On a recent afternoon in Emeryville, Sonsherée Giles and Sebastian Grubb gave a work-in-progress showing of their upcoming duet, Fabric Animal, to long-time Bay Area choreographer Nancy Karp. They have both performed in Nancy’s work in recent years and she was generous to offer her studio, time, and perspective to help develop the work. Here’s an excerpt of their recorded interview from that day.
Nancy Karp: When did the two of you meet?
Sonsherée Giles: We met in 2008 at an AXIS Dance Company Audition. Sebastian was auditioning.
Sebastian Grubb: Sonsherée and I had four or five years dancing together inside AXIS and did a lot of improvisation, ensemble work and partnering there.
Sonsherée: We worked with a lot of different choreographers and were exposed to many different creative processes together. We also shared a lot of traveling, performing and teaching through AXIS. What’s been reinforced for me over the years with Sebastian is this tremendous sense of trust between us. It allows me to push boundaries and take more risks, because I know I’m safe.
Nancy: That shows very clearly in you dancing together, on both sides, even in this in-progress showing. Tell me about Fabric Animal. How did it begin?
Sonsherée: We got together to talk about our current artistic interests. I said, I love making fabric landscapes and dance partnering.
Sebastian: And for me it was studying anatomy and writing poetry. So those four elements became the starting point for our work. And for me, with studying and teaching anatomy and biomechanics to dancers, one of the great metaphors is fabric, because one of the tissue types, fascia, sure acts and looks like fabric. It weaves together different parts of the body.
Fabric became this metaphor that translated across right away and brought us to this idea that we can consider ourselves like fabric animals. That takes the individual outside a human cultured context and more into having a body-through-time, and being woven through time to a history of a species, history of our families, history of our own lives, and how the of weaving of those things comes to the present moment, which for us is this show.
Sonsherée: Also, how this embodied history is always informing how we make things and what we do. Fabric Animal is a vessel of time. It’s also a nest that we’re building for our bodies to inhabit so the audience can witness that and inhabit their own bodies in a different way.
Nancy: What’s it like collaborating together to create movement for this piece?
Sonsherée: It’s amicable and we take turns directing. I definitely draw on animals and landscape and nature in general, and I think because Seb and I are quite grounded people and have been dancing so much, it’s been this extremely organic, unfolding process.
Sebastian: Making dance material is easy for us; we just start improvising together or take an image, like “you have threads coming out of your back, reaching into your past”, and then start moving with that image as inspiration and focus. We create material, video it, and start to consolidate the strong choices. And in our partnering, it’s not so much Sonsherée and Sebastian making choices, it’s some kind of emergent third being that ends up making choices about the partnering and what the movement is. I love that.
Nancy: Have any challenges arisen for you in creating this work? (Besides scheduling!)
Sonsherée: We are definitely asking some challenging questions about the work, like How do we subvert the lens of viewing this piece as being about two white, heterosexual, non-disabled, male-female people, and why is that relevant right now? How do we want people to see it? Will our audience think it’s just another romantic male-female duet? It’s an awareness that impacts our creative choices.
Sebastian: We keep asking, How might this be viewed? Are there obvious interpretations that are prejudiced in a way that we don’t want? Our aim is to get into a body-based, internal-sensing experience. We’re trying to create images that haven’t been seen before, that the audience wouldn’t expect to see. We want to create a different kind of world that allows them to enter imaginatively with us.
Nancy: Why is now the right time to for this collaborative piece?
Sonsherée: I was ready to go deeper in my dancing with Sebastian, as well as in my own work. I want to be held accountable for what I make. I am ready to take that responsibility and ready for us to be able to direct our own work and have full say in what we make together.
Sebastian: It feels like the right time in knowing each other to create something that has this reflection over time. The structure of how we’re making the piece feels like a reflection of how we relate to each other as Sonsherée and Sebastian, and as “embodied sculptural beings through time.” (Laughs)
Sonsherée: I was thinking about how everything that happens to us in the studio and outside the studio is informing how we are as people and how we interact with others in the world. Once you get a chunk of time with a person, that information tends to be at the forefront of how you make decisions with them. Both the good and bad things that have happened are coming with us and it feels like now is the time to do something with both the joy and the grief of time and how things change.
Sebastian: I’ve been thinking about what it means to even sense your own body. It feels like that practice is being dissolved away from the culture that we’re in as well as in the specific cultural shift that is happening very rapidly in the Bay Area. So, as people who want to have a strong body sense and also share that, it feels like an important time to continue making work that encourages inner-sensing. If you look at the Bay Area culture changing, it feels important—it’s a little urgent, actually—that we have work that gets people into the earth of themselves.
