In Practice: Nina Haft & Company’s Precarious Pod

By Sima Belmar

November 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Photo by Pak Han

When I was dancing with Nina Haft in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Jewish themes were prevalent. She made a dance called Minyan that derived some of its choreography from davening, the full body gesture of Jewish liturgical prayer, and another called Mit a Bing! Mit a Boom! A Klezmer Dance. In that one, I played David Berman, the Jewish gangster (or “gambling pioneer” if you prefer). I loved working with Nina in part because she’s a deep dance nerd who loves researching both book and body archives.

Recently, Haft has turned her choreographic attention toward the question of what it means to be human in relation to the natural world. Precarious Pod is an immersive and interactive dance event that investigates what animals have to teach humans about instinct, sustainability, and survival. The choreography and improvisational structures were developed in relation to three different animals on different points on the extinction spectrum: crows, wolves, and the vaquita, a harbor porpoise. Haft’s research has been extensive: she’s read books (A Foray into the World of Animals and Humans by Jakob von Uexkull, Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway, Trace by Lauret Savoy, Becoming a Beast by Charles Foster and The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman); followed the work of wildlife ecologists and animal behaviorists studying the impact of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park; and attended the annual conference of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography where she led workshops with scientists as an artist working on water and climate change.

At a showing of the wolves section, which features dancers Rose Huey, Rogelio Lopez, Andrew Merrell, and Rebecca Morris, Haft explained that the dancers were “not meant to look like anything other than human beings, but rather to explore what it’s like to inhabit the point of view of another species.” She asked us—an audience of three that included set designer Lauren Elder—what was coming across, what we connected with and wondered about, what we were confused about, and when we felt disengaged. The following conversation took place after the showing, when Haft was still thinking about how the work would unfold in performance.

Sima Belmar: Watching the quartet, I felt like there were three movement evocations at play: wolf movement, human movement, and contemporary dancer movement. I like to think of dancer as a particular category of human because of the way we consciously cultivate our senses, our instincts, and our muscle memory. I saw the dancers practice sensing across space. They practiced staring. They piled up in a pack cuddle. Backs of heads reacted to sudden movements taking place behind them. Faces sniffed the air. Foreheads smeared across collar bones. There seemed to be heightened attention paid to the way finger, palm, and foot pads make contact with the floor, the air, and other creatures in the space. All of this both heightened and defamiliarized the contemporary dance movement at work in the piece, in an almost disidentifying move.[1]

Photo courtesy of artist

Nina Haft: I’ve been doing a lot with exploring how improvisational structures might be a way to understand instinct. Things that are choreographed, those more defined patterns, even though it gets in our muscle memory, it’s more from the outside in, so it’s conditioned by the environment. If you put wolves in a zoo they’re going to act like wolves but there are going to be certain things that are changed about the way they behave and yet you can’t erase the instincts. For me, improvisation is a way to live in and look at what is instinctual and what is learned. As you know as a dancer, when we start improvising, it’s sort of like clearing out the pipes of all the stuff that’s been patterned into us and finding a way to get at something that feels deeper and that takes time. My role as director is to set up structures that support the dancers in tracking and reflecting on what’s influencing their choices.

I start all my rehearsals by doing this almanac practice. It uses the position of the sun and the moon, these planetary forces that are invisible to us but that represent things about the season and also the phase of the moon, which affects tide cycles and pulls on the body of water that we are, and it’s like tuning your instrument, you tune it before you play. That’s what we do, we tune to these forces that historically have been used by people to decide how we live in the natural world and survive, what kind of food we eat, when we plant, when we harvest, what we do about insects, which animals we track—there’s a whole folk technology that people have developed. That’s what the Farmer’s Almanac is in North America. There are lots of other ways to do it.

SB: Take us through what that looks like in practice.

