Critical Dialogues: Rachel Howard and Gregory Dawson

By Rachel Howard

December 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

What if, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with a choreographer to have a two- way conversation about the work? That’s the experiment behind Critical Dialogues. For this fourth installment, choreographer Gregory Dawson, director of DawsonDanceSF, met for coffee with critic rachel Howard to talk about the October 19, 2014 performance of Dawson’s Intrinsic Motion Reconstructed at Zaccho studio in Bayview, San Francisco.

Rachel Howard: I was excited to catch up with your work. I remember seeing your first work, Which Light in the Sky Is Us, danced by Company C.
Gregory Dawson: That was a long time ago. A different world.
RH: Well, we’ll talk about that. For this piece, Intrinsic Motion Reconstructed, I loved the way that you used Zaccho Studio’s gritty space. I’ve been to a lot of ballet performances where the choreographer isn’t using a proscenium stage, and they always seem to be fighting the effect of the dancers being en pointe and close to the audience—You know, “Pretend you can’t hear their point shoes clamoring against the ground!”
GD: I love that sound!
RH: Yeah. The clamor was so of a piece with the atmosphere. Being in that industrial space, and even the industrial neighborhood, it was like a complete experience the moment. I pulled onto that street, like I was in a dream world. Now, at the start of the show, when you gave the audience our initial directions—that we were going to move into a circle in the middle of the performance, and then at the signal we would return to a line across the front—I was dubious. I thought, this is going to feel forced and be a lot of complication for nothing. But it worked.
GD: [Laughs.] Well, when you say a “dream world,” I dream an awful lot. Most of my ideas come in my dreams. My whole idea was to bring you into my headspace. My dreams are usually smooth and connected and I wanted that to happen with the audience. We’d done [moving the chairs around] before, in the spring. The last time people became uncomfortable being asked to do something on the spot. Last time people were less shocked than they were this time. But this time, they understood the action and produced the action really quickly.
RH: Even though it was smooth, I was still uncomfortable and I liked that. Because you’re still in a circle staring at other people during the performance and very aware of other people being able to see you. And something I thought gave the piece a satisfying sense of form was how you started in a more conventional way with the audience in a line up front. And then the audience moving into a circle, which for me really paid off when the dancers started running around and around right behind us . . .
GD: [Mischievous laughing.]
RH: And we could feel the floor shaking. And the floors were really rumbling, and the pointe shoes are loud. And then after you had the audience move the chairs back up front, there was a sense of return to the work’s beginning—but with a difference, because Jordan [Drew] was running right into my face. She was running back and forth in a line and I think she was kicking her pointe shoe within inches of my nose. So there was a return, but an escalation to a greater sense of danger at the same time.
GD: That was my intention. Often people go to shows but they aren’t immersed in them. With a proscenium, I would have approached it differently.
RH: I loved how you were working against the ballerina image of being light and airy—you are going to the extreme opposite, and later too, with the section of men slamming to the floor.
GD: That’s Elizabeth Streb. I spent a whole year of CHIME [Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange] with her and she blew my mind. I spent 22 years with Alonzo [King, artistic director of LINES Ballet]. And he gave me a sense of knowing myself. And I’m very grateful and eternally indebted. And then I met Elizabeth. Alonzo made that possible—he said, you need to go experience this with her. And she schooled me. I walked out of that place 50 feet off the ground. The science of motion, the mathematics of motion—so many aspects I had known but not examined.
RH: Can you give me a quick example?
GD: Examining each inch of space in a motion and where each inch of the path of motion takes you. And really acknowledging it. Examining the path, and how you construct that. Or how is the body stopped when it’s dropped onto a floor. How can I examine that motion so that it is natural and not forced or contrived or cliche?? You know how people fall to the floor in this kind of lovely motion—I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in how do we go from here to there—wham.
RH: What was intriguing was to see that combination of brute physics with being on pointe. That is still not seen much. Also, the costumes were good. I had a bit of resistance at first to the theatricality of the black straps wound around the men’s arm and legs. I liked the high briefs on the men—and the interesting gender choice in that the men were much more exposed than the women, who were fully clothed in leotards.
GD: I was trying to create different worlds, different scenarios, giving people different metaphors. I’m interested in how lines are continued and extended and how we can give the illusion that they continue on forever. And my intention with the webbing was to give that impression. It had nothing to do with the dance. I just thought it was really cool. [Laughter.] It did also seem regal, royal.
RH: It’s very mythological. It kind of reminded me of Martha Graham.
