Critical Dialogues: Heather Desaulniers and Katherine Hawthorne

By Rachel Howard

January 1, 2015, 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 fifth installment, dancer and choreographer Katharine Hawthorne met for coffee with critic Heather Desaulniers to talk about the November 21, 2014 performance of Clockwork, which featured two of Hawthorne’s recent works, Pulse and The Escapement, at ODC theater.

Heather Desaulniers: In Clockwork, you joined two pieces together in a single program at ODC. Is this the first time that you’ve had multiple works in the same evening?

Katharine Hawthorne: Yes and no. For the last couple of years, I’ve been really focused on making full-length works—something that can carry the whole evening. But the first performance that I self-produced had three different pieces on it that were shorter, at Shotwell Studios before that space closed.

So, this [Clockwork] was a shift from what I’ve been doing recently. It was partially in response to feeling out the audience’s appetite. And that it might be really helpful to offer a shorter idea and then to dive into something that felt more fully fleshed out.

HD: Thinking about the audience’s appetite interests me. Do you mean what they’re looking for? Or their attention span?

KH: I’m really curious about how people enter into work. Maybe it’s helpful to let people get in the room and then delve into something that feels really deep and thick after that.

HD: Like how chefs will sometimes bring out a little sampling of food.

KH: Exactly, like a little hors d’oeuvre or a taster. We were thinking about Pulse [the first dance] as kind of an opening act and then The Escapement [the second work] was the main thing.

HD: The two were very different, but they were definitely joined by this common theme of time. Where did that come from?

KH: It emerged out of an earlier work – Analog in February 2013. I think you came to see it.

HD: Is that the one with the overhead…

KH: Projections.

HD: And they were patent drawings, right?

KH: I love the specificity of those drawings. There was an image in that piece [Analog] of a clock, a very mechanical motion that then turned into a heartbeat. It felt like a really strong moment to me and I wanted to understand why. So I ended up going on this yearlong adventure looking at time. I became really curious about timekeeping, and how different methods of timekeeping have shaped how we experience the world around us.

HD: I really enjoyed Pulse, and a number of different things spoke to me. My first impression of the piece is that it looked like a gym class. The costumes were like a gym uniform—the quartet was wearing matching elastic-waist shorts and T-shirts. Early on, the dancers cycled through a series of different callisthenic-like tasks, like running or tuck jumps. And in between activities, they would stop and take their pulse or have someone else take their pulse.

KH: Well, we definitely were playing with those ideas with the costuming and the task-driven opening. There was a sense of measuring your own pulse and trying to do something that would manipulate your pulse.

HD: I also think that those first tasks and activities set up an egalitarian and relatable experience for the audience. The choreography included movements that are part of everyday physical vocabulary; they were recognizable. That really struck me in those first sequences. And of course, the heartbeat also has that universal nature.

Speaking of the heartbeat, you used a real stethoscope throughout Pulse. The dancers periodically picked it up to listen to their heartbeats and the sound also became part of the score. The heartbeat sounds were happening in real-time, right?

KH: They were—that was important to me because we’ve heard a lot of recorded heartbeats in dance. I wanted it to be live. The heartbeat is so concrete and tangible, I feel like it cuts through a lot of the “this is contemporary dance and I don’t understand it”.

HD: And that’s what I mean by egalitarian—sitting in the audience, you can say to yourself, “I know what that is”.

KH: Yes, exactly. And I really loved the moment when the dancers first amplify their heartbeats and the sound is much louder than you think it’s going to be.

HD: With it being in real-time, did that present any problems or challenges?

KH: There were a couple of challenges. One was that we wanted to be really intentional about how the live sound interacted with the recorded score.

HD: Right, because it [the heartbeats] became only a part of the score.

KH: Exactly. I felt like it was important to have other landmarks and other sonic things happening so I had to figure out how the pre-recorded music could be integrated with the live music. Having to choreograph the sound, in a sense. I do all of my sound editing and I really like to pull pieces from local musicians and edit them together in a way that supports the work. With this piece, I had to re-think how I would normally edit the sound. It had to be much more porous, allowing those moments for the live heartbeat to come through.