NH: I consult the position of the sun and the moon on the app iLuna. In western almanacs there are different parts of the body associated with the 12 signs of the zodiac. So for example, today the moon is in Pisces, and Pisces is associated with the feet. And the sun is in Virgo, which is associated with the bowels. And it’s also a full moon today which means that it has some of the strongest gravity pull. So we drop into our bodies to sense and allow movement to arise from sensation in the feet and the intestines. It’s very internally, sensory focused. It’s not about warming up your muscles or reviewing anything. It’s about a way of heightening your sensitivity to the parts of the body that are associated with the positions of the planets. So if I can really notice and track those parts of my body as the starting point of my practice session, then I’m literally aligned with these larger forces. There are also non-western systems that I’m not trained in any meaningful way—for example, traditional Chinese medicine has other associations with those parts of the body—so I leap frog between different systems to find ways to give the dancers options to reflect. We do this for about 8-9 minutes. With the wolf pack I’ve been doing a process where we immediately go into a very open, not terribly structured group improv with more tactile connection because we’re consciously trying to build a sensory feeling of being a pack. We’ll work certain kinds of scores that are about things like establishing who’s the alpha, who’s the interloper.

It’s different with each one of the animals. With the vaquita, because they are becoming extinct, and they tend to live in pairs, what I’ve been doing with Mallory [Markham] is playing with this idea of what happens when you’re the last one left—what does it feel like when you’re trying to find another one and can’t? We’ve been doing a lot of improvising with what it would be like if sound were the way she navigated, not sight. How can you heighten a sensitivity to where you are in the room if you imagine you’re broadcasting sound and nothing bounces back? How do you approximate echolocation as a human? We don’t hear that well but we do have stereo hearing. We’re trying to cultivate and foreground instincts we have but don’t rely upon as humans.

SB: What about the crows?

NH: Crows have this two-stage breathing—when they take in air, it first goes into these empty sacs in their bones. Then they have another pressure action that sends it into the lungs and back out. That’s part of why they’re so buoyant, they have these hollow chambers in their leg bones and pelvises. So Jennifer [Twilley Jerum], Jesse [Wiener], and I spent a lot of time in the beginning exploring what would it be if your pelvis was the most buoyant part of the body instead of the most weighty. What kind of movement might arise? Of course, as a human being it doesn’t feel that way but if you spend enough time initiating, sensing, organizing your movement around certain things, you construct an alternate sense of what your body is, so it’s almost like inhabiting a different form.

SB: The message from climate change is that we’re running out of time. The almanac practice seems to acknowledge that we’re running out of time, but we also can’t rush.

NH: If I look at this project and my King Tide project[2], one thing I’ve been doing since 2013 is slowing down. It’s not like we have to hurry up to make something happen. Things are happening and we’re not being present with them. So the choice to slow down and take time reveals what is actually going on. Part of the problem with human responses to climate change is that we’re in this panic mode so we’re not seeing clearly, either ourselves and our choices or the impact they have on the environment. If I could really visualize every piece of plastic I’ve ever bought, how it’s going to be here for another 500 years, instead of feeling despair or guilt, what if I could really slow down and make a different choice? In the rehearsal process it feels really restorative. We’re really living because we’re present and that is intrinsically hopeful. I think there’s a possibility for even in a troubled climate or state of things falling apart to make choices that are about living into the future, not just waiting for time to run out. And that’s what I think being a dancer offers. We’re lucky we have this practice. If we want to use it in this way, we can connect with each other, we can create a reality out of nothing but ourselves and time, and that impacts other people. I believe that if we’re more in tune and aligned we’re going to make better choices.

SB: It seems like so much of your process is about sloughing off automatic movement habits to find, not new pathways, but new experiences of old pathways. As a viewer, I felt like I was being afforded a real-time experience of attunement within a structure. That’s what creatures are—attunements in a structure, where we can’t do absolutely anything we want. I can’t swing from a tree right now or soar above this coffee shop, but I’ve something to learn from creatures who can. What do you hope audiences will experience at the performance?

NH: I’m interested in taking the time to sift through and be conscious of what feels like a human response, what feels like an animal response, what feels like a disorientation, something that wouldn’t normally arise because it’s not a familiar dance response. I would feel like I had missed an opportunity if this piece ended up being full from start to finish with dance vocabulary. On the other hand, I’m not attempting to fool anybody into thinking we’re not humans in a dance lineage making a dance event happen. So what is it within those parameters that we can do that opens up perception and an experience of self that is more responsive to its surroundings?

