Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit: An Interview

By Julie Potter

December 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

While they’ve never collaborated to make a work together, Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit shared the stage as resident artists at CounterPULSE, currently work with Keith Hennessey, hold hands when they tell a shared story and spend a lot of time talking to each other on the phone. During the busy weeks prior to The Dog Show, a shared evening at Z Space composed of Arrington’s Wag and Hewit’s Freedom December 8-11, supported by Dancers’ Group’s New Stages for Dance, the duo talks about working and living parallel.

What’s it like to be working together for this evening at Z Space?

Laura Arrington: The cool thing is that Jesse and I under any other circumstance would be directly in competition with each other. We’re in the same place, we have a similar aesthetic, we’re interested in the same ideas and approaches to making work; so when we first met each other we decided it will be more interesting for both of us if we act as friends and colleagues and also mentors and dramaturges, and help each other as opposed to doing the set-up-your-own-company-camp sort of thing. It’s interesting to see our work rub up against each other. When we were resident artists at CounterPULSE we saw everything the other was working on, but this time, I’ve seen almost nothing he’s working on and he’s seen almost nothing I’m working on. Even so, many people at our most recent showing said there’s so much commonality. We’ve never collaborated with each other.

Jesse Hewit: We’re emerging and we can combine our audiences. We have a safety thing to rely on the other. We know with our powers combined it’s more interesting. Every person’s work is a discourse, and our work in the last few years has been dancing around the same discourse. That has been awesome for contextualizing not only the work itself, but the moment around the work, the community around the work and where the work fits here together…working with a peer is great, like growing up with someone.

Can you talk about the ideas and approaches you share?

LA: We don’t work or make things together, but one of the things that is true about Jesse and myself, and a lot of our peer group, is that we actually do work together because the modes of production are really important regarding how things get made: meetings and workshops and time spent together and alternative ways of getting people to make work. So not always being in the mode of “let’s make a show and have rehearsal.”

JH: We derive our work not from going to class. None of us go to class and haven’t for a long time. We derive material more from anthropological methods, from street methods, activist methods, social methods. We’re interested in physical states, extreme situations, mastery in movement, conversation and parties–all these things. We derive material from that expression of being together versus learning technique and moving. When we get the chance, we definitely do like to learn from people who are smarter, but a lot of the material is derived from the experiential within a community context, economy, social group and age.

Who are some of the people guiding your art practice right now?

JH: We were in Vienna, Berlin and Scholtenhagen this summer. We’re working on a piece with Keith Hennessey’s Circo Zero Performance.

LA: Keith is my mentor not just because I love his work and ideas, but because he also has a really big focus on social functions and straight up politics. He is also one of those people who is always doing shit. There are so many artists that have these little satellites of themselves, like these weird institutions, and Keith is someone always reaching out and down and doing.

JH: He’s also always destabilizing himself. We’re both about 30 and the older you get in this kind of craft that we do there’s no such thing as financial viability and success. It’s not real and at this point we’ve met all these people at the top of their game and it really shifts your priorities about how you want to create your life as an artist. Keith’s been really great for me because he is essentially quite brave, always destabilizing his beliefs and reality, whereas most folks at his stage are ready to settle down to make meaning and conquer, and he doesn’t do that. In a sense art practice is life practice, so he’s great to be around, to have someone who redefines my instincts about my art practice by watching his life practice; constant curiosity, constantly asking questions, always wanting to learn new forms and finding ways to be wrong. Looking for ways to be wrong and looking for catastrophe is a way to re-inject the necessary tremble if you’re actually going to make things that are interesting.

LA: He is sticking to the edges and walking the unstable ground in front of him. I think if you’re going to do this, his way is the most interesting in terms of getting there. He’s always pushing himself to experience. Dance can be such drudgery and stupid b.s. of grants, and we do it over and over, and it so boring and doesn’t make you a better artist. Much of the way it’s been constructed for art makers is inhibiting because we spend all our time talking about ourselves in the third person, creating solid identity-based rhetoric so there’s a static reality to it that totally gets in the way; the scripted gets in the way of change.

Can you give us a preview of your current work that will be performed at Z Space?

LA: I’m pushing my ways of production and approaches. I’m working with systems and difficulty, duty and obedience, and so I’ve been really playing with how. At the Sandbox Series (ODC’s program promoting artistic exploration by providing choreographers with exploratory studio sessions not specifically tied to performance) it was tons of that–looking at how you communicate with the people in the room with you, how you give instructions, how they get received, if there are rules and scores going on, what is your relationship to those rules, what does it mean; so I’ve been looking at how my creative structures and rules get directed and how that shows up on different bodies…

For Wag we are looking at how the material, in terms of structure and systems, works on the immaterial, so exhausting the body, exhausting the emotional body, exhausting the relationship, so thematic ways material structures work on the emotional body or more metaphysical things. Obedience is duty and that’s my piece. I start every rehearsal with Jess, Micah and Rachel running as fast as we can for 20-30 minutes and then jumping until we can’t jump any more.

They get really hard physical scores where they have a system and are only allowed to do certain types of movement. They have to be counting and keeping track and it’s all within a text rhythm, which they’re not allowed to say out loud but they have to keep saying in their heads. They have specific rules of how they relate to each other…it’s hard to keep track, and then as they understand the system of rules, they adapt to it and edit what they choose and the point is always to push against what the rules are and figure out new ways to work within the structure, ultimately not to get used to anything and comfortable. The moments when we think, “Oh we’re getting stronger,” that means we’ll jump higher or add combat boots.