HD: And also because it was real-time, I’m imagining that it wasn’t ever the same, or maybe it was…

KH: Things always vary a bit from performance to performance but by the time we got to the theater, it was fairly consistent. The main issue we had was volume, because some of the dancers had much fainter heartbeats than others depending on how much activity they had done.

HD: Pulse didn’t have a traditional narrative. But it did have a clear concept—this idea of the pulse and the heartbeat. How was it to communicate something so internal through performance?

KH: Yeah, I was really interested in that—the internality of it, the internal notion of timing and the personal sense. I think it is remarkable performers who are able to take something that is inside and put it out there without being really performative. Sharing it, in a very honest and generous way.

HD: Authentic.

KH: Right. That felt like an important part of this piece—saying “this is my experience, this is what I feel internally and I’m going to dance it out”. One solo I really loved was where Suzette [Sagisi] was amplifying her heartbeat and then Megan [Wright] was dancing to it. To have someone else dance to your heartbeat feels very important and personal.

HD: There was one part where I was a little lost. The four dancers were all in a circle and they were backing up toward each other. What was going on there?

KH: We talked about pulse in a couple of different ways, not just as a heartbeat but pulse in music and pulse in physics or engineering—like a single waveform. And I was really interested in how that gets passed between people. So the concept for that section was this idea of passing a pulse between the bodies. There was an impulse that was moving around behind them and between them as they were backing up.

HD: And did the backing up inform how that pulse would change, as they got closer together?

KH: Yes, and it was also about sensing and being connected to each other, trying to pick up information and pass it without being able to see it. Then from more of a structural perspective, it was the idea of the four chambers of the heart.

HD: Ah!

KH: Once they got really close together, the final image was inspired, at least, by the physical structure of the heart. Not that I was expecting anyone in the audience to necessarily make that connection.

HD: Before we move onto The Escapement [the second dance on the Clockwork program], I had one last question about Pulse. The ending, where the dancers were running backwards, seemed to come out of nowhere; I would even say that it was shockingly abrupt.

KH: I think it read differently in the theatrical space than in rehearsal. But it did end up serving the same purpose of abruptness and feeling cut off. In the beginning, the dancers are manipulating their heart rates through physical activity. But I was also really curious about how different tasks could manipulate your heart rate from a more emotional or mental perspective and so I worked with running backward a lot in developing the piece.

HD: Like being scared of running backwards?

KH: Exactly – and having that kind of fight or flight response. And so that’s where that very last image of the running backwards came from. I would have loved it if there had been a deeper space and the running backward had continued. Because we had the footlights [at the front of the stage], you knew that the dancers weren’t going to run into the audience.

HD: Onto The Escapement. My favorite thing about this piece is the clock/timepiece imagery. Sometimes it is very literal, like that early moment when the ensemble is lying on their sides and walking their legs around in a circle, or later, when the dancers are spinning around a central hub or the section where they are arranged in various machine-like group clusters.

I’ve seen this piece before [in May of 2014 at the Joe Goode Annex] and so it’s hard for me not to compare it to last time. This iteration of The Escapement looked very different, and in a good way. Do you agree that it evolved in the past six months?

KH: Yes, that was part of the intention of having two presentations of it in two really different spaces: “How can this change and grow?” And I wanted to be very responsive to each space in which it was being presented. A three quarter round [in the Annex] versus a proscenium [in ODC Theater] is pretty different. I think both had strengths, but it felt really satisfying to allow it to gestate over time. Let it change.

HD: And mature. If I’m remembering correctly, at the May performance you taped a sundial in the center of the space. That sundial was central, not just physically in the center of the stage space, but central choreographically.