GD: But also, I was giving homage to Harriet Tubman, and how she was a poignant figure and oversaw passages and pathways in leading people . . .
RH: Uh, interesting.
GD: I guess you wouldn’t have gotten that. [Laughter.]
RH: No, but another point of engagement for me was that Jordan was the picture of strength and musculature. Not the skinny, filmy ballerina. And I thought she delivered what I think is your emerging style with the most confidence.
GD: I’ve had her my longest and I call her my rock. Jordan understands the pointe aspect of my work.
RH: Interesting. Because when she came out for her solo in the third part, when she is holding on to the ropes from the ceiling— and I was standing right in front of her in the front row—and I wasn’t even sure why, but I became so fixated on her pointe shoe.
GD: The “intrinsic” part of that section is the shoe, and how she used the shoe to control the turns and come down from pointe.
RH: The other thing I thought interesting is that you start out with the big steel apparatus [shaped like an A with a platform on top and ladders on both sides] that Isaiah [Bindel] is on for his opening solo, and then more apparatuses are introduced one by one, and by the time Jordan did that solo hanging from the ceiling rig I was perceiving the pointe shoe as another kind of apparatus. Another physical edifice that the body uses to push off of.
GD: Totally.
RH: Another thing about the arc of the evening—the reason I was prepared to focus on the pointe shoe was because of the solo that came before, with Ilaria [Guerra] balancing against the wall. At first you’re interested in her balancing with her hips against the wall. But then once you become used to those physics a bit of your attention is freed to look at other mechanics, and that was when my focus first moved to the feet.
GD: Yes, we worked a lot on the articulation of the counterbalance of the pointe shoe and the wall. There was a lot of resistance, though. The dancers fought me tooth the nail. They’re such refined, developed artists, but they really want to know what my approach is so they can help me. And I could do that. But I think the exploration they have to do will show in the work.
RH: I think it’s conditioned within ballet dancers to hide the effort and the mechanics, so that’s what you’re working against—but I could see you working against it in a way that was engaging. And that connected to how you were working with the space rather than against it, letting the industrial qualities of the space come through. And so another thing I loved about Ilaria’s solo—this will sound strange—but there was the wall, and the lighting was great, but then just behind her was an electrical socket—right down by her feet, where your attention was going. I loved that that electrical socket was there.
GD: And that was on purpose.
RH: Oh really?
GD: I wanted people to see how raw the experience was. We are in a former factory—so yes, there’s a socket here, with a plug in it, with an orange tag that says how much wattage it’s delivering.
RH: I think that was a great choice. The last thing: I liked that most of the sections had a clear core movement investigation. In the first section, there was a lot of coming down onto a flat foot, extensions landing in parallel, the men and the women facing off. Then the section of windmilling arms. Then in the circle began the investigation of grabbing one’s own thigh, pushing and pulling the thigh, “what if I use my arm to locomote my leg?” And when they first fell into a bridge pose that initiated the slamming section. And then the rigs started coming in. And when Jordan came out for her solo from the hanging rig and she used it to make that awful violent sound which was horrifying—I just loved that.
GD: To me when I’m creating soundscapes, silences are golden, and the awkward noises that come in. If the music stops and we’re breathing loudly, to me that is the most beautiful sound. So when I was working with Joanna [Haigood, Zaccho Studio’s artistic director] on being safe with the rigging, I decided to make the apparatus the music, because the scraping sound was so wonderfully awkward. It’s piercing, aggressive—and yet this beautiful woman manipulating it.
RH: Yes, that was unforgettable. I can see how you were influenced by Alonzo [King] and have moved away from that—because you were working with Streb, that makes sense. I also found myself thinking of Karole Armitage.
GD: I have never seen her work. I like looking at other’s work, but I am such a sponge. I am still influenced by Alonzo, because he is my mentor.
RH: I still see that in how a dramatic extension will fall swiftly into a lunge.
GD: Yeah. I could turn it off, but it’s like my blood being red. And he means the world to me.
RH: So what would your ideal review of this performance have said?
GD: “It’s really wonderful to see that Gregory Dawson has found his voice.”
RH: Great.
GD: I know who I am now. And the direction I need to go. It took going in Denver [to direct the Dawson Wallace Dance Project, formerly David Taylor Dance, for two years]. It took working with Streb, being a professor [at the LINES Ballet BFA program at Dominican University]. Being a choreographer and directing are two different things, because you have to cultivate artists. I’m comfortable as a creator—directing is something still in progress.
RH: So now I have to do the uncomfortable part. There were some places where I was less aware of what the central movement investigation was, and my attention wandered. The first solo against the wall, the smaller man holding on from above—that section struck me as more “pose”-y. I thought it would make a beautiful photograph, but I wasn’t sure what was happening.
