How Choreographer Annie-B Parson Expresses Music Through Movement

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: I’m focusing on expressing the music. I mean, there’s the psychology of the music, there’s the accents, there’s the rhythm, there’s the color of the notes. I mean, there’s so many aspects to it. And I’m intuitively expressing something I want to express from that. Something, anything. Another choreographer would express something else.

S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Ramon Along, and I am your other host, Isaac Butler.

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S1: And the other voice we just heard belongs to any person, Isaac. Tell me who YNAB is, please.

S4: A.B. Parsons. She’s a choreographer. She’s a writer. She’s a director. She is. I like to think of her as a creator of things, although I think she’s primarily known as a choreographer, that, you know, most of the things she creates are bodies arranged in space. She has her own company, Big Dance Theater, which she co-founded with Molly Hickock and Polisar. And that company does these really wild, fascinating pieces that combine text and dance. So dance and theater in these really innovative ways. But she also has a career as a freelance choreographer. She’s worked on musicals. She’s worked on films. She’s worked with musicians on concerts and tours and TV appearances. She choreograph to tours by St. Vincent. And she has a long standing collaboration with David Byrne, which we’ll talk about quite a bit in the interview.

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S1: You know, when I think of choreography, I don’t think of rock stars on tour. I think of someone like Balanchine, you know, the founder of the New York City Ballet, a grand master with devotees and accolades and this sort of serious reputation in the culture and an ego that’s the same size as that reputation. I think that that’s maybe a really old fashioned preconception of what a choreographer is.

S5: Well, yeah. I mean, when did Balanchine die? Right. I mean, you know, before I was born, you know. Yeah, exactly. So, yeah, we do have this kind of image of what choreographers are and what they do.

S4: And I think some choreographers probably try to live up to that image. Right. But there’s also the real people and most choreographers, just like most writers, they’re working artists. Right. That’s they have a job and they have an art. And hopefully those are the same two things. You know, I even think about someone like Mark Morris, right. Who’s who does who has his own company. That’s a big deal. And his own school and all this stuff. And, you know, I once did an event with him where he and I were both invited to pitch work. We were developing at this conference of touring presenters. And I couldn’t believe that I was doing the same event with Mark Morris. I went up to talk to him for a bit. You know, he’s just a guy. He’s a working artist, you know, at a very high level. But he still got his job and his work and his company and everything like that. And, you know, it’s just all those sort of normal things that that life entails are very present as well.

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S1: Can you tell me a little about Parsons most recent work? We’re going to hear a little snippet of it in your interview, but what is American utopia?

S4: So American Utopia is an evening length concert performance by the great David Byrne. And you can actually see it right now or maybe wait until after you’ve listened to this episode, because a live taping of the show was filmed by Spike Lee and is currently streaming all on Biomax. American Utopia’s started as a touring concert. You’ll hear us talk a bit about some of the differences between the two versions in the episode. And then it was adapted for Broadway. And Annie B really essentially directed the show. I don’t think she’s billed as the director. She’s billed as the choreographer, a musical staging or something like that. But she really determined everything that those bodies are doing during the performance.

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S1: Everything that bodies are doing is a very useful way of thinking about what choreography is, and I learned that during this interview. Before we get to that interview, though, I want to take a second to remind everyone listening about the importance of Slate. Plus, if you enjoy this podcast and the rest of Slate’s journalism, please consider supporting us by joining Slate. Plus, those of you who are already members are going to hear a little more from Isaac’s conversation with Knabe person, which is just one more benefit of your membership. Slate plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And of course, you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only a dollar for the first month to sign up.

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S6: Go to Slate dotcom slash working plus.

S7: All right, now let’s get to Isaac’s conversation with Amoebae Parson.

S4: A.B. Parson, I’m so excited to have you on this show to talk about your work in your creative process. I thought we could start by talking about the most recent piece you’ve created. It’s a video which actually our listeners can go see on YouTube right now called Six Feet. You made it back in March 2012 when social distancing was first starting. And it combines footage of a previous work of yours, dance by the Martha Graham Dance Company with some music and original narration and all sorts of fascinating things. Let’s take a listen to that really quick and then I’d love to hear about how you made it.

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S8: I typed into my browser. Most days I feel like. But these days are different than most days. These days are not most days. I am a choreographer, so most days in those days, I was either preparing for rehearsal or in a rehearsal.

S2: Most days in those days.

