Invariably multiplicitous, choreographer Yanira Castro’s Wilderness treats performance as a new language in which the audience and the performer “read each other”, translating one experience into many. Castro speaks to these themes and more in this conversation with Andrew Frank.
from Wilderness. Video by Chani Bockwinkel.
Earlier this summer, I had the privilege of attending an advanced showing of Wilderness, the new piece by Brooklyn-based choreographer Yanira Castro, showing at the Invisible Dog later this month. It was an unadorned, spare performance—the set, costumes, and audio component were unfinished and absent—but the movement alone was enough to keep me thinking for a long while afterward. I knew almost nothing coming to the piece, and that’s probably the ideal state in which to experience it; Wilderness is, among many other things, about the expectations ingrained in the minds of audiences preparing to watch dance, and about that which might emerge out of a less compartmentalized dialogue with the unknown, with the immediacy and potential of the performative moment. Watching, or rather participating, in Wilderness, one can just as easily lose themselves in the piece’s inherent suspense and intimacy as they can reflect on its dense and layered exploration of representation, death, and the unknowable. Yanira, who speaks modestly and smiles often, talked with me about the complexity built into the piece’s largely improvisational structure, the other works out of which it partially emerged, and the false constraints too often placed on and around modern dance performance.
Andrew Frank I’m interested in the articulation of boundaries within this piece—could you talk about intimacy and space in performance, and why your works tend to avoid a conventional separation between audience and performer?
Yanira Castro Your question has a lot of history for me. I’ve long been asking these questions of the theater: Why are we in this space together? Why are we experiencing this moment in time in this particular way? I think it’s a magical situation when a group of people decide to stand back and allow themselves to experience something that other people are putting on for them, and though, in a sense, it’s the ‘oldest thing in the book,’ the theatrical constructs that we have created, particularly in Western culture, are highly fabricated and controlled. I take issue with this idea that the theater is ‘conventional’ and other scenarios are “experimental”. Given a broad view of history and culture, I think these categorizations fall apart. I am thinking of the raunchiness and super audience activity of the Elizabethan stage—just for starters—which would seem radical to some audiences. When we go see a “show” or a dance performance now, it’s typically in a theater, which we’ve come to see as a traditional or “conventional” space—it’s a black box or a proscenium, where the audience experiences the performance at a certain distance—and it is a relationship that an audience, especially a Western audience, accepts rather easily. When placed outside of this very specific, formal theatrical setting—it makes some audiences uncomfortable.
Ultimately, I think we are talking about proximity and the anonymity of the audience and the comfort that audiences have with that ability to “disappear” that this setting provides them. I personally have long taken issue with a fixed division between audience and performance because it enforces a very specific relationship and it gives the audience very little choice in how to participate in what they are witnessing. In dance, this distance is very pictorial, it’s an image that is framed and is outside of us, and that we can project onto in the same way that we can project our emotions on a film. It is safe and controlled. The audience is cocooned in darkness and presented an image to consider, hardly to participate in. There are examples of how within this format expectations can be subverted, but there are limitations. Dance, in particular, has a history of intimacy that is lost in this theatrical environment. In some forms, ballet, for instance, it even goes so far as to not hear the dancer’s feet landing or to hear their breath. The dancers are really image-only—devoid of body. My question has been how to create a scenario or environment for the audience that gives them some of that intimacy back, that puts a sweaty body back into their reality, and it’s a question that’s fraught with a great deal of difficulty because of the audience’s expectations of performance. It is difficult to get past expectations to intimacy or exchange or a freedom of choice. I’ve learned to try to give audiences the time and space to adapt to an unfamiliar environment so that they can bring themselves to the situation. Ultimately, that is my interest…an attempt for intimacy between people where the scenario facilitates exchange. My latest project, Wilderness, is, for me, the next question in my exploration of this particular relationship, which I find is at the heart of everything a performance is— the relationship between the people coming and the people who are doing something for them.
AF This piece is partially based, in some sense, on three films, and you typically use other art forms as partial ‘sources’ for the work you make. How do you interact with these other mediums, and how are they translated into new, unique works?
YC I use source mediums to immerse myself in a feeling or state, in something that I’m interested in exploring, and in doing so I begin to think about different ways of coming to the same central notion. It is a way of staying alive or present in the thing I am involved in. It is a way of continuing to engage in a conversation with the world. This tends to involve reading everything I can and seeing films that are related in some way to ideas from which I am working. Just now, I finished reading the Old Man and the Sea, because it seemed to have a really urgent connection to a character that is present in Wilderness. By immersing myself almost as if by osmosis, ideas slip themselves in and inform the work. I don’t think this is very radical, and I am not very didactic about it.
