Interview with Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe
Interview with Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe for Conversations With Choreographer's, a series of interviews for the performance As it is at The South Bank, London, 1998.
Frankfurt, March 6th 1998.
Jonathan Burrows: I have no idea how you work with time. Everything seems to make sense but I have no idea what you're doing.
William Forsythe We often work with more than one clock…we work with real-time. The piece ALIE/NA(C)TION is a good example. Ok, in ALIE/NA(C)TION you have a man counting, reading a DAT time clock, starting at zero and continuing. But the man is also scored, so he starts at one point to de-sync from the DAT time.
Dana Caspersen: We also use the time of a film, which is played on a monitor facing upstage. We glance at that and use the timings and dynamics we see there to improv off.
WF: And then there's for example another form of time, dividing the edits in the film, so the length of your scene is where…Dana read the film, and every time there's a cut she says cut, and the dancers have to stop what they're doing.
JB: When you're working with these kind of structures, how do you keep the pacing alive?
WF: Well, what's really important is that everyone be engaged in actively participating in a temporal event. And there are a lot of parameters in order to make people shift their attention.
DC: In ALIE/NA(C)TION for example, we have a set structure which was made up from five different layers of things, so there's a lot of information going on and you constantly have to choose which layer to respond to. We don't do the same thing every time - we have this established structure and then we're composing with it.
JB: How do the dancers work with this information?
WF: What we did first was make maps. And I thought I don't want to be drawing, I want to be cutting through the pages, so I exchanged the pen for a knife and then took the page and folded it and photocopied it, so that I was transposing it into something that you had to understand, were forced to understand. And we tried to do some of the same process with the dancers. So one map had words on it, and from those words there was a process whereby the dancers had to - like in a computer programme - move through the layers which coincided and determined what happened: so for instance there might be letters on the map, and if the dancer spelled out a word that he or she had chosen, they ended up having to go in that particular direction. But all of this was linked to the time, so you were constantly having to accomplish either nothing in a tremendous amount of time, or a lot in very little time. It wasn't our decision, it was to see what would happen if you made up a completely abstract methodology. What would evolve?
JB: Does it take a long time to interpret this, I mean this is incredibly complex information?
WF: It was very time consuming: it took three weeks to get the basic variations. We used the improvisation technologies that we'd been developing over many pieces, which involve minute arithmetic, or geometric physical analysis that keeps iterating. It's like a fractal: you solve the situation and you feed the result back into the situation again. Any given state produces another movement.
DC: We also made up rules about when you had to give up. If you can't get it done in twelve seconds you have to go on to the next part.
JB: What would constitute not achieving the task?
DC: Well, say my thing is I'm supposed to go over to the upper left hand corner, and in the meantime I was supposed to accomplish some part of my gestural phrase; but then I had to help somebody move one of the benches which were on the stage. My time might be up before I'd completed the first task, and I'd have to just make a gesture and stomp in the direction of the unfinished task, and then run back to the bench.
WF: I think you have to stretch the environment. Not all the parameters can be at the limit of possibility, but there have to be some that actually induce that state. If everything has a stasis then everything becomes homogeneous. The tensions of the piece come from literally watching people having to make drastic decisions (laughs). Oh fuck it, I have to get that thing done because people are depending on me. There's an over-system, which is trying to take a series of benches that were distributed around the room, and they will eventually form another stage within the stage. That was the goal.
JB: I find this idea that some things need to go to the extreme very interesting, because when I'm working everything begins to disappear. I have a constant battle to keep things visible, but you work in these huge theatres...
WF: That's a problem for us too though, in how the work's developing now, we're also getting smaller and smaller. We've finally sort of exhausted the semaphoric for ourselves.
JB: The semaphoric meaning like on the exterior?
WF: Big legible sort of signs. We came from ballet, and ballet's like three dimensional semaphoric signals in a three dimensional room. For example, this is not so important at 50 metres (makes a small hand gesture). But at this point in our work…this is what we're doing in the duet The The that's coming to the South Bank: this is more important, the difference between that and that (two similar hand gestures). But at 50 metres - maybe it's how you get there, which it always is - but still, we wanted to work in more detail.
JB: Tell me something about the composition of The The.
DC: That was it, an arbitrary timeline.
WF: Mathematically derived.
DC: We had literally two timelines, and then when they hooked up I said 'together'. Originally the taped score of me counting was just for them to practice, because they didn't have a DAT, and we just kept it.
JB: You mean the text that we hear?
JB: So what they're doing connects to what you hear?
WF: But the structure of what you see is only minimally analogued to the score in terms of what you hear. When you hear 'one', that means it's a warning or an internal cue; it doesn't mean it's an external cue. And in front of them is also a DAT, a tiny little monitor which is about one inch square, where they have another timing.