GD: It was actually choreographed on another person, a much larger man.
RH: That’s so interesting. Because the audience’s assumption is that it’s being danced just as the choreographer intends.
GD: I had to interpret it differently with a dancer who was younger, lighter and very sylph-like.
RH: Alexander Vargas is definitely sylph-like.
GD: So for me it was an exercise in muscle-building, and trying to get him to move from brute strength. I think in four more performances he’ll get there. But I agree with you.
RH: And the hoop solo had kind of the same effect.
GD: Yes. Isaiah did that solo. For me it was a little showy, which
is not its fullest intent. Sometimes when dancers are out of their sense of being they go into putting on. The intent of the solo was to have the body be the apparatus and the hoop be the focal point. You’re right.
RH: It’s not about being right or wrong, just about how you experience it.
GD: Well, you have these young artists you are trying to cultivate, trying to give them the power to explore—as Alonzo did with me. So, my note to Isaiah was that he was controlling the pose. It becomes narcissistic, indulged—I can give him that direction. My job is to give them the knowledge to do the exercise I want to see on the stage.
RH: You have another weekend with them to keep growing. . . So two other points. This one is a delicate issue. The music [recorded selections by Alton San Giovanni, Hamza El Din, and Guem] in some ways was effective, especially when something from the exterior world would blend in, and I felt the work in the studio merging with the world at large. But I noticed at some point, even moving between the deep bass sounds and the rhythmic, percussive sections, the music was becoming monotonous. I’m not sure as an artist how you deal with that because I know you’re going for an extended dream state, and there’s a delicate balance to be found.
GD: I really like awkward. And sometimes awkward hits people the wrong way. I like weird.
RH: Hmm. For me, the “weird” sounds—like the grating of the rig against the ceiling when Jordan was swinging the ropes—that worked. But the recorded selections . . . I respect it’s your choice, but I wondered if there was a way to bring in more diversity of sound without puncturing that dream world.
GD: There is. I usually do most of my music myself. But for me I thought that when we dream, what we’re dreaming is different from what is happening. A smooth thing happening and a harsh sound in the background—and when you wake up you feel in the pit of your stomach that it’s still there.
RH: One last issue: It may have to do how titles effect our perception of a work—what a strong framing device they are. If a viewer feels the title is imprecise, that can set you up to have objections you might not otherwise. Because this was titled Intrinsic Movement, the title set me on the path of wanting something that would be more . . . I mean, I know the movements were organic within the bodies, but as the work went on, it seemed to be about being leveraged by something outside of the body. And—so—“intrinsic movement,” um—I thought the impulses that were in the body, initiating things—I guess I didn’t see how the movement investigation was different from what might be called in a more blanket way, “movement investigation.” I didn’t understand what made it “intrinsic.”
GD: I had a lot of examples in my head. You know how when the heart pumps blood to the veins—that’s intrinsic motion. When we move that apparatus, something inside of us impels us to move the apparatus. That in my mind was the intrinsic action. Or, yeah . . . I can see why you’re saying that, but . . .
RH: Well, it also might be that the word chosen was imprecise. It’s a language thing.
GD: Yeah.
RH: Because “intrinsic” is a word in high circulation, so it stops having that specificity of meaning that apparently it had for you.
GD: Titles to me are something that I create in my mind and mean something to me. And if the audience has their own ideas about that, they can ask me.
RH: Well, I think that titles are a difficult issue, and I respect that for some artists they don’t matter at all, but it’s interesting that for a lot of audience members they wield a great deal of influence.
GD: Yeah. I struggled with whether the title would create preconceived ideas. But I’m the creator, I’m creating something for the audience to observe and have questions about. They can ask and I’ll gladly answer. I won’t be literal, because I think people should have their own ideas about what they see, and if it coordinates with my ideas . . .
RH: I think that the artist should never be put in the position of defending a certain interpretation. That’s not what art is about. I agree with you about that.

Gregory P. Dawson, formed dawsondancesf in 2007. Dawson is a former LINES Ballet dancer has also been on faculty for all of LINES Ballet Educational Programs and the San Francisco High School for the Arts for the past 8 years. In 2009 he became As- sistant Director of the CCCSA Dance Dept. In 2011 he became Artistic Director of DawsonlWallace Dance project. Dawson was selected to receive a CHIME grant to be mentored by Elizabeth Streb. dawsondancesf premiered work in New York City fall 2014.

This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of In Dance.

Rachel Howard has written about dance in the Bay Area for about 16 years. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and many other publications. She also writes memoir and fiction.