Choreographer RoseAnne Spradlin and Alexandra Pinel met in the New York Live Arts Conference Room, a couple weeks before the opening of her show g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n (working title) to talk about the work and her process inspired by her studies in chinese medicine and the idea of faith, along with her collaborators which not only include her dancers but also a composer and visual artist.
AP: I am curious about your process for g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n (working title) and how it relates to the rest of your body of work?
RS: The working process itself was long, and yet not always highly focused because I worked on the material over several years in several different residencies. I first had a residency at NYLA in 2012 as part of the Studio Series and I started developing the initial material then. I was also trying to raise money for this new piece, and in that first round of trying to raise money, I wasn’t successful at getting grants. I only received one from New Music USA, to support commissioning a composer and having live music for the work. Although I was excited by this opportunity, I knew I’d have to raise more money for the project.
I postponed the work for a whole season, to 2013, and was fortunate enough to get residencies at both Brooklyn Arts Exchange and through Movement Research. In developing the material at BAX I started working with another group, mostly different people, just to explore. The goal was that I would teach them something about my approach and they would be participants in that process. That process worked well and I developed some more material, some of which is in the finished piece. But I still needed to raise more money.
Again, I postponed the premiere from spring of 2014 to the fall of 2014. At the start of 2014, I had a different kind of residency with Gibney Dance: shorter, more concentrated use of space, a more full- time residency for three weeks. And through the summer and early fall we’ve had many hours of rehearsal in other spaces; here we are now, almost ready to premiere the work. While I appreciate the support and the residency opportunities very much, it has made for a very long and drawn-out process, including many changes in the casting, which was difficult for me. Natalie Green was in the 2012 residency and Rebecca Warner was in the beginning of the 2012 residency, but then had to leave to work on another project. Rebecca returned for the BAX residency and Asli Bulbul, who only performs in the last section, was also in that BAX/ Movement Research residency period. Natalie was not in the 2013 residencies, but returned in April ’14 for the last Gibney week. The other three dancers, Devynn Emory, Athena Malloy and Saúl Ulerio, joined much later in the process, just this summer in fact. But Athena I worked with before, so she understands something of my process and what to expect. That said, all the dancers have been wonderful and are a special cast.
AP: Do you feel like there are certain elements that echo from beginning of something to g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n (working title), that you perhaps investigated more deeply in this new work?
RS: I don’t know if the investigation is deeper, but I feel it might be more personal. It’s a bit paradoxical, because I think this new work also might seem more formal. But for me, something about the tone of it feels more personal. The approach to how movement is investigated is similar in some sections. In beginning of something there was a lot of emphasis on walking patterns and then disruption of the walking. In the new work there’s also a lot of repetition. There is one section that is 18 minutes long that is very repetitive. There are disruptions in this block of repetition, too, but they are much more subtle than in the previous piece; the disruptions are more gestural and almost hidden. One person said these gestures conveyed a sense of vulnerability, and that struck a chord with me.
AP: What is the story behind the title g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n?
RS: I made the title up, one morning about 5 a.m. when I just had to figure out a new title. Like most everyone else, I hate choosing titles for my work. I like to work in a kind of blind state for quite awhile and to have a title just kind of feels like a heavy weight. Well, so I gave in and made up g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n; then later added (working title) as part of the title proper, because I wanted to keep the sense that it was all still in process. I wanted to remind myself, every time I looked at the title, that it’s a process still. That just seems important for me right now, and I can’t even say why.
For me, the dance doesn’t have one specific meaning. When I made the title, I was trying to replace another title in which I had used with the word disappearance and the word indelible. So I thought of the word ghost. I was not, at the time, really tuned into the word ghost, and I had no idea it is so over-used! Now I see the word ghost everywhere! I was still working with that idea of appearance and disappearance. And ghost…well, some people might know this and some people might not, but for about 12 years now I have been studying Chinese Medicine and there is a concept in CM of the ghost entering the body. It is actually a metaphor for mental illness in that the ghost gradually enters the system and takes over the mind. My piece is not at all about mental illness, but in that metaphor for illness, what’s really entering the person is not a literal ghost but something that’s not you. So there is this idea that there is ‘you’ and ‘not you’ but maybe they are both really aspects of you. When the mental illness starts, it starts little by little at a series of points called the ghost points. There are 13 ghost points; there isn’t a ghost crown but there are point names like ghost pillow and ghost bed. Some of them are a little bit more abstract than that, but the points describe a progression of being taken over by something that’s not you. So I was thinking about that, just thinking about it, not trying to create it, but thinking about that concept. And the word crown, I think it had something to do with aspirations. So it’s something like that. It doesn’t make any logical sense. Putting two words together like that and running with it.
