CULTIVATING RELATIONSHIP: Randee Paufve Reflects on How Dancing Can be Communicative and Evocative

By Kate Mattingly

January 1, 2016, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

RANDEE PAUFVE’S PRODUCTION, Strangers Become Flowers, will have its premiere in February at ODC Commons Studio B. In November I watched a run-through at Shawl-Anderson that lasted about 45 minutes and imagined that Randee and I would talk afterwards about her creative process. Instead, her dancers, Rogelio Lopez, Elizebeth Randall, Andrew Merrell, Juliana Monin, Nadia Oka, and Mechelle Tunstall, made time to stay and join the conversation. It was a moment that spoke to how deeply collaboration and long-term investment have informed this new work.

Strangers Become Flowers invites us to notice how communities are formed, how an instant intimacy can emerge with total strangers, how we foster relationships, and how we find place in people. In many ways the creation of this production shapes and reflects its own topics. The dancers talked about the significance of trust and respect, elements that become especially important in times of precarity and displacement. Trust and respect are also through-lines of Paufve’s teaching, choreography, and performances, qualities that make her a valued and vital part of the Bay Area dance landscape.

In December of 2014, Paufve participated in Luna Dance Institute’s ChoreoFund, where she showed about six minutes of material from Strangers Become Flowers and won the evening’s funds. This financing has helped to pay the dancers and has affirmed the vitality of the choreography: Strangers Become Flowers is a work that has communicated across varied audiences, and as Paufve says, “audience consideration is primary.”

Kate Mattingly: I remember the May 2015 Bare Bones event when over 100 people attended a run-through of the work and the response was enthusiastic among different generations and backgrounds. At what point do you consider your audiences?

Randee Paufve: Sometimes I worry there’s an issue we don’t want to face in modern and contemporary dance performance and that is: the dancers are having more fun than the audience. It’s really fun to get to dance, to perform. But the audience is sitting in their seats watching performers having an experience. Of course it’s individualistic how we respond to performances, and sometimes I am just tired or hungry, or I go in really wanting to like something. But I notice when I feel I am drawn into a work, or when I feel like there’s a wall, I’m completely outside of it. I’m really paying attention to that with this piece, how to work in traditional theater format, and still connect with our audience beyond performers showing their stuff and audiences politely viewing.

I love the lines between rawness and refinement, between technique and emotion and I have a cast of very fine dancers who also have a raw, wild energy. This is a group of dancers who do not fit outdated molds or stereotypes of dancer bodies, of what some people might expect a dancer or a dance company to look like. I value individuality and uniqueness, have never been interested in making the kind of work that denies differences, and this dance is created with and performed by a group of people who can dance but who also look like people, who look like our world. People have expressed surprise, that these dancers don’t all look like dancers, in the stereotypical sense, and I thank god for that, because it is well beyond time to smash such notions.

Paufve’s rehearsal process: Retaining individuality within unison

KM: How did you develop the movement? Was it a collaborative process with the dancers?

RP: During the very first rehearsals I was bringing in material, which became the foundational movement. From there we launched, and the dancers have had a huge voice in shaping movement. For instance, two of the more recent group sections came out of improvisations that I recorded and studied, later asking the dancers to learn and tie together many tiny snippets of movement.

Andrew Merrell: Then you would give us scored improvisations so that we could take the movement you had given us and make it more of our own, mess around with it.

KM: There’s something powerful about the coexistence of differences so that, even in the unison sections, each dancer keeps a sense of individuality. In other words each person brings a distinctive quality to the movement that I find intriguing and I’m curious about how that quality is retained and fostered?

RP: I’m so happy that you said that because it’s a goal of mine and it’s important to me that the differences live.

Nadia Oka: I think throughout the process Randee has fostered the idea that we are these, for lack of better word, personas. Some were named, and some were never named. They emerged from movement that we created. So our personas developed and grew and matured throughout this year. Thematically too it’s about each of us as individuals learning about and finding each other. So this idea of connection between strangers was cultivated from the beginning. We are also so clearly individual movers with different bodies that there was also a tacit understanding that this is who we will always be.

Mechelle and Rogelio in a suet
Photo by Tony Nguyen

RP: There’s also a technique called “points of departure” I learned from my mentor and colleague Beth Harris, through which dancers clarify and refine movement, and retain their individuality even in unison. In this, dancers are asked to comb through every movement, to define the moments where one idea ends and a new one begins, that crystalline place of split second stillness. If this is a unison phrase, they come back together and it’s always really interesting because these individual phrasing decisions actually makes for clearer unison.

Elizebeth Randall: What I also found really fulfilling in this process is that we learned each other’s movement and translated it into our own expression and that created a new language that we all share.