JH: My piece is called Freedom. I have a few personal narratives about knowing or being associated with really big events in U.S. history over the last ten years that have painted really big, monster narratives of people. Growing up, my best friend was the guy who shot and killed everybody at Columbine and this is a thing that happened in my life and it was weird and really rocked me and probably formed certain sensitivities in the way I look at the world. I also had an intense first-hand experience of 9/11 and this is all really blown-out exploitative narrative shit, but it stuck to my ribs in a way and I haven’t explicitly made work about it, but have this almost aggressively defensive thing about the media and/or propaganda creating narratives of people that are completely demonizing and uncurious and un-interrogative about why and who they really are. This extends to things like sexuality and ethnicity and all these sorts of other identity components that people make sweeping judgments about or create that are inaccurate or may be one-sided. So I’m making a piece called Freedom about new rights about construction of identity, and being understood or misunderstood. I think I feel personally inspired because of the way my friend Eric growing up was totally written off and misunderstood, and I got re-ignited when Osama bin Laden was killed this passed year and the way that sparked this collective national identity. So I am seeking to queer subvert these narratives of people.

Can you describe what is means to queer subvert?

JH: Everyone believes that Osama bin Laden was just this soulless fucking brown freak living somewhere in the Middle East that wreaked havoc on our motherfucking home turf soil. That’s the dominant narrative right? That he’s a demon, he’s a monster, he’s totally unspeakable and should die like a dog. But to subvert or queer that narrative is to suggest there is a person there who people engage in relationships with. He has breath, he has tears, he has genitals, orgasms, he has family, weak points, pleasure, vacation, he has favorite foods right? It’s not a new trope to suggest that very famous people have real sides to them; for me there’s something to debunk the idea that there is an innate evil in anyone. I think there’s a larger political project in my consciousness, but right now it’s really personal and so I’m figuring out how to create these extremely grotesque and over-the-top physical images that go further and further beyond what we can imagine to initially disgust us and ostracize the audience, and then actually go even further to promote curiosity and tenderness around the narrative that was previously like “fuck no that’s just disgusting and terrible.”…The overall umbrella theme is to really question and be suggestive about what our freedom actually is in terms of being understood and identities. Our freedom is a myth that’s just outside of the body. It’s not an actual embodied reality.

What do you do outside the rehearsal studio that feeds your work?

LA: There is a strong group of peers that Jesse and I run with and we do lots of things. I organize lots of little informal workshops that aren’t like regular workshops where you pay money and stuff. Keith and I were doing some Occupy SF/Occupy Oakland performance interventions. Jesse is doing the This Is What I Want project, which is part of the Queer Arts Festival and has been very successful. Lots of salons, weird little things like that that aren’t formal, you wouldn’t put an ad in the paper for, but are about like-minded people coming together and constantly sharing ideas and information.

JH: I do film projects (and I’ve never talked about this in my dance performance community) but I do film projects with this director who works in San Francisco and Berlin and they’re new genre projects that are narratives. It’s this new genre called Mumblecore and its not documentary, but it’s moving footage in real time about sexuality and it’s basically trying to break open this idea that real, non-simulated sex only happens in pornography. So I work with him and it satiates my continued theoretical interests in sexuality and it’s all horizontal with the dance and performance work.

Also I’m a waiter and it’s really been on my mind lately especially with the Occupy stuff really vilifying [social] class and making me question what my identity is. Being in Europe last summer I met people who live on a distinctly European system of social welfare we don’t have here, so here being working-class and working a service job becomes a central conflict in the work I make. Class identity is interesting. I’ve been thinking about my role as a citizen in the service world and that continues to be something I pull from.

Then This is What I Want is a mini festival I’ve curated a couple of years and it’s dance and performance work that asks the artist to stage the question “What do you want? Sexually, what do you want?”

How do you find yourselves watching performance? What’s exciting or intriguing to you at the moment?

LA: Ivo Dimchev. I highly recommend his YouTube channel. We were at ImPulseTanz this summer and we were like these little American chipmunks already excited, and there are an array of people we ogled at. A lot of the pieces will be at American Realness. For us acknowledging the performance is important, with the performer as larger than life. Active performance is something that activates.

JH: That’s why we don’t do so well in the dance world.

LA: A lot of times in dance it’s about this internal experience made public and I’m actually interested in the external.

JH: Thinking about performativity, there’s a pretty explicit obsession we both have; this idea that you’re performing and in front of people so what the fuck are you really doing? What are you doing there? Conscious of? Pretending to be conscious or not conscious of? And obviously there is a major body politics in the world – how are you presenting? So we’re always conscious of the dynamic “I see you, but I don’t see you, but I see you…” – we both do a lot with that. Theoretical performativity is something we’re always playing with. I wouldn’t say I’ve landed anywhere in particular, but being conscious of the audience affects the visual landscape and aesthetic.

LA: We have an acceptance of the performative state. I think in dance there’s often this facade where it’s about the internalized experience to be expressed.

JH: Because we’re criticizing assumptions in performance it’s painful for me to see work where the performance pretends like I’m not there or not seeing it. I know it’s a way of working but in general it’s not where I’m at. I know you can do these really deep investigations of technique and form and all these really amazing mechanics within that formalist work, but being that my aesthetics are what they are, it’s not going be what my work looks like.

This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of In Dance.

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.