S8: I would go into a studio and work with dancers, with our bodies in close proximity these days, she issues of proximity are not just issues for choreographers, but in focus for everyone. Six feet proximities, three, six feet apart. An elegant composition.

S2: How did you write the narration part?

S4: Was that just like a freeriding you did or.

S9: Oh, gosh. Well, the thing is, I think that takes us back to March twenty twenty, which is a really funny feeling because so much has happened. It was definitely something that I just sat down and wrote, and it was based on looking at the world spatially because for the first time I realized right away with covid that people were becoming dancers in that their spatial awareness was growing. They were literally we were literally afraid of each other’s presences. We were backing away from each other on the street. Remember, we were walking in the bike lanes. We were right. Yeah, totally. Our bodies were very, very alive, unfortunately, with this sort of negative sense of contagion. But nevertheless, it was a choreography that was being learned and I was fascinated by it. So I sat down and wrote about it, about what the world looked like from a spatial perspective, you know, aliment.

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S4: I was very, very moved by six feet when I was watching it yesterday. And it really made me think about choreography differently because I feel like I don’t know, in some weird sense, you know, those of us who aren’t in the dance world, we’re taught to think of choreography as this very abstract, high falutin, almost indescribable thing. But at the same time, it’s this very mundane, concrete thing. It’s just bodies in space moving. And what could be more normal than that, you know?

S9: Thank you, Isaac. I so appreciate you saying that. I mean, choreography is simply the organization, the aesthetic organization of bodies in space. And it could be stillness. It can be, you know, pedestrian actions. It could be anything. And I don’t know why we’re taught, as you say, to think of it in this highfalutin way. I don’t understand our relationship to choreography as a culture and the negative use of the word all the time. I heard it this morning, the choreography, if if something in politics is happening negative, it’s usually called either theater or choreography. Your two fields. Exactly.

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S4: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s wrestling because I do think of your choreography specifically as combining sort of those three categories of and you were talking about stillness and the very kind of everyday, you know, mundane gestures drawn from life and then much more abstract forms. Is your relationship sort of those three things intuitive as you’re working on a piece or boy?

S9: Well, the use of space, I think, is a craft. And once you have craft over time, it becomes intuitive how you use it. But it’s something that I quote unquote work on the way like a pianist would practice scales every day.

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S4: Amazing. So how do you how do you do that since you don’t have a you know, a pianist can practice scales in a very concrete way, how do you practice arranging still bodies in space?

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S9: I think about it. It’s like I’m stumped. I look at stuff, I take walks and I look at the world and I, you know, like just now I was down by the water in our neighborhood and I saw a van. I wish I could. I took a picture of it. I’ll send it to you. But a van that was packed with someone’s belongings so tight, I’d never, ever seen anything packed so tight in my life. And it was such a beautiful example of density and in proximity in space. So, yeah, I’m kind of stunned when it comes to looking at space. I think it’s perception, you know.

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S4: And so you think about, you know, how can I arrange bodies?

S9: Yeah, that’s that. Yeah. How can I use that? Or you look at an ear of corn or you know, like nature is expressing itself through the way using space to trees in agreement of how to use the space. It’s everywhere. So yeah. So I just look at it.

S4: Well, you know, one of the ways our listeners can see how you work with bodies in space very easily right now is to stream David Byrne’s American utopia on Biomax, the Broadway production which you choreographed and recently taped by Spike Lee and released, I guess, and during the pandemic. You’ve worked with David Byrne a few times now. I imagine that you’ve sort of developed a kind of collaborative process together. What are the sort of fundamentals of that process for you?

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S9: Oh, fun question. I have worked with David on many, many projects for about over 10 years, maybe 15. It’s musical, it’s aesthetic. It’s his sensibility which I kind of grew up with. I don’t know if he. Would agree, but to me, there’s a really brilliant sense of irony almost in the way flowback uses irony, a coolness which he’s sort of developed into something else in the past few years. But I think all that I was translating into movement whenever I worked with him, the stuff I make for him is different than the stuff I make for someone else or for myself, because I’m inspired by his sensibility. And I have a feeling when I’m listening to the music of what to do often, not always. And some of it has to do with not moving. And some of it has to do with very, very complex movements, phrasing, musicality, and again, where people are on stage. And Spike Lee had a really great respect for that and tried as hard as he could to figure out how to get that on film.

S4: Right. You mentioned that a lot of the inspiration comes sort of immediately from the music. Are you do you play music or are you a musician or.