A lot of what I do in this directing practice is set something in motion, witness it, then interview the dancers about what happened. Then they reflect and I listen. I study them and listen and reframe what the task is based on that conversational practice. What you see when you see a performance is just the next cycle of it.

SB: It sounds like you’re inviting audiences to drop into your practice, rather than witness a spectacle. What can you do to help audiences understand that invitation? A program note that says, “Thank you for coming and dropping into our practice”? I for one will come to the show in November and really think about my role as a listener—to my thoughts and sensations as much as to the sights and sounds unfolding around me—as an integral part of what’s happening.

NH: I want it to be like going for a walk in a regional park. As city dwellers, we selectively immerse ourselves in nature, but parks are designed experiences. And yet, nature will do what it’s going to do whether or not we’re there. It’s in process all the time independently of our presence. It’s impacted by our presence. We have an opportunity to be impacted by it. What’s different is that the performance foregrounds what it means to be human, whereas if you and I go for a walk in Tilden park, there’s nothing about it overtly that says, pay attention to what makes you a specific creature having an impact on the environment around you.

SB: So one reason for doing a performance of such a rich practice is to invite audiences into your ecosystem.

NH: The audiences are going to be small. You get an experience of being connected to other audience members. There’s a bunch of creatures in the room and this is how I’m behaving—why am I behaving like this? Why did I choose to come over here? Why do I feel more comfortable?

SB: Would you consider leading your audience in an almanac improvisation as a way to transition into the performance, to drop into the practice?

NH: The dancers’ idea was to have the wolf pack bring people into the space. So one of them comes up to me as an audience member, connects with me personally, leads me into the space, helps me choose where I want to be, settles down with me and says, maybe, let’s breathe together, does something that’s like what we do when we’re in rehearsal. It will take a little time.

Part of why I wanted to work with Ian [Winters] and media was to have ways to change what you see and hear at certain crucial junctures based upon what the audience does—what they get close to, what they get far away from, if they’re making a lot of noise, if they’re being quiet, if they’re all in one big throng or if they spread themselves out.

SB: So the environment is reacting to them. How does it do that?

NH: Ian and I decided, what if it was like a Wizard of Oz kind of thing? What if David [Coll] is up in the tech booth, responding to what he observes about how people are behaving. Ian pointed out that that is actually the way nature is, it’s not this programmed thing that every time I get this close or move away quickly you see the same thing happen. What happens in nature is I get close to something and it doesn’t know that I’m a danger and it doesn’t respond. And then over time I have impacted it but it’s not immediately apparent to me. I’m not in control of it but it is responsive and it takes me a little while to understand. That’s what I want people to reflect upon.

SB: It feels like no matter what you do, the work is so grounded in deep research and practice that it can’t help but be a something.

NH: Yeah, it is a something. It’s not a spectacle even though it has a lot of those elements.

SB: Well, we’ve learned from Yvonne Rainer that you can say no to spectacle all you want and that doesn’t necessarily reduce spectacularity. You can have all the bells and whistles, but if you’re inviting us into a world where the visual is not primary then you’re intervening into spectacle.

NH: Moving from spectacle to proprioception in an almost subliminal way. I hope it works.

[1] In Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, José Muñoz defines disidentification as a partial identification with mainstream representations of humankind. I’m using the term here to try to get at the way Haft’s work does and does not identify with the modern/contemporary dance vocabulary of her training.

[2] “The King Tide Project is a multi-year, ongoing dance that looks at climate change, the rising sea levels and how humans interact with a shifting natural surrounding.” From https://www.ninahaftandcompany.com/

This article appeared in the November 2019 issue of In Dance.


Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Oakland Tribune, Dance Magazine, TDR, Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, Performance Matters, Contemporary Theatre Review, and The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to tinyletter.com/simabelmar.

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