A couple weeks ago, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing The Forsythe Company perform at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Not only that, I also got to sit down for a pre-performance talk with Forsythe dancer, Riley Watts. Riley had so many insightful things to say and it really got me thinking.
I am excited to share some of our chat, but first, I would like to offer my take on the performance of William Forsythe’s I Don’t Believe in Outer Space. Contrary to some critics’ opinions, I found the piece absorbing and moving. I thought it was intellectual entertainment- open for varying interpretations and emotional responses. Not to mention the unbelievable talent of the performers. They were in constant motion, all the while mastering better speaking, acting, and singing than many artists of those disciplines. Perhaps New York audiences want a performance to stimulate their minds rather than just their eyes? After all, aren’t we seeing art? Maybe we are sick of just watching tricks and beautiful lines or the direct opposite- boring non-movement that does not provoke any sort of emotional response besides the feeling that my grandmother might as well be on the stage. Forsythe’s dancers have the impeccable technique to constitute it as high-level, professional dance, but in addition to aesthetically pleasing work, they achieve so much more. They awaken something in the mind of the viewer and I, for one, would pay a lot to see what I did at BAM over the unexciting, unoriginal contemporary dance I have seen in New York lately. I think that we need more of what is shown abroad. Furthermore, we need much more conversation amongst dancegoers about what new dance we prefer to see and what we are trying to get out of this art form.
My conversation with Riley was an example of the type of thought and dialogue that I feel is lacking around dance right now.
Nicole Cerutti: For tonight’s performance of I Don’t Believe in Outer Space, the BAM website describes it as a “darkly comic exploration of absence made present.” Without giving too much away, how would you say this fits?
Riley Watts: I think that’s a pretty fair description of it. Descriptions are funny things. I remember when I was seeing Bill’s work before I was in the company, I would leave the show and not really have any words to describe it. It was very difficult for me to articulate what I was feeling, except that I knew I was feeling something very powerful. So, in some ways I think a description like that is apt, but in some ways you just want to go in and experience what it is. You don’t necessarily have to understand it. I think as an audience member you never need to pressure yourself to understand what it is, but just allow yourself the freedom of just watching it. It’s an acoustic experience, it’s a visual experience, it’s, on some levels, an emotional experience, it’s a compositional experience; there are definitely funny moments.
NC: Regarding Bill’s movement, or philosophy you might say… as a dancer, what makes his work different from other companies? What do you enjoy about it?
RW: The most marked difference is that I feel very engaged as a person. I don’t feel like I’m a dancer dancing, I feel like I’m a person dancing. I feel like dancing is just something that I do as part of being a human. The culture of the company and the dancers certainly sort of requires a level of intellectual curiosity, responsibility for your own creativity, and responsibility to find your place within the group. So it’s great, I feel more engaged. I started to ask myself lots of questions that I didn’t get to ask myself in other dance companies. I find that Bill is more curious about research and process, and about thought and concentration. It’s much more complex, it’s much more three-dimensional.
NC: That’s the impression that I get- it seems very well rounded or that it comes at dance from those other perspectives. I guess it’s more of a cognitive experience in addition to the physical and emotional.
RW: Absolutely. I mean, our dramaturge is a cognitive scientist. Things like that. I think Bill gives respect to the idea that life is an incredibly complex thing; there are many different levels and dimensions to it. And it’s not linear at all. Even though we have a certain implication of where the audience sits, and then there’s performers- between that you can kind of think of it as a TV screen. But its not a TV screen, it’s absolutely not two-dimensional. It’s a three-dimensional experience, and four-dimensional with time. And he loves that; he brings that into the company environment a lot, which is so exciting.
NC: One idea that I’ve been interested in lately is the different concepts and ideas of collaboration- how much it comes into play and how important it is. But sometimes as a dancer I feel used. There are so many ways to look at it. What’s your take on collaboration?
RW: I know what you mean about feeling used. Used for a choreographers inspirational purposes. I think collaboration is an example of the study of how things interact with each other. So the most important part of collaboration, I’m discovering, is the dialogue. Or even collaboration within yourself somehow, collaboration of ideas.
NC: It’s dynamic.
