Dance of death: FACT/SF’s festive and funereal 10th anniversary

By Claudia Bauer

September 1, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Elation, frustration, wonder, befuddlement – one experiences a full spectrum of thoughts and feelings at a FACT/SF performance. Founded by Charles Slender-White in 2008, the company’s oeuvre spans more than 30 works, from 2010’s intimate, intensely theatrical Consumption Series to 2016’s (dis)integration, an immersive dance/lecture exploring displacement and Roma heritage, and 2017’s wondrous Platform, a meticulously twinned duet for Slender-White and Liane Burns. For its 10th anniversary, FACT/SF will premiere the immersive ensemble work death at CounterPulse.

FACT/SF’s horizons are far-reaching. The company has done tours and residencies in Russia and Eastern Europe – after death, they head off for Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia – and Slender-White created the commissioning program JuMP (Just Make a Piece), the West Coast touring endeavor PORT (Peer Organized Regional Touring) and this August’s Summer Dance Festival.

Founding company member Catherine Newman and Slender-White met in 2003 at U.C. Berkeley, where he double-majored in English literature and dance and performance studies, and she studied dance while earning her PhD in mechanical engineering. We sat down in his CounterPulse office, and they reflected on a decade of ups, downs and dances.

Two dancers sitting in chairs one standing on top, all wearing white "A-Line" Shirts and white briefs, looking at red balloon across the room
FACT/SF in What She Taught Me photo by Tawnee Kendall

Claudia Bauer: The first piece of yours I saw was The Consumption Series at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, in 2010. Since then, whatever you do, I’m curious. I don’t always like it, but I’m always curious. More often than not, I love it.

Charles Slender-White: I love all my little dance babies, but The Consumption Series was so wild. That was such a wild space to work in. They were like, “Here’s the keys. You want to paint the floor? You want to figure out how to use the freight elevator? Go for it.” It was such a wonderful sense of possibility. And we were all a lot younger, and that critical lens that tells you something might not be a great choice wasn’t developed yet. It allowed us to make a lot of choices that, if I had to make that piece now –

Catherine Newman: It would be much different.

CSW: I’m not going to say more conservative, but probably a little less wild.

CB: Because you’re on to different things? Or because you know now what you didn’t know then?

CSW: The questions that we were asking in The Consumption Series, I’m not as curious about those things. I wasn’t concerned with the through-line; I didn’t really care. I cared about an energetic arc. Parts of it were much more imagistic than the work that we’ve made since then. Like the first 7 minutes was us dancing around with buckets on our heads. We couldn’t see anything, and we each had to turn off a light and then go into the freight elevator. If someone got lost and couldn’t find their light, then the other three in the elevator just had to wait.

CB: Did that happen?

CSW: Yeah!

CN: What comes from that piece was this really significant patience that we developed with each other. Like, “I did not mean to go 180 in the wrong direction, but the options are: I give up and take the bucket off my head, or I do my best to figure it out.” That really established a foundation of trust and a way of working that has propagated itself through the 10 years.

CSW: In those early, early years, we were figuring out how to not just create the space for that to happen: we are going to feel that anxiety inside, and we are going to feel like our colleagues should hurry the fuck up because the piece needs to move on, and we are just going to sit in that discomfort until it gets resolved. And we’re going to trust that the audience is capable of sitting with us.

CN: One of the things that I’m really proud of is our unique audience. Not just because they’re really committed to us, but they’re also really diverse, and that means a lot to me. What it feels like to me is that our audience gets to bring their whole self to the show. That makes me happy.

CB: The integrity of the creation process is what interests you.

CSW: It’s always a bit strange when we start a process, because people want to know what it is, how long it’s going to be. Even with death – is it optimistic, is it pessimistic, do we die and go to heaven? And when I tell people I don’t know the answer, it’s often disappointing to the person I’m talking to. By the time we get something onstage, there’s often a point of view that materializes.

CN: It’s true that a point of view comes out, but it never feels to me like “this dance is on death.” It’s like, “Here’s some portion of how I feel about things, right now, at this stage in my life.”