S9: No, but what I do is, David, also I am very familiar with how David dances so I can get in his body basically. So what I do is he’ll send me stuff and then I’ll work on it on my own, basically in my room, just listening to songs over and over again and coming up with ideas. And then I will bring them to him. And he also has a lot of movement ideas for himself and choreographs a lot of his own material. It’s a really nice collaboration because he doesn’t he’s not all over me at all. He basically not always, but often is good with what I’m making.

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S4: You know, we like to talk on this show quite a bit about limitations and about how limitations in many ways are inspiration points for creativity. Right. Because and on some level, any conceptual decision we make imposes limitations. So what were some of your limitations when working on American utopia that you had to kind of reckon with in the bodies?

S9: Well, it’s a funny question, because when David presented the project to me in the beginning, which was a concert, not a Broadway show, he had been let’s see, how can I describe this over all the shows I had done with him? He had every single show stripped away, something on stage, and it became this progression till when we got to American Utopia. He said, you have no special limitations anymore. I’m going to put everybody on a harness in a harness. So there’s no platforming, there’s no mike stands. There’s no none of the slop of the ubiquitous shit in the rock band space that we’re supposed to ignore.

S4: For some reason, the monitor speakers.

S9: Yeah, all those things are gone. But he basically took away my special limitations. So I was very used to having the platforming, the mikes and all that stuff. I’d made dances with mikes, dance and dances with platforming and all those limitations are so fun. He took them away and said, empty room, go for it. Everybody can dance, go for it. So my only limitations were training for the most part.

S4: Right, because most of the performers are not trained dancers.

S9: Exactly right. Only two of them are trained. And he’s the lead performer and he is not a trained dancer, although he I would I’ve been asked many times, is he a dancer? And I think if we could define being a dancer as someone who who’s expressive with their body. Absolutely. It’s clearly, clearly. Can he do an arabesque into a triple two or. No, but who wants him to.

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S4: Right. Right. Absolutely. So you knew from the start they would be wearing their instruments?

S9: We knew it, yes. He told me a couple of things when we started. And they were the that thing of when you make a piece, there’s like some very simple beginning points. None of them went away, which was kind of interesting. Everybody would be wearing grey suits. The stage would be empty. We would be in a box. The chain was going to be walls, but we had to switch it to chains because of a practical issue on tour. So basically it reads as a box. Most of the time the floor would be white and everyone would be completely untethered. Those things never went away. That was the DNA of the piece. And there also became the meaning of the piece. This sense of dancing in a community as a utopian image, I believe, is what he was working on or what it became.

S4: When you’re choreographing for a rock concert, I know it eventually became a Broadway show, so either way, are you thinking about those kinds of ideas of meaning or are they shaping the movement that you’re developing or no?

S9: Yeah, no, I’m focusing on expressing the music. I really think that is my main focus. And when I say that that is such a broad response because it’s like Balanchine, you know, talked about expressing Stravinsky, what are you expressing? I mean, there’s the psychology of the music. There’s the accents, there’s the rhythm. There’s the color of the notes. There’s the density. There’s the weight. There’s the texture. There’s the meaning. There’s the tonality. I mean, there’s so many aspects to it. And I’m intuitively expressing something I want to express from that. Something, anything. Another choreographer would express something else from that. Right.

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S4: So when you’re developing the choreography on your own in a room with a I guess we don’t use boom boxes anymore, but you think of it as a boom box from all those sort of 80s dance movies. Right. You know, is it that you suddenly sort of intuitively do something with your arm and then you say, oh, that’s interesting, what’s that gesture?

S9: And then you refine like, how does the physical often it’s not that it would be that is more like making movement material, which sometimes I do. But I would give you an example. It’s more uber than that. So what’s the Uber statement of this music like? Do you know the song dance like this? Yeah, of course. OK, so in dance like this, the first time I heard it, you know, I’m hearing demos so they’re not finished. But I hear a drum machine. I not just hear a drum machine, but I hear David Byrne using a drum machine, which is funny. Right? You know, this is a person who I know has a decades long experience with a certain kind of drumming and and dancing and, you know, Tota Mundo, you know, he was just like so into that world. So I know when he chooses a drum machine, it has meaning. So what I hear is reiterative ideas, something that’s reiterative, that’s not changing. That is machine like that has no no variation and it’s almost cartoonish. So I came up with the idea immediately that we would do the performers would actually, and this was very hard for them to do, even though it sounds simple, execute a phrase of movement. That just was two things. It was only two things. So like it would do one, two, and then it would reiterate that one, two, and they would all have different ones, but they would happen simultaneously. And then I asked David, could we possibly have a break of silence in the middle of the whole thing? Could we have two bars, four bars we call to dance, three or four bars of silence in the middle? Yes, he said that’s fine. This is like how we talked to you today. Yeah, that’s fine. OK, so next time I hear it, it’s the silence is there. And the reason I wanted it is because I wanted to do the reiterative dance phrase in the silence. So the audience gets to feel the drum machine without hearing it and they’re kind of programmed that. And so that’s the quote unquote joke, I don’t know if it’s a joke exactly or just a perspective that has comedy to it.

