesting in the present moment. Technology allows you to transcend time and space and proximity but how do you keep reinvesting in the present moment so that you don’t just zone out like you’re watching TV and get your boob tube eyes on. Especially in the context of working with choreography that’s so immediate like Sara’s. It’s so visceral, so sweaty, right now and important. This is real relationships happening in front of you. It’s not indicating some other thing. It’s like, it is the thing. It’s a challenge to create appropriate design that jives with that. So the “stutter” is basically building in edits that drop out the technology. You get used the technological design as a bed for the whole thing and then extract it for a quarter of a second, and the audience is like, “Oh shit, that’s what life is without it, but now I have it back.”

Are there ever disagreements between the two of you within the creative process?

Sara: We’ve talked about that possibility. But we’ve only talked about it.

David: I don’t see making art as grounds for disagreeing. I think you work it out. That’s kind of the thing. It might not go down like you had preconceived but since we’re both committed to the present, to making work that reflects what’s going on now politically, socially, financially, inter-personally, physically, when you get down to it, when you can get truthful about what’s going on I find it’s easier to see what’s right and wrong. Sara has an amazing ability to stop, take stock and trust the truth of the moment. She can say “throw all this stuff out. It isn’t working.” Or “all this needs to happen in the back corner and we don’t know yet what’s happening downstage.” That’s really inspiring to me. Up until and even through the performances we can still be figuring out what it is and really getting to the core of it. As a designer that’s exciting and really challenging and I’m thankful that I had my background with a bunch of breakdancers and street performers in preparation for my work with Sara because they are really off-the-cuff stylistically and also as a way of life. Working with Bill [Shannon] and Rennie [Harris] helped me to flex the muscle of creating design that’s immediate—lighting a show on the spot, using DVD turntables to make a show right then.

Sara: I like working in parallel and in conversation. So I feel like I can do that with David and I also trust whatever he’s going to do. And I like to be absolutely amazed and I always am. What he can do with his technology and his mind… you know I can’t do it so I’m in awe and it brings whatever I have to another level and then back in your face again. The clarity and sharpness of design is something I wish I could do. I work with bodies, with people, with frequencies in space. David and I are equals in this new piece. Before it’s either been he’s the forerunner, the author, or I am, and we’ve kind of been in this conversation but either in the foreground or the background. We’re both in the foreground on this one together. I’m really excited because I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. I’m used to holding the whole vision myself and staring at a wall goddammit [laughs]. I feel like I don’t have to stare at a wall by myself or he can stare at his wall and I can stare at my wall and then we can actually have play in how it gets put together.

I know you haven’t started rehearsals yet, but what has been your work so far, your research, what you’re writing about and thinking about?

Sara: I thought I was finished with this whole 2012 thing but I’m reading [Daniel] Pinchbeck’s 2012 and The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism by Andrew Harvey. I’m very influenced by sound right now. The voice that goes between the veils. That reaches out to other realms and brings information through like a dream where it doesn’t always come very clearly. Something that David talked about two years ago was the idea of bringing in sacred beings, bringing in the sacred. And I was kind of like “Oh really! Someone else is interested in this stuff? Are you sure? Is this David?” So the word tribes came and then the word dominion came and then the questions “How does technology fit into this? How can it be assimilated into this desire for a shift in the planet?” I strongly feel the shift on the planet getting stronger and stronger and stronger and an emotional pressure that everything that’s out of balance is felt as irritation or fear or anger or things not working.

David: We started two years ago talking about this project. Two years ago there was a hopefulness in the world. Change was on the horizon. The line in Telios “I need a healing” was still resonating in my mind. It felt appropriate to start embarking on a project that would present the possibility of some sort of changing force or reconciliation. There was an opportunity in the way the world was going that we could address this pivotal moment. Now here we are. With a whole different body of information than when we set forward on this. For me it’s been about tracking what we know since we set out on this journey and acknowledging our decisions. I told Sara I’ve been saving our email correspondence about the piece as content for the piece. I’m reading Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist which is about how things grappled with in certain artistic endeavors are actually “proven” to be true by science later on. That art is a litmus test or the canary for the world in terms of providing new ideas, opportunities and sensibilities. Certainly that’s why I work with technology because technology is such a part in how the future is or will be constructed.

You both come from generations that have very different relationships to technology. How does this affect your process and this piece, which not only uses technology as a medium but is also addressing it as topic?

Sara: Half of the time I’m banging my head against the wall just in my own relationship to technology. People have to help me. I get really confused because it’s virtual. If I can’t put my hands on it, it doesn’t make sense. I work with energy and blockages and people’s past lives and yet with a computer, I’m afraid to touch it and make everything disappear. When I grew up, you picked up the phone and it was a party line and if someone was talking you had to interrupt them and say “Excuse me, how long you think you’re gonna be on the phone? I need to make a phone call.” Now technology becomes a conduit in a conversation. It becomes a window that can speak psychologically, energetically, physically. It can move time and place. It can violate the laws of sound and image and what someone is actually doing in real time. We’re in a time of shape shifting. As the third dimension of reality starts to shape-shift this is what fate is going to do.

David: I think it’s less about a choice to use technology and it’s more a need to address it. I think everyone in this [café] right now is plugged into a mediating device or two or three. They’re sitting in front of their computers, that guy’s got headphones on. It’s full on. This is what it’s about. To make work that reflects our present sensibility and offers opportunities in thinking we have to deal with what’s going on with Tivo [laughs], HD TV or whatever. Things that I don’t even participate in as a consumer of but that are shaping our lives, so, you know, I gotta get on Facebook! To a certain extent there’s a need to be in it to be able to talk about. But also we’re just trying to talk about it. Media is just a filter. We’re just putting filters up and taking them down and exposing their use so you can think for yourself.

What’s the best thing about being an artist?

David: It’s a great excuse to reinvest in learning and going where you are uncomfortable and challenging yourself and the people around you. In Lehrer’s book he writes about how it’s a fairly recent scientific discovery that your brain continues to grow. It was thought up until about ten years ago that you have a set number of neurons and that they just deplete as you get older. But it’s not true. They actually grow and adjust and your brain swells when you do certain things. It’s a dynamic organ governed by what it’s asked to do rather than a preconceived prescription of what it’s supposed to do- teach you how to walk or read. That is inspiring. Brain growth, reprogram and relearn.

Sara: It’s fun. I get to play. I get to think about life and not be told what to do and what not to do. I get to have excellent conversations about the unknown. I get to reach out into the unknown and ask for information to come. I get to have a conversation with the divine.

tribes/dominion will premier May 20-22 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For more information visit or

This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of In Dance.