KH: It felt like that was important in the Annex because of the three quarter round. With opening up the piece to a multiplicity of viewpoints, it needed a center. I was really thinking about how things read when you have one point of view versus seeing the body in its whole three hundred and sixty degrees. I think that’s why structurally and choreographically things changed. After the performance in May, the opening of the piece was also not working the way that I wanted it to. I felt like it didn’t draw people in and give them the feeling that I was working for, so the major revisions to the dance were in the first half.

HD: At the May performance, the dancers moved the lights around which we didn’t see at ODC.

KH: I worked with lighting designer David Robertson in the ODC production and he and I were already talking back in May. There is something about timekeeping, especially before mechanical clocks, that is very tied to light, and the movement of light. So, it felt like an important research step to have moving light in various forms in the piece. In May, we decided to have the performers manipulate the light and then to make it more theatrical for this presentation [at ODC]. That change was intentional and it was a research step.

HD: My main question about The Escapement overall is one of dynamics. Even though there is a variety in terms of the movement and the staging, it seems like the piece stays at a stable and consistent dynamic level throughout its forty minutes. Do you think that the dynamic level has something to do with the stability and repetitiveness of time passing?

KH: It does feel like there is something about it that is ‘ongoing’. There is that ‘hum’; the feeling of intervals of time passing and always being the same.

HD: How do you reconcile an ongoing dynamic with a lengthy piece?

KH: Well one of things that I felt after May was that the piece created a very strong environment; this bedrock of something. And I was curious if pulling out individual voices might give it a sense of more variation…

HD: Like a layered-ness?

KH: Yes, and so in this version, another of the compositional changes we made was adding a few more solos, and pulling out individual voices while the group continued with the world we were creating.

HD: Like in the series of spotlight solos [dancers were featured and illuminated in a pool of light from above].

KH: Exactly. There were moments where someone would pull away. I think because of its duration, it’s something that I struggled with in this piece—keeping the audience attention without feeling like we go into a drone state.

HD: One part that I was really drawn to was the canoned movement section, where you are all standing in the line. And after commenting that the dynamics remained more or less stable, I did notice a shift there.

KH: I think the section you are talking about is where the dancers are in a line and then the line sort of fractures. That moment is actually really pivotal. So the piece is called The Escapement and an escapement is a mechanism in a clock that portions time with a back and forth motion. What happens in that section is that the dancers are working with an organic looping phrase and from the back of the stage to the front, they morph into doing these shoulder shifts side-to-side. In a way, that is the moment when we go from this continuous organic to the beginning of something…

HD: More mechanical…

KH: That felt to me like the heart of what I was getting at.

HD: So it’s a shift in the movement, in the style of the choreography itself, and also when you start to talk about a different part of the concept.

KH: Right, if you look at the structure of the piece, in the beginning, there is the organic natural sense of time and that’s the moment in the middle, where we start to transition into the mechanical world. It feels very rich, in that it’s the meeting of those two places.

HD: What would your dream review have said?

KH: That’s a really hard one. Mostly what is important to me is that a reviewer or an audience member engage with the work. Like you said, I don’t work in a traditional narrative construct. If there’s something that provokes a thought, regardless of what that is, then that feels really successful to me. There are these strong ideas that you can carry with you, like the heartbeat and internal sense of time or a technological and external passing of time.

Because I self-identify as both a dancer and a choreographer, having a response to the dancing is also really important to me. How did the dancing make you feel? What did you see? I try to create opportunities for the dancers to really fully dance and hopefully that is something that people can enjoy and appreciate. The dancers that I work with are remarkable people; there’s quite a range in background and point of view and they each bring something really distinct to the performance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer, critic and historian based in Oakland. She is the dance curator for SF Arts, the SF/Bay Area columnist for criticaldance.org and a frequent guest contributor at danceadvantage.net. Her article “Archiving Dance – The Necessity of Collaboration” was recently published in Bourgeon: Fifty Artists Write About their Work.

Katharine Hawthorne is a San Francisco based dancer and choreographer who likes to watch thinking bodies in motion. khawthorne.net


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.

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