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S5: Well, the moment gets a laugh, usually, doesn’t it?

S9: Always 100 percent and makes me so happy because I think I’m a funny choreographer, but I don’t know if I get credit for that. But yeah, something like that. So I so dance like this. I hear reiterative and then I go, how do I choreographed that?

S4: It’s interesting, you know, the the one that I was thinking about in part because I watched it with my daughter this morning is Zimbra. You know, when we finally get the whole band comes out right. And then we have these sort of teams of musicians. The percussionists are in one group, the guitarists are in another. And then the two dancers are, I think, stage left doing a separate kind of movement. Right. How did that concept for that song and the sort of moving almost kind of Drumlin choreography develop?

S9: Yeah, Zimbra is for me one of the really, really brilliant songs in the show. Every time I hear it, after thousands of times I stand up and dance, I just can’t not. It’s such a great song. And it’s the data. It’s lyrics. I think what struck me initially about Zimbra was its complexity, its kind of the opposite of dance like this, which has no complexity. And that’s the point. This is so deeply complex musically. What’s going on? The drummers are so brilliant in it. How do I show that? So I kind of made a three ring. It’s actually a four ring circus that there’s four different things happening simultaneously and that you can almost like a piece of music. You can listen to the drums, you can listen to this. You can listen to all these parts that with the dance, you could see all these things simultaneously happening that describe or attempt to describe what’s going on musically and its spirit and its sense of joy. And I would almost say love in its joy of music. It’s so deep to me. So I tried to show that somehow through the best that everybody could be in those moments. So the drummers are not dancers, but I could create like a circle of love with them and I’m just introducing them. So I want to be very simple. I don’t want to get too busy with them yet because it’s all going to roll out over time. And I knew it was going to be early. I had a sense, you know, EMI is going to be early. It just is, you know, gets the audience up. This is what I mean about working with David for a long time, is that I kind of these things are really helpful to know the dancers. I gave some really, really complex movement material, that material I had developed over a long period of time with my own company. There’s a lot of DNA from my company, Big Dance Theatre in the piece.

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S4: And one of your dancers works with Big Dance Theatre, right?

S9: Yeah, Chris. Yeah. And he’s the quote unquote dance captain. So he his body is basically an archive. Imagine it’s like a thing in a library, the door you pull out with all the books. It’s so much fun. So. Yeah. And that material, I mean, really, I like this material. Some of it is so old in this to me, really beautiful way. Like that material originally was inspired by a Chris Markhor movie like anybody. New reference.

S10: Wait, wait. Which Chris Mark-To-Market sounds like.

S4: Oh amazing. Amazing. Yeah. Yeah. Because I guess if it was legit they’d be just holding still because.

S6: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Navy person after this.

S1: Do you have questions about the creative process, whether you’re trying to stick to a New Year’s resolution about finally learning how to paint or struggling to finish the novel hanging on your desk drawer? We’d love to help. You can drop us a line at working at Slate dot com or give us an old fashioned phone call at three zero four nine three three work. That’s three zero four nine three three nine six seven five. We’re tired of looking at our computers and we would love to get some phone calls. OK, let’s rejoin Isaac’s conversation with Navy person.

S4: American utopia began as a concert and evolved into a Broadway show with their revisions, it had to happen with the dance along the way to kind of make that transition.

S9: Yes. And I think we should define dance in a very large sense here in this conversation, because I also staged the whole piece.

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S5: Yeah, sorry. I meant to clarify that earlier, that it’s sort of all the staging. Yes.