CB: FACT/SF works are mentally and physically intense – the dancers’ focus and energy make it exhilarating to watch.

CSW: There’s this really nice cumulative effect that happens when you have been seeing the same dancer onstage for the whole piece, you’re seeing their costume get all wrangled and weird, and sweat and heavy breathing. Making the labor visible is interesting to me.

dancer has chin on chair in grey room with body forms
FACT/SF in Remains photo by Gema Galina

CB: So how have you made it through the inevitable frustrations of running a company for 10 years?

CSW: I’ve never been bored with the work. I have not sat down to write a budget, or gone to rehearsals, or been writing a card to a donor, or buying plane tickets for a tour, all of the many things that the job entails – they’ve never once been boring. They’ve been frustrating, they’ve been exhausting, they’ve been disheartening, but not boring. I think that’s related to this persistent and insistent curiosity, and letting the curiosity drive the process, rather than the expectation.

CB: And not wanting to get a real job.

CSW: It’s because I’m so work-averse. I’m too lazy to get a job. [laughter] And then there is the whole FACT/SF family – whenever I’m starting to feel like ugh, what’s the point, I’ll get an email or a phone call or a text message, and I’ll think, oh, the work has value. There is also this field-development component that I find almost as satisfying as the art-making. When we decided to do JuMP, or PORT, or my consulting work – all of those things are coming out of my deep love for dance and dancers and dance-making, and a real sense of frustration about why things don’t work better. It feels empowering.

CN: It’s never been about sticking with it; that’s never been a question for me. I have a total trust with Charlie, in terms of his rigor and his way of working. I sincerely learn a lot about myself, the way my body moves, things that I end up implementing and taking into my other work and my life, from every project.

CB: You’ve performed in Russia, Bulgaria, Seattle, Portland, LA. How has that come about?

CSW: All of the tours have resulted from casual conversations with real people as I’ve encountered them. It’s following up on conversations that start after class, or over a beer, or someone emails you. PORT came about because [former ODC Theater Director] Christy Bolingbroke introduced me and the LA Contemporary Dance Company directors at APAP [Association of Performing Arts Professionals], and we just kept talking. It’s finding where the needs of the local partner meet or match the needs that we have to create an opportunity that’s mutually beneficial.

CB: What about when things go wrong?

CSW: All of the no’s are difficult to absorb. But the clearer I am about what I’m working on and why, they can still be disappointing without being tragic. We’ve had enough years when things went pretty sideways and we still managed to put on a season of work.

CB: So let’s talk about death.

CSW: It’s the fourth piece in this series of curiosities. We made one last year called Remains, then one in 2018 called Life, and I did a little solo called Memoria… The curiosity for me is not about the process of dying, or the anxiety that people might have around mortality; it’s more around the role that grief plays in a living person’s life. Another upper from FACT/SF. We’re known for our easy-going, lighthearted dances. [laughter]. Next year we need to make a clown dance or something.

CB: How does grief manifest in the choreography?

CN: I have no doubt that everyone in that room has their own real feelings about death and grief, and in a weird way, I have this understanding that we’re all in some way bringing that to the work, even though we won’t explicitly talk about our experiences.

CSW: Memory is something that comes up a lot with grief. What can it be to think about a choreographic phrase that changes over time? How do you make choreographic changes visible to an audience – are you really asking them to learn a phrase in their minds to notice the difference? I think part of it will be really beautiful; I think part of it will be hard to tolerate. I think all dances are about death in some way. Not all the dances –

CN: Yours!

CSW: [laughter] Either individual versus society, or it’s death, and often both. But I think that I didn’t have the confidence to name that until now.

CB: Is that confidence the result of working for ten years?

CSW: I could not have foreseen, and I had not ever heard from another choreographer, that you can use your dances as a way to learn more about making dances. The work of 10 years is starting to seem like, “Oh, I didn’t think about this as a long-term, durational education project in addition to a dance-making thing.” I’ve figured out a way to continue to play with form and composition. Maybe that’s why I’m not bored.

This article appeared in the September 2018 edition 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