AP: You mentioned that one of the grants you received enabled you to work with live music. Can you describe the experience of collaborating with a composer?
RS: The composer is Jeffrey Young. He plays the violin as his own instrument and he works with other bands. I don’t think he’s really composed for dance before, maybe one piece. But he started coming to rehearsals. And he started creating some of the music in rehearsals and then we just went forward. He created the first section, which is mostly violin, and then other musicians join Jeffrey in other sections. Each dance section has its own music; the third and fifth sections use the same piece of music. It’s played twice. It started off as just eight sections, which is how I drew it out. I use some ideas about numbers, the relationship between eight and nine, which is why I decided to do eight sections that were nine minutes each. That was my plot.
AP: What was the significance of those numbers?
RS: I mostly just wanted to give myself some limitations and to help find a structure. For the music, limiting it to 9 minutes for each section was really helpful. The four instruments are playing live, there is a violin, viola, bass and bass clarinet. Logistically, it makes things more complex because as we’ve come in the last month together, we have had to find time to rehearse both the dance and musicians together. But it’s very exciting to have that capability and I’ve enjoyed working with Jeffrey.
AP: Can you tell us more about the visual elements in the work?
RS: I can; decisions are still being made so what I say right now could change. Right now one of the 9 minute sections is made from a black and white Chinese film, a 90 minute film on video that was edited down by me to 9 minutes. The movie was made in 1931 and then another source that I used was one of Balanchine’s early ballets choreographed in 1934. I wasn’t planning a piece with a thirties influence, it just happened. In the dance piece, the first section reminds me somewhat of an old black and white movie or even an old black and white TV. Then I think that the lighting (by designers Stan Pressner / Ben Hagen) evokes a kind of emptiness; the kind of lighting instrument we selected is normally used to illuminate public spaces like parking lots or places where people gather at night. My scene is somewhat stark or bare, except for these two women who are dancing, and the film is stark. Even though the 90 minute film is edited down to 9 minutes, I still wanted to keep something of its message: love and class conflict, but ultimately, betrayal.
AP: Did you talk about this collaboration with your dancers?
RS: Not really, I guess we’re trying to figure it out, how it’s all coming together. The other visuals that we will hopefully get into the piece are these really gigantic black and white video images of wedding rings that turn over and over like this (rolls arms around one another in a progressive motion) I’m not sure where they will end up. So there is a reference to – what? marriage? A bond? I’m not really sure why they are there, other than I felt drawn to them. We’ll have to see what kind of sense they make in the context of where they appear in the dance. They are a message, but who is the message from?What does it mean? I don’t think I know and I think it’s better not to pin it down.
AP: You haven’t mentioned anything about the costumes, do they fit into this 1930s reference?
RS: Walter Dundervill is making the costumes, and he danced for me for quite a number of years. At first I didn’t think it would be the right fit for my work but eventually I felt like it could be really interesting. They don’t refer to any era; the construction is not traditional. He has his own aesthetic. Walter saw some things along the way and we talked a lot. I told him what I was interested in but he had a lot of freedom to do what he wanted with it so I’ve just let him do what he’s doing. I try to not interfere too much. But I like the costumes a lot, what I’ve seen so far.
One thing I also want to mention is that there is a big sculpture on the stage which is by visual artist Glen Fogel (who is also responsible for the images of the rings). With Glen we thought of it more as a juxtaposition of our two works. It’s just my work and his work. His contributions are things he had already made and we put them with my dance. I had to change a couple facings of sections to work with the presence of the sculpture onstage but I was into it. I like the exploratory process and I think I make better decisions when I have to make them quickly. So there is this big sculpture that can move and can look very different depending on how it’s lit. It’s kind of a creature itself. I don’t know what it is exactly.
AP: Was it stressful putting together all of these moving parts, collaborating with a composer, musicians, a lighting designer, a sculptor and a costume designer?
RS: There are a lot of parts. My idea is that if you put the right number of elements into a work, it starts to speak. And then people don’t exactly have to try to read it. If you have 15 things people might give up on establishing a relationship between those 15 things. That’s my strategy, to have enough elements that the person will not get stuck in looking for meaning, but will just experience the work and see what bounces off.
AP: All those elements seem like they will definitely make for a very vivid experience!
RS: It could be; I am trying to make choices that work.
You can catch g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n (working title) at New York Live Arts october 8-11 at 7:30p. Click here for tickets.