S9: And it’s really because David and I, I think, share this thing that we think of dance at a very broad sense. So when he asked me to choreograph it, he meant stage it. So, yes, what changed was when it came to Broadway. David, imagine, you know, he’s a great experimentalist. So even though we think of Broadway as being less experimental in his lexicon, it’s an experiment. He’s never done it. What is how does this thing work? You know, this Broadway thing? Oh, people come are they allowed to get up and dance? Like, what are the rules here? What’s the contract with the audience? It’s very different than a rock concert. So he decided that he wanted to be more narrative. So at that point, he hired Alex Timbers, who we had both worked with on Here Lies Love. And I was involved to developed some of the what do you call banter, right? Yeah, the sort of small, tiny monologues between some of the songs. So there used to be maybe three or four in the original rock show and for Broadway there were maybe 10. And then he wanted to add some songs and take some songs away. So there was some new dances.

S4: Of course, you additionally have your own company, the wonderful big dance theater that you run, and that has a very different kind of artistic project from rock choreography and stuff like that. Could you describe for our listeners who don’t know big dance theater what it is and sort of what it’s what what you are doing with that company?

S11: Yeah, I mean, when I began, I was a choreographer who was working as a choreographer in theater at the same time in very downtown experimental theater, sort of rethinking classic plays like Piggin and a lot of Chekhov and things like that. And I would say it got me thinking, but I really never thought about it. It just got me moving dance into theater in a very sort of fundamental way. So I would say big dance, although we have made pure dance pieces for sure. It’s usually has to do with an equality between dance theater design and a sense of it’s not like you’re dancing and talking, but the text and movement and musical composition, video work, all these things have an equality. And that narrative is not the main receptacle for truth.

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S4: Well, I have to imagine it’s a very different kind of process, though, when you’re when you’re developing work for big dance, you’re the primary creative force. You’re it’s your company. The ideas start with you, et cetera. So. So can you tell me a little bit about, like, sort of what that process is like, how it usually begins?

S11: Yeah, it begins with a fascination with something and not an idea. Never with an idea like, you know, community or, you know, something like that. It would begin more with it, with either a text that I really interested in, a movie script. I’m really interested in a series of actions, gestures, even. I’ve made a piece based on neoclassic Balanchine’s work. You know, it could really begin with anything. And then the process has to do it’s very, very collaborative with performers who have the kind of training that involves, you know, this combination of all the arts. So there are just dancers and actors, but they’ve they’re good at everything.

S4: So with big dance, are you still sort of working out the movement on your own and then setting it and adapting in the room where it’s or does it come out of the room? Are you really inventing on the fly?

S11: So it’s really different. That’s a huge difference with my company. I really don’t make very much material for my own company at all. It has to do with that process, that experimentation in the room with these incredible performers, that I would more give them a movement problem to solve a form to play with or what writers call a prompt that is often formal, like make a, you know, eight count phrase that has an accent on the six and the seven and dance it backwards, you know what I mean? So they’re just going to come up with better stuff than me. When I work with performers like an American Utopia, they don’t have the training to make things. That’s a real training.

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S4: So and then you’re you’re editing and kind of collaging that.

S9: Yeah. Together. Mm hmm.

S4: So let’s think about like, you know, you you built a piece where the text is taken from Samuel Peoples’s Diaries and then some of the text he is talking about dance. But it’s not always it’s not like you’re literally representing what he’s talking about in the movement, if I remember correctly. And so I was just sort of curious about what some of the prompts were that generated the movement for that show as an example.

S11: So, you know, his his diaries are are there tomes? There’s so much that the man was so generative, which was why I was attracted to him, because I’m fascinated by generativity in general, in human beings. And so I was attracted to the diaries, but I was really interested in his wife, who he writes about a lot. So here’s an example to answer your question. I kept reading in the diaries for her how to find her. She seems so erased and I had this idea that she must have written a diary herself and I wanted to present her on stage somehow, but I really had only known her through him and I wanted to know her through her. So I wanted to represent Elizabeth Peeps. At the time I was reading Jill Johnston, the great critical thinker around experimental dance in the sixties. I thought, why don’t I have Jill Johnston write her monologue?

S9: So but Jill Johnston, of course, has died, so.

S4: What I did was slight, slight, we talk about limitations and creativity, right? That’s that’s one real limitation.

S10: The writer you want to use is dead, but no problem, because I wrote into one of her texts, so basically took a text that reminded me of Elizabeth PIMS. And I wrote a monologue. Me and Jill wrote the monologue together for Elizabeth Peeps and for the last monologue by piece I used instead of his diaries, I used something from Euripides.

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S9: And because it’s so beautiful, you know, there’s a lot of borrowing of material because I’m reading a lot. And you know how that is when you’re reading and then you’re mixing your books get mixed up.