AF Is the hope, then, to illicit the same emotion or sensation in the audience—a kind of translation?
YC Yes, sensation and a certain emotional world. In that way, it is kind of vampiric. As an example, I was really influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. There’s a scene in the film in which these men are gathered around in a circle, discussing the death of a colleague. They are trying to discern the cause of his death, as well as the motives for his devotion to the creation of a park for a poor community. The task has evidently brought him to his death. Their conversation becomes a series of arguments about the purpose of work and of living, and grows incredibly emotional. The men are on their hands and knees and their faces are strained and highly emotive, in a way that we’d now think of as unrealistic; it’s highly stylized. The soloist Peter Schmitz and I spent a long time looking at this clip, at how the faces of the men were transforming and how this manipulated the emotional content of their speech. Those pitches and emotional resonances, rather than the content of their actual speech, were inserted into the dance. We took the emotional grittiness, and the stylization of the scene as a source and inspiration. In a way, it is like channeling—taking a very specific thing from a work and inserting it somewhere else. It’s something I do a lot. For other pieces we have used the fingers quivering at the holster at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, looped a scene from Gus van Sant’s Elephant (switching casts and repeating the lines as quickly as possible), and mangled the words of pop songs. It is usually connected to an obsessive quality—repetition or the most miniscule and ridiculous attention—to get to something. It is hard to even say exactly what—but to get to a certain place, a certain resonance, almost like a pitch or frequency. I really think of choreography as math: you do something the right amount of times… and something else happens.
AF This project is a highly collaborative one—it includes work with a musician and an installation designer, and the dancers are responsible for much of their own choreography as well—how does your identity as a choreographer figure into this? How much is it your piece, and how much is it that of the collaborators, the dancers…
YC It’s not a collective in the sense that, to me, a collective is a group of people that come together and say “we want to make a piece about X”, and together they go about researching and thinking about ways in which to address that question. The project is conceived by me. Initially, with Wilderness, I had these ideas about a piece that centered around a figure that was an older man, and that three films were somehow connected to that, and that the piece, at first, would investigate the approach of the end of life and the final transformation. The section that followed would then be a quartet that formalized this person’s experience in some way. That was basically the kernel of what I was interested in—the life and the representation of that life.
The first person that I asked to join me was Peter Schmitz; it was really important for me to find the right person to play that figure and for that person to have a strong emotional center. At the time we began speaking about the project, Peter was going through significant changes in his life; he was about to have hip surgery and he was very injured. We didn’t know what to expect from his body. So, finding him and working with him, spending many hours improvising with him, and choosing which of the improvisations were important to the project and how they were going to follow one another and how they weaved together—that was the work I did with Peter. There were many hours where I watched him, seeking out the movements that seemed pertinent to the project, guiding each other through improvisations with descriptions or themes or physical tasks. My role as the choreographer is to direct the outcome: sometimes that means improvising in front of the performers, other times it means bringing in film clips to learn verbatim or use as inspiration, other times it means structuring an improv—it entails a lot of editorial decisions. Lately it has meant the construction of excel grids to keep all the video footage of improvisations intact. Really, it is a kind of alchemy of all the people involved in the project because they bring so much of themselves to these ideas and sometimes balk at them—and then there is a dance of persuasion. In the end, there is this thing that is at once what I’ve always wanted to see and that I never imagined I would see; it’s a sort of weird animal: part bastard, part twin.
AF Watching this piece, I thought a lot about storytelling, in the verbal, performative sense, which is an art form in which there is a very conscious acknowledgement of the demands placed on the speaker by the audience; it’s an exchange Wilderness seems, in part, to be addressing a kind of absence in a lot of other performance—the lack of a kind of exchange. Is this at all an appropriate analogue for the work your doing here?
YC I was definitely thinking about translation. And the demand on the audience to in some ways see the same “story” twice in two different vocabularies and the time it takes to decipher each and see the connections. I was thinking about the life lived—the solo— and the sort of reorganization or representation of that life—the quartet— that is something entirely different from the life itself—a ghost or a sign. That representation, almost a kind of recording, is a highly formal thing, very much like language in a sense. The moment is multiple, the language that we use to describe it—formalizes it, codifies it, fixes it. What’s interesting about the piece, for me, is that it’s a live performance that is reproducing a live performance. And a live performance is the history of all the other performances and all the rehearsals that preceded it. It is a thickly layered experience.