RW: Yeah, It’s very dynamic. What’s interesting is the relationship that’s formed between idea A and idea B, connecting idea C- it’s the space between the points that actually can form something. So in terms of collaboration with dance, you kind of have to be on the same wavelength as someone because if it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work. Our company feels that collaboration is so important. Before I joined, one of the dancers told me that our role in the company is very often to offer Bill something new. He doesn’t necessarily want dancers that are really good mimickers; he doesn’t want to hear someone regurgitate what he’s already said. He wants it to be a dialogue between what he says to us, we process that someway, we connect it to something we already know, and then from that comes a new idea that we offer back to him.
NC: That’s how I’ve been trying to look at it for my thesis. Collaboration drives the entire artistic world forward. It’s how you get new ideas.
RW: I mean, that’s all knowledge really is. It’s just ideas that people have and they write down or tell someone else.
NC: This may be kind of a big question. Something that I find perplexing is our idea of “contemporary dance.” What is that actually? To everyone it’s something different, and technically contemporary just means current. But 10, 20, 50 years from now it won’t be current. I feel like this is what people are calling new dance or ballet for lack of a better word maybe. Do you have any way to define it? What do you think it is or isn’t?
RW: I’ve had a similar thought. When I meet people and they say, “what do you do?” I respond, “I’m a dancer.” “Oh, what kind of dancer?” And well…I usually end up saying I’m a modern dancer, which, I don’t feel like a “modern dancer,” in the way that we know it. Modern dancer to me means I’m in the Taylor Company or something, which is just not what I do. Then I’d say “Ballet Dancer,” which I guess is more true, but then of course, that’s still not really what I do. So then I say “contemporary ballet,” which sounds like Complexions or something, which is definitely not what I do. So I’ve been thinking maybe I should switch to saying “performance artist,” but…
NC: That has it’s own connotations too. That’s really tricky!
RW: Yeah! It’s something worth thinking about. In some cases, the point is not to distill an experience down to words but we also need to be able to practice eloquence as part of our art. How we speak about what we are doing is very important. Maybe the idea of contemporary dance is not so much what you’re doing on the stage, it’s more the ideals of that kind of dance. Like if what’s important to someone like Dwight Roden of Complexions is a certain kind of beautiful, muscular aesthetic, basic classical technique, and the kind of dance that gets your heart rate going then maybe that’s what contemporary dance is. It seems to be pretty prevalent in American dance.
NC: Is it different in Europe?
RW: I think it is. Well, it’s different for each country. I remember when I was in school here thinking there’s American dancing and then there’s European dancing…and it’s almost like a country. But it’s actually a continent! I mean, Iceland’s dance is really different from Germany’s, and Belgium is different from Holland and they’re right next to each other. And Sweden has it’s own style and things that they do. The German scene, or at least around Frankfurt, is pretty heavy. It’s an intellectual approach to dancing. I’m not sure if that’s because of Forsythe, or just circumstantially.
NC: Jill Johnson once mentioned to me part of why it is so different everywhere except the US, basically, is how people really talk about art. That really doesn’t exist much here and it’s really sad. There is very little talking about dance or theorizing. It seems to be a way the US differs, and maybe that’s why it seem to be going a very different direction. Just a lack of communication surrounding the art. Very rarely are we trained to approach dance from an analytic standpoint.
RW: It’s hard to generalize an entire country, but it does seem like in the American scene there’s more attention paid to the visceral aspect of it. Like the audience really wants to have something that gets their blood pressure up. They want to be excited by something and to have that kind of power to it. And I don’t feel like that what’s the audience is necessarily looking for elsewhere. I mean, it’s an amazing tool to be able to use, but it’s just one tool that you can use in making dance. But I’ve been thinking about the role of articulating our practice recently. Because I never really knew how to talk about dance, so it’s been my practice in the past year to try.
NC: It’s really hard!
RW: It is hard. But you need to. Otherwise, why are you doing it? Or even to ask ourselves, “why is it that we’re doing dance?” And then, if we figure out why, then what is it? It’s not just dance. I’m not doing this just because I like dance. I’ve been studying it for a long time and at this point I’m using it as a context from which I can understand life. You know, this is how I understand what it is to be alive. This is the place that I discover not just what it is that I’m doing here, but what we all are doing here- the complexity of being alive.