S4: Yeah, totally. And then you sort of have to find how to link these different moments of text, how they go together, how they read into it.

S10: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

S4: Most of us have moments where the creative well drives up a bit and you feel spent or you feel blocked on a project and don’t know how to move forward. How do you navigate those moments? How do you kind of jumpstart the engine and break through that?

S10: I haven’t necessarily had one. And I’m wondering, as you say, that if it’s because I really think little in very small nuggets of ideas, I think of cells of movement. So I think of things it’s so tiny that I feel like anything could be the beginning of something.

S4: So you mean just like because it’s it’s a little movement that might be then part of a larger dance or a little fragment of text that might connect to something bigger. And just by keeping the focus on the smaller things, it’s sort of prevent that from happening.

S10: Yeah, but it’s not a it’s not it’s not a strategy. It’s. Right. Right. Right. Like, I’m really I’m going to make a piece that’s like 50 people moving in unison for an hour. I’ve been trying to make this piece for a really long time and I don’t have an hour of unison movement. It’s going to take me forever to make it. And it’s very intimidating. But I do have like six seconds of movement that I know is going to be really cool. And so for some reason, I find incredible.

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S4: Well, any bipartisan. Thank you so much for joining us and talking about your processes here on working.

S10: Isaac, thank you. It’s such a joy to talk to you.

S1: So in this conversation and he said one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a long time when she described herself out in the world observing as though she were stoned, yeah, I laughed pretty hard off Mike when she said that, but I think I understood what she meant.

S4: I don’t get stoned a lot these days, but I did quite a bit in college and in my early 20s. And it certainly leads you to find unexpected connections between things and to hyper focus on something you’re interested in to the exclusion of all else. And that’s not a bad way of describing a lot of the early part of creative work when you’re just starting on a process or just getting inspired to do something. And that’s probably part of why part of why so many artists throughout time have abused substances to help enable their creativity.

S1: I get the sense that Nebe was joking, but I also think that there’s something really honest in what she’s saying. That kind of close attention is a significant part of your creative work. You know, painters and sculptors have to look closely. I think that writers do, too. It just makes sense that person would find inspiration or idea or just a spark in watching the movements of bodies.

S4: Yes, I found that really inspiring personally. You know, the the part she said about not getting creatively stuck at first, you know, I was like, what the heck is she talking about? But then she talked about it. I was like, really inspired by that, that you can find inspiration kind of anywhere if you focus on it deep enough and then have the faith to follow that wherever it leads you. You know, and she’s at a long and storied career, she has the confidence to just know that if she’s interested in something, she’s going to find something interesting to do with it. And a lot of her pieces with big dance theater seem to start out with a few creative impulses that don’t necessarily quite cohere at first. And then finding that coherence is part of the process of making the work. And as I’ve said on the show before, I struggle with having that faith that I can just go down a rabbit hole. And when I come out the other side, I will have found something good.

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S1: I asked you at the top of this conversation about the sort of model of Balanchine as sort of the great dictatorial choreographer, in part because what I heard in this conversation is person describing herself as someone who is really given to collaboration that even within her own company, she talked about her role not as being the one in charge, assigning movements to her dancers, but as someone who’s involved in kind of instructing or challenging her dancers to solve specific problems or interrogate specific ideas that she personally finds interesting.

S4: Yeah, totally. I mean, not everyone works that way, but it is worth remembering that directors and choreographers don’t always have this kind of auteur model that we have drilled into us from popular culture. And I think people kind of press operation where it’s like the idea springs like Athena from Xerces Brow. And then you have to kind of force everyone to do the thing that you want to do. And that’s really wrapped up in 19th century ideas of what art and artists are, because the job of the director was essentially invented in the 19th century. And so it has those ideas baked in. And a lot of times actually, when you’re in charge of a collaborative creative process, the most important and difficult work that you do is creating the environment that allows other people to do their best creative work. And then you take that work and you build off of it, you refine it, you suggest things. You know, you make something out of that. And I certainly feel like when I’m at my best as a director, that’s what I’m doing. It’s not that I’m coming up with every idea, it’s that I’m creating the sort of, I don’t know, fertile soil where other people’s ideas are growing and getting out of the way.

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S1: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I definitely recommend spending some time on the Internet, as I did after hearing this conversation, watching Antipas work. But one of my favorite moments in your interview was that moment where we got to hear some of it. There’s something really fascinating to me in person, aiming for a moment of levity in choosing to describe herself as a funny choreographer.