KM: I noticed a sense of clarity and groundedness that each person brought to the material and wonder if this has to do with working together for a year?

AM: Living in a piece for a year does ground us. And it feels different today than it did a year ago. Even when we come back together, after a break from rehearsals, it’s as if there was a natural bonding that took place and I don’t just mean the friendships that develop, but something that happens when we dance.

Rogelio Lopez: There’s also something special about learning material, and then leaving it and coming back to it, that lets it incubate. It’s fresh because it lived in our bodies without us doing it. It feels like new information. It means we look at each other and take cues from each other.

NO: We also nurture each other and watch other’s solos and give feedback and Randee gave us space to ask why we are doing certain things and to talk to each other.

To me that talking was really important and rare. It’s not like the model where a choreographer tells dancers to do something, but we are really seeing each other and that fosters a rootedness because I can trust myself and others.

ER: When I watch you dance and I know you and who you are. There’s so much history formed out of this process that came from the conversations.

RL: Respect and trust comes from the conversations and feeds the conversation.

AM: Every three months we would have a rehearsal where the movement would stop and we would have a conversation. That was really helpful.

RL: we also drew pictures!

ER: I think we would agree that the piece has a life of its own that each time we come into rehearsal it feels like stepping into the forest. The piece keeps regenerating with depths and layers as time has evolved. The piece doesn’t feel like something we do, but rather something we go into.

RP: I ask a lot of these dancers and place a lot of trust in people I work with. This is a very special cast that has taken me places I haven’t gone before. I create movement and then ask them what it is! I can ask them anything and they will create it. In this there’s a common language and a common trust that has developed.

AM: I think it has a lot to do with the environment cultivated by a leader because I have been in situations with choreographers who demand certain things and dancers don’t want to give it to them.

RL: And Randee gives us time to explore. She’s not a choreographer who expects something in 10 minutes.

Mechelle Tunstall: As a dancer I’ve grown so much by being around these amazing people and by being asked things I didn’t know I could do, discovering abilities I have or don’t have. And the points of departure work has helped me both inside and outside of this process.

A group of dancers
Photo by Tony Nguyen

Cultivating trust and care

KM: It’s a performance about instability and unfamiliarity and at the same time the presence of trust and care is palpable. I am interested in how you cultivate that dialectic.

RP: I think it goes back to the idea of places between, or opposing ideas, such as the line between rawness and refi nement, and this is developed by having the dancers live in the material, to know it well enough that they can take risks and blow it out. It’s really important to me in an artistic process that the dancers are safe as can be, that we all work as smart as we possibly can. I am so completely disinterested in any material or ways of working that hurts dancers. For me, dancers need to know the material and trust it. This way they can take true risks, as opposed to risks by dint of not having enough time to develop the work. There’s a beauty to those fi rst showings of a dance that are really raw and crazy magical, but it can’t sustain itself in a set work. I’m interested in how we stay in this raw state and I think one answer is you have to have muscle: muscle memory and physical muscular development suited to the needs of the dance. You need technique to release from technique. It can’t just be released. There needs to be some structure to hold onto.

KM: It reminds me of a quote from a jazz musician who told his students, “You learn technique in order to forget technique.” Meaning that technique is not an end, rather technique, for dancers, signers and musicians, is developed for both protection and freedom. In Strangers Become Flowers, I sense this freedom: dancers shift from humans to creatures, from people to personas, but it’s subtle and seamless.

RP: Great quote. And yes, there is a sense of ancientness in this dance, of a time before time, of beings half creature, half human, of beings moving fluidly between worlds, of no fixed place or time. I am looking at ancient archetypes and developing movement that’s not about modern people with modern sensibilities.

An important part of the world(s) we are creating will be the music. I’m collaborating with sound designer Teddy Hulsker, working with sound/music almost as a set. We’re grappling with ideas about music and place, trying to find music, sounds, and voices both familiar and unfamiliar, music that keeps us wondering where we are in the world at any given moment, yet trying to understand and be conscious of cultural appropriation, or music that is too obvious, dealing with lyrics, etc. I’m interested in music helping both performers and audience fi nd ways into and through this work, and am also sick of a certain kind of droning, modern dancey music that we hear so often. The feedback I got from the Bare Bones showing was that audiences really responded to the “fun” music. I want to be rigorous about this work and not just cater to audiences, and I’m also aware that these choices, especially for audience members not familiar with contemporary dance, give people a way in. That matters to me and I feel caught sometimes, between I guess high art and populist art, I want to be aware of decisions based on my training or trends in the art world that speak to the art world but not necessarily to the rest of the world. It’s tricky.

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.