For Peter the piece is an improvisation based on a slew of other improvisations, and that was something that was very clear to me from the very beginning. It had to be—while structured—connected to the decision in the moment and the history of a past. It could not be an entirely new improvisation every evening and neither could it be set. It could not rely on going on automatic. The quartet, on the other hand, is largely set but the dancers are given rules on top of that, which have the ability to create chaos. The way that the quartet approaches the space is very different from how Peter approaches it; he’s the center and the attention is fully on him. When the other dancers enter, its not really about them, it’s about the space that they are taking care of, and the task of representing. They are the language, the translation of his life. And that is distant and cold and strange and meaningful. It is like the painter painting an apple. It is not the thing itself so what are you getting across by painting it? For me, it is not about commenting on the apple or making me think it is the apple but about perception, how we look at the world. The quartet is giving me back the solo in ways that I could not perceive it before—through a different language—through distance.
But I don’t think I answered your question at all! Maybe you were getting at how the storyteller must respond to the audience in the moment. They can’t tell the same story the same way. They need to be present in the telling. That is an appropriate analogue…I am very concerned about creating rules or tasks based on audience behavior so that the dancers can’t slip into the pleasure of dancing. It is very easy to get into your own kinesthetic loveliness. That doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in their awareness of the audience, and the exchange of information, the decisions that are made because of one another—not only how to populate the space but where to take a moment. I want them—audience and performer—to be reading one another, really activating the space between each other.
AF Though the piece, as I saw it, was without the installation elements that the final performance will include, I know that there is an interactive musical score at work, one that responds to the audience in some way. What are your views on the function of music in modern dance? Is the interactive sound in this project formed as a kind of response?
YC I’m not interested in a score that “works” for the dance; I’m interested in creating an environment that has a logic of its own, a visual logic, a sound logic, and because it exists and it is set up in a particular way it creates a sound that becomes the piece—together they form a comprehensive environment. I don’t like the idea that music should serve a piece. That kind of hierarchy just does not interest me. I am more interested in being in a dialogue with people that I am collaborating with and letting that conversation weave a mode or way of conversing within the piece that makes sense to each of us. I don’t really want there to be a separation of elements. It is rather that these things are in the world together and produce this effect. What this means is that moments are not replicable, and I am fine with that.
AF Could you expand upon the notion of wilderness and the unknown? It seems to appear in the piece in three different ways: the experience of the audience, the territory into which Peter’s figure is approaching, and the literal landscape created on stage. There’s then, what might be referred to as, a kind of multiplicity at the center of the piece. I’m wondering how this relates to your understanding of other art forms, as well as the construction of meaning in a piece like this. Is movement inherently “multiple”? How do you arrive at a metaphorical construction like the notion of wilderness? Is meaning, in a piece like this, distinct from interaction with audience, or does it form out of that interaction?
YC I think these questions are really the heart of making work—regardless of medium. What any work attempts, I think, is a new language, which inherently requires interaction. How do we pass this language from the artists involved to those that are participating as witnesses? How do we create “meaning” together? And I do think that movement, language, words, and gestures are inherently and irrefutably multiple because interpretation can never be fixed. There are too many eyes, too many doers and too many experiences in the world to distill even the singular meaning of a color. Dialogue would be completely unnecessary if there wasn’t interpretation. If we all saw the same thing, we could all go home and not speak to one another. Engagement means the need for the unknown, the thing that we don’t quite understand, the thing that is not understood by boundaries and lines, that passing through them only means more questions. And that is essentially wilderness to me—the unknown thing that you keep moving towards, the line of the forest that you keep entering and which is transformed by your entrance and your interpretation. Wilderness is the space between you and me, between the performer and the audience, between the moment when you were outside talking to your friend and the moment you entered this space. In the world of the piece, wilderness is all these things: the literal environment the audience walks into, the “space” that the soloist enters when he exits, and this relationship at the heart of performance that we have been talking about.
AF There’s clearly a great deal of complex structure underlying each of these pieces, much of which is certainly beyond the audience’s comprehension. What purpose does it serve for you, and how do you hope that it is experienced by the audience?
YC The way I see a lot of this functioning is slightly underneath consciousness, for me and the audience, so that it allows for the sort of magic of the performative moment and so that the pieces can live in a place where the experience is being written in the present. To search for these structures while watching the performance would cause one to be distracted, to no longer bear witness to this writing. I feel it’s my job as the choreographer to layer the pieces for myself, as well as for the performers, and to try and know the many ways in which it is working, but I don’t ever expect that the audience will understand them all directly. For the audience, it is a world, a logic, a place they are in. It is an act of immersion—again going back to wilderness. The purpose, for me, is to lose control of the thing. I hope it has a life of its own, that when I walk away from it, it is rich enough that it belongs individually to each person that has an experience with it and one that I could not have foreseen. There is no singular agenda and maybe…that’s just how I see the world: in spirals and tangents and multiplicity.
Wilderness will show at The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn October 27th–November 2nd. More info here.