S5: I know, right? I mean, we always associate experimentalism intelligence rigour with her aesthetic or conceptual and the seriousness that it takes to make a really good work of art. We think the sign of that is that the end result has to be really serious, too, or perhaps even Dowa or perhaps even boring or austere and unapproachable. And that is just not the case. I think a lot of artists are afraid of being funny because they want to be taken seriously. And then viewers and critics like us can be complicit in that because we don’t always realize how hard it is to be funny. So like in my book, this comes up a lot with Marilyn Monroe because her peers at the Actors Studio did not take her seriously as an actor, in part because they did not value those comic performances in some like it hot or gentleman only Prefer Blondes. But if you watch those movies today, you’re like it takes a true artist and craftsperson to be able to pull off the stuff that she has to do in those movies. And I think, you know, also of your work, I mean, your new novel has a seriousness of purpose and craft, and it also has this great strain of mordantly funny satirical humor. I mean, you must think about these things in your own work as well.

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S1: Well, that is kind of you to say. I definitely think I felt like my new book cracked me up and I really wanted it to crack the reader up. But I think that, as you’re saying, we associate a kind of seriousness of purpose with the seriousness of text. And we have this idea that if we’re laughing, it’s somehow suspect or it’s lighter. But I think, as you say, it takes real intelligence to be funny. I wondered, listening to this conversation, what someone who works in performance is doing with their quarantine. This is such and such a terrible time for Broadway, for all sorts of live performance. How does a choreographer keep busy?

S5: Well, the good news for Slate plus subscribers is that you’ll get quite a bit of an answer to that in that segment. That includes, you know what? She’s working on some stuff. Polisar is working on a book project, you know, all sorts of things. And of course, we also touched on a little bit in the interview with her, her piece, Six Feet, that is blending together footage from earlier work and, you know, new original text and stuff like that.

S4: So, you know, I do think that there are still ways to keep creative and keep creatively refreshed, even when you cannot actually meet with people and do the work that you’re used to doing.

S1: So, Isaac, speaking of being creatively refreshed, I haven’t seen you in probably six weeks time because something like you, you were meant to be finishing up a revision of your book. Tell me how it went.

S5: You know, I got it in. So that’s a plus. No, the last time I was on this show, I think I was really in a pit of despair. I don’t know if you reach this point with Leave the World Behind, but I had just gotten to the revision where you stop enjoying revising the book and there’s all sorts of reasons for that. But one of them is like, whether you’re a writer or not and you’re listening to this, imagine a book and you read it five times in three months. By the fifth time, you’re not actually going to enjoy reading that book, even if you’re the one who wrote it, you know, and it’s a big book. So revision takes a long time. You know, there’s all sorts of complications with pandemic parenting and Zoom’s school and the holidays. We’re in the middle of it. It was just rough. But as we gotten to the last couple of weeks before I handed it and things got a lot easier, I started feeling a real sense of accomplishment that I had made the book tighter by about 15000 words, that I had made it better and clearer. I had brought sort of some thematic threads more to the fore so the reader could notice them. And I’m feeling really good about it. There’s still more work to do. I’m going to get a line at it back later this month and, you know, then we just move on to the next step of the process. So I am feeling a lot better about it. But for now, this was for now. For now. Yeah, but this was definitely the hardest part of the revising process that I’ve had to go through on a kind of emotional level. I mean, did you reach that point with leaving?

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S1: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, with all three of the books and the way that I usually describe it to anyone who cares, to hear me describe it is not as a marathon, but as sort of like a succession of marathons. It’s like you run the marathon, you get through that final mile and you have that weird, euphoric moment. And then you find out like two weeks later that you actually have to run the marathon again. And that goes on and on until you get to publication, because as you know, because you published a book before, you’re reading and rereading that book in so many versions for so long. So, you know, it can really tax your patience for sure.

S5: Yeah. I mean, the nice thing with the world only spins forward is because it was an oral history. It wasn’t my own writing. And so, you know, you can find new delight in some of the things other people said. But there was definitely a point where Dan and I emailed each other somewhere in the copy writing process and he was like, I can’t read this book again. Like, I just can’t do it. It’s too it’s too much. Yeah. No matter what, you’ll get sick of it because it’s such an iterative process.

S1: It’s just, you know, I just I have to thank you now for pointing me to any person because I really did spend like forty five minutes looking at her work on the Internet this morning. And I just felt like I wanted to dance out of my office and as far away from my computer as possible.