Nancy: Do you see Fabric Animal as touching on a historical moment in body-based art?
Sebastian: The Bay Area has a long history of somatic disciplines, of body-first movement and educational disciplines, and so in that way, yeah, we’re seated in the kingdom of somatics and we can draw on that. It’s very much in the lineage of that, as well as within contemporary dance culture, and in our own experience with AXIS Dance Company, which breaks open the notions and parameters about what dancer bodies are and all the forms that bodies can have.
We also have a lot of experience with contact improvisation, and that kind of deep listening, sensing, sudden decision-making and spontaneous choreographing that happens, which is also a major feature of the Bay Area. It’s one of the global centers for Contact Improvisation. So I think it makes sense that we’re drawing on all those themes specifically to make the art.
Nancy: Is there anything you want to add about how this work is specific to the culture and also aesthetic of the Bay Area?
Sonsherée: We’ve both been dancing here for so many years and have worked with so many choreographers. I can feel the impulses of these different dancers and dancemakers moving through me. I’m also really informed by the landscape of this area. It’s so gorgeous. I collect images of the mountains and animals, and then the fabric pieces that I make incorporate all the landscapes, objects and found images.
Nancy: Are there other images consistently motivating the work?
Sebastian: We did this brainstorm of images at the beginning of the process which we’re incorporating into some of the poems that will be in the show, but we also draw from them in making movement. For example, one of the images is “the body is a deep sea diver, hunting nothing.” And there’s a moment in the dance where Sonsherée and I are walking together, pressed belly to belly, and I’m searching beyond Sonsherée as the deep sea diver, hunting nothing and yet believing there’s something important about still searching. So we have these images that can root action in a more complex way than just saying, “Walk across the floor because we need to get on stage.”
Nancy: What other considerations have you made in regard to shaping the experience of this piece?
Sebastian: We’ve been working a whole year with basically zero sound, except the street sounds outside the studio. We’re going to find out a lot when we get music from the composers we’re working with. That’s going to be a whole additional emotional and textural layer to help us construct this world. Since we’ll have original music that no one has heard before, that can help people see the work a little differently.
Nancy: You’re talking about music and I’ll add another question here. Can you talk in terms of using lighting and set pieces to create the world as well?
Sonsherée: I’m imagining wooden logs, projections, fabric landscapes… I make these little fabric pieces and I’m working to blow those up into the whole space so we’re within one giant landscape and the audience is in that with us. We want to bring the outside into the theater.
And the costumes are being directly inspired by a lot of my nature images and Seb’s poetry. All the elements we’re working with are variations on the same theme. Is the fabric a landscape or is it an animal in the landscape? And how can we keep sliding between those worlds?
Sebastian: I think it’s tricky, because we want to show the body without having it be this sexualized object, and then we want to augment it with costumes that don’t hide it but add more dimensions.
Nancy: I think it’s very clear that you’re pushing the traditional boundaries on building a duet and that it goes beyond what the conventional male-female duet is. There were a lot of surprises there already. When I see your two bodies together, I do see it as sculpture, and then suddenly they’re moving. It’s very organic. It just seems right.
Since forming Nancy Karp + Dancers in 1980, director Nancy Karp has choreographed more than 70 outstanding works for her company. She and company members have performed together in many distinguished venues, at home and abroad. Interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the company’s key focuses, and since its inception Ms. Karp has commissioned numerous composers, visual artists, and designers to work with her in the creation of new dances each season. nancykarp.org
Sonsherée Giles is a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and costume designer. Originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, she moved to the Bay Area to attend Mills College and received an MFA in performance/choreography. From 2005-2015, she was a performing artist and Associate Director with AXIS Dance Company. Sonsherée has shared her choreography and performed for audiences throughout the US and abroad. She has been honored to receive an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for performance and a Homer Avila Award for Excellence in the field of integrated dance. sonsheree.com
Sebastian Grubb is an award-winning dance artist and fitness trainer in San Francisco. He has performed with many local dance companies and choreographers since 2008, especially AXIS Dance Company and Scott Wells & Dancers. Sebastian has been honored with an Isadora Duncan Dance Award and also received the CHIME award, a choreographic mentorship project of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. Additionally, Sebastian teaches biomechanics and anatomy to dancers in a series of workshops. bodywagging.dance