In Situ: Nina Haft and Sue Li Jue Find Common Ground in “this.placed”

By Claudia Bauer


How does a choreographer stay creatively vital over time? Early enthusiasm gets burnished by maturity, and one makes peace with issues that used to vex and inspire.

It’s a question that Sue Li Jue and Nina Haft, artistic directors of Facing East Dance and Music and Nina Haft & Company respectively, are asking themselves after more than a decade of making dance. In part to fuel their artistic growth (and in part because they are fast friends and colleagues), they are creating a truly joint show: the evening-length this.placed, composed of nine interwoven pieces, four by Li Jue and five by Haft, about the body’s experience of place.

Haft goes for the abstract and the dynamic. Li Jue is more linear and sometimes stirringly still. But beyond negotiating their expressive differences, Haft and Li Jue are also sharing collaborators: Lauren Elder (scenic design), Ian Winters (video), Matt Payne (score/sound), Tony Shayne (lighting) and Keriann Egeland (costumes), who offer an extraordinary palette of projections, textures, and sounds with which Haft and Li Jue can unify their work.

It’s a thrilling and daunting opportunity made possible by Dancers’ Group’s New Stages Grant. Intended to bring dance makers into venues that are new to them, the grant helped site this.placed on the stage of ODC Theater, March 2-4, 2012. ODC has the technical specs to accommodate Haft and Li Jue’s vision–the rest is up to them. Midway through the process, they sat down with Claudia Bauer to discuss how they’re navigating their path to Shotwell & 17th, and to new places in their careers.

How are the pieces coming together?

NH: We haven’t sat in each other’s rehearsals, but we’re having showings–this is where I’m at, I just started this, or this is where I think I am in this process.

SLJ: We ask the dancers to watch and give feedback as well, the whole group: collaborators, dancers, and invited guests.

NH: Rather than doing “this is Nina’s half of the show; this is Sue’s half,” [we’re] crafting a journey through the whole evening. We’re figuring it out as we go–I’ve never made a show this way before.

I was thinking about Nina’s trip to the Middle East and the Chinese themes that Sue has explored, and about how you can be somewhere but not really be of that place, never feel at home in one place or the other.

SLJ: I’ve really explored my Chinese-American heritage, and being born and raised here but [being] first-generation. The dancers that I’m working with who are of Asian-Pacific Islander descent have actually mentioned exactly what you said. When they go back, so many years have passed that the language is different, the landscape is different, what you remember is different, yet it still feels like home.

How do you explore that in this.placed?

SLJ: Not What She Seams addresses what it’s like to have camaraderie with a bunch of women in a job, a sweatshop, and how they’re basically a sisterhood. But there’s also this sense of place; this sense of knowing, “This is what I do.” Half the Sky is about baby-girl Chinese adoption and [China’s] one-child policy. It’s based on the work of some friends of mine for an organization called Half the Sky Foundation; they spruce up the orphanages and make sure the babies get held every day. The trio is three little girls who have this destiny–they’re orphans, they’ve grown up, and the only family they have is each other. It’s about knowing your place, and learning to be okay with that place. The other pieces are more abstract, about that internal body feeling when you come home and you go, “I’m so glad I’m home.” Or you go somewhere where there’s a ton of people, but you feel totally isolated.

Nina, what about yours?

NH: They’re all inspired by flash fiction by Britta Austin [“notecards: a living museum”]. The language that she uses really locates the voice of the writer in the body, in human sensation. I use the text in several of the pieces–the dancers are speaking it, or it’s recorded in the sound design. The way it tied in with some of the work I’d been doing on the Middle East was that all of that experience revealed to me how I had an internalized experience of Israel before I had ever gone. And then I was meeting Palestinians here who were using their dance practice as a way of literally embodying their country when it didn’t exist as a political entity. So I started thinking about, how does dance become a way that we embody who we are and where we come from? That primary state of being in the body is in some ways the way we understand where we’re located and also how we remember the narrative of how a place really is. I’m doing another piece about listening to your neighbors have sex.

SLJ: You could bottle that one!

NH: It’s maybe not as titillating as that might sound!

How is it all going to become of a piece?

SLJ: This is the big question of the day. With our collaborators, we’re getting sketches, we’re getting sound bites. They’re doing all of these things for Nina and myself–their contributions are going to really help integrate the show.

NH: None of us have worked together, so we’re learning how to see things. Sue and I knew from the beginning that we wanted the dancers to be part of rearranging the space, so that’s part of it; figuring out the way we rearrange what something means to us. So the dancers will be choreographed into the space. And the idea of the body being a shelter–how do you occupy space but also get displaced from it. That’s one of the reasons we wanted a really strong design team; not to tell us what our show is about, but to help us make that more accessible to the audience.

Are you challenging each other to do things in different ways? Do you fight?

SLJ: We never fight. We discuss deeply [laughter]. It challenges this formulaic thing that you go through: “This is how I make a show.” We both have to let go and not be too precious about making that thing that we always do. And our collaborators have their own thing and their own aesthetic. Putting all of that together in one big basket is the scary thing.

Are you opening up to each other’s aesthetic, or are you making something new together?

SLJ: I think the latter, actually. I usually have a storyline, and so I’ve been having trouble with these two more abstract pieces because it’s more of a feeling that I’m after, so I don’t know exactly where I’m going with it until I’m in the studio with the dancers. So that’s been difficult for me because it’s not how I usually work. And this process demands that we work in this way.

That’s exciting, that you’re willing to take a risk like that.

SLJ: I’m really going with my gut…It’s pushing my buttons, for sure.

NH: I feel like I’ve been braver in rehearsal, really questioning, do we really need to do this? And to get to that place of trust with the dancers–you work really hard to get something just right and then say, we really don’t need it anymore. Everybody has to be willing to say, we want to do this for the life of the piece, not to sort of feel good about the time we’ve put in. [The process] is giving me that courage to say, okay, I can start all over again, or I can be more intuitive about what this work is. Sue and I have decided to take those leaps because we trust each other and we respect each other’s work, and all of that discovery is what this project is about. It’s scary but it’s really energizing, too.

SLJ: We’re on this journey holding each other’s hands and cheering each other on, and it’s just been really good. It’s been very satisfying.

And where are you at, after a decade?

NH: Doing this for as long as I have, I trust the artistic process more than ever…I’m not just trying to make a great dance, I’m trying to get at a deeper level of truth. The thing I know will sustain me in a lifetime of this work is that every time I do something, I grow, and that I don’t do the same dance over and over again, and I don’t do things the same way. That would just feel like hell.

SLJ: Past the ten-year mark, I think I exhaled a little bit. I got a sense of place. I’m making work and taking on projects that really interest me. I can say no now and not feel like I’m going to disappear. There’s something really satisfying about being in this place.

This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of In Dance.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and