S4: Absolutely. And listeners should Google her name and then just click on the video tab and watch whatever you find and dance the way.

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S7: We hope you’ve enjoyed the show, and if you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. I’m going to give you one final pitch for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like the zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only a dollar, a dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to sleep, Buckland’s less working.

S4: Plus thanks to any Ivarson into our amazing producer Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with the set decorator, Beth Koushik.

S3: Until then, get back to work.

S4: Hazlet plus listeners, Isaac Butler, again, thank you so much for your support, we literally cannot do this without you. I talked with Annie about a couple of extra things that we cut out of the other episode about sort of how she and her husband, collaborator Polisar, are spending their quarantine and the work they’re working on. It’s really fascinating. And I hope you enjoy. Thanks. One of Big Dance Theatre’s co-founders and one of your chief collaborators is your husband, the wonderful actor and director Paul Lazaar, you have these sort of two long running projects of this work that you make together and, of course, your life together. I was curious how your collaboration has evolved over the years and how being married to one of your chief collaborators maybe has affected them.

S10: Well, it’s worked really well for us. I met him through work the first time I met him. I choreographed a dance on him in a Brecht play and I thought he was a really great dancer, which is very sexy. Ever since then, we worked together, so sometimes we would work together where I’m the lead in the lead and he’s a performer and sometimes he and I would make things and he wouldn’t be in it. And of course, he makes his own work also. And then we’ve done so many projects alone in the past few years. But then lately he’s way into dance. So he used to be like a really nice mover who was essentially an actor. But now he’s essentially a both because he’s been working on this cage shuffle for like two or three years. And it’s had a couple of different iterations.

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S4: That’s the project where he’s reciting stories by John Cage and he’s also dancing. But the order of the stories is random and not actually synched up to the movement is that I describe it is well done.

S10: Yeah, I get a star and you get a star. And the thing that blows me away about it, I, I mentioned that choreographers need to practice just like pianists. He practices this action of speaking and dancing simultaneously. When the two things are unrelated, it’s very, very virtuosic. He practices every day and sometimes he practices for two hours a day. So it’s a very serious yeah, it’s a very, very serious practice dance practice that he’s involved in, whereas I am writing a book right now. So we right now he’s way more involved in dance than I am.

S4: Can you tell us what the book’s about?

S10: Sure. It’s like a braid and a braid is a structure. So you could imagine that if you had hair and it had five plates, five strands and you braiding it together, that would be my book. So and John Cage once said that every piece has five parts and I’ve taken that to heart over the years, many times. So it’s a braid of one of the strands is looking at the world, as I mentioned to earlier, choreographically, looking at how the world, our everyday life is choreographed. One of the strands is talking about some of the great female artists that I love and how they operate compositionally. That sounds so dry, but it’s really not because it’s a very like it’s not an academic book at all. It’s a super subjective book. I couldn’t even believe that somebody was, like, interested in it. It’s really like talking. And then one of the strands is about listening to Paul and our son Jack talk on the phone about The Odyssey because they were reading The Odyssey through covid that Emily Wilson translation, and they’d have these long phone conversations about it. So it became really, really a huge part of the book to listen to them, talk about it and and even think it affected my choreography. Because when they got into talking about Penelope, we started talking about we see I’m just listening to them and I say we oikos, you know, the notion of domesticity. And I ended up making a dance of a dancer in her kitchen with David Lang making a new piece of music. And it was so oikos. It was so Penelope. I should have named it Penelope. It’s a little hard for me to describe it because I’m in the middle of it. Totally. Totally. Yeah. But anyway, it’s about a lot of things that are looked at from a choreographic perspective.

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S4: This is not your first book. I know you’ve written earlier, but is transitioning from working with bodies and space to the words on the page challenging for you? And what has that experience been like?

S10: I love it so much. I know writers. If I was a real writer, I would complain probably of the solitude. But it’s a real break to not have the relationality of people in the room. Which can be a great pleasure and of course, it’s incredibly artistically challenging and exciting, but there’s a lot of feelings. And when I’m writing my book, I’m very I’m very free of all the social issues and I really enjoy that. So it’s a nice break for me. I also have my book is very choreographic in the way that I use space in the book and I use clapping in the book. And I used to imagine dances in the book. So it’s very choreographic.

S12: Amazing.

S4: Thanks again, Slate plus members, we hope you enjoy this little extra tidbit. And as always, we appreciate your support. See you next.

S13: So.