DC: But we've also worked on it a lot, about three years now I guess, and it's become more of a language, sort of hyper-articulate. Not mechanical, but an unusual mechanic.
WF: It's an unfolding mechanic.
DC: And these two women who are coming to London are just masters of it, and somehow it's developing into a very intuitive timing. Also there's a lot that we worked on which was thrown away, but retained at some level.
JB: And why the folding material? Was that connected to the structural process?
WF: No, it's actually something we've been working on. I keep stressing the fact that these are a couple of unacknowledged limbs, the shoulder and this area (indicates the upper spine, including the neck). I feel that the shoulder is almost as articulate as the hand, and so I just include it as a separate thing. But we've been working on this for years and years, all this torsion: it comes from actually prioritising which point you move from.
DC: Point of propulsion or retraction. Also during this whole period I had a really bad foot injury, so I couldn't do anything on my feet.
JB: So The The is on the floor?
DC: Yes, yes we put it on the floor and developed four themes using shoulder, head and limb relationships, and several methods of transporting body parts.
JB: It still seems an overwhelming amount of information for anybody to work with, but presumably it's a cumulative process?
WF: Yes of course it is, it sounds complicated if you describe the whole thing, but when you get into reduction…we read a lot about hierarchical complexity and hierarchical systems, and at one point things radically simplify; things break down. There may be a billion leaves on the tree but at one point - it's a tree!
DC: The duet is composed of highly structured improvisation based on the themes.
WF: Modifying operations.
JB: How did you know when the duet was finished?
DC: What, do you mean the 14 minutes? That was just an arbitrary choice before we even made it - we made the timeline 14 minutes.
JB: And with other work?
WF: Time is such a tricky thing, it's the most tricky thing of all: it's the bottom line. I think shaping time is probably the biggest challenge. For a long time I was curious about algorithms and other descriptions of what is contrapuntal, and I came up with a sort of very simple definition, which is that counterpoint, in a broad sense, is a kind of alignment in time…that's it. And what the nature of that alignment is is up to anybody, it could be anything. But what makes the great puzzle, what makes the structure dynamic and watch worthy is the time. Now, anatomical time, I think, is very very valuable, by which I mean the time it takes to accomplish a thing in its thinginess, and not forcing the time onto a structure.
JB: Yes, except for myself I became so frustrated by the habits that surround anatomical time that I arbitrarily make myself not use it.
WF: Well what we do now, because we got a homogeneity…it got soporific and everyone was snoring away…the danger of anatomical time is this tremendous regularity of the generation. So, by providing a situation where you don't have a choice…for instance this material (looks at part of a score for ALIE/NA(C)TION), has a slot of one minute nine seconds: so he can take his time or he can jam it in at the last second, but you definitely won't get a homogeneous, even distribution of time.
JB: I'm really interested in how you feel about authorship in dance, and the dancer/choreographer relationship.
WF: Well let’s talk about the piece Sleeper's Guts in relation to that. Have you noticed on our programmes everything's credited, basically, and people get paid for authoring. But there's different levels of authorship. If I've made the material and you're realigning it, ok, you don't get paid for it, but if you're developing the material yourself and I need to use it, then yes, you get paid for that section.
DC: Sleeper's Guts was a crazy piece.
WF: We were talking about the nature of competition.
DC: We were in Vermont and we were looking at the forest, and we were thinking about how it's always so competitive when we're making a piece.
WF: Everyone wants to be in the piece.
DC: So we started thinking we should just make this new piece about competition, investigate the nature of competition. My brother is a biologist, and he came up there and started talking about the dynamics of tree species populations in the forest, based on the competition for resources and how that works. So we found out all about that.
WF: Made metaphors…what is a resource?...trees need the light more than anything else, but what do dancers need? Time onstage, and also attention from me. So I chose that I would give nobody attention. Three weeks there was no working schedule. I didn't tell anyone what to do.
DC: First we came in and talked to everyone about how the forest functions, and then people could do whatever they wanted. And that was a hard one because everyone went away for so long that people got off on their own thing, and then Bill had to try and bring it back, and some things didn't work.
WF: I had to accept the responsibility of saying no. But I guess the piece was about authorship. It's also me looking at the company as a resource, in the way that they look at me as a resource, given the time we all have to work with each other. And the cost of time, as you well know, is drastic. So how is the economic context within which we all work shifting the future of work and the future of authorship? Do you depend on these people to help you? Do they help you because they like it? Do you expect them to help you?
JB: I think about this a lot. For me it seems like a situation that's very unusual to this medium: where dancers are absorbing directly, without any interface, something that's coming from somebody else, and then are also expected to make it seem like it's coming from themselves.
DC: Yes, it works in a situation like Frankfurt, but I've had the experience when I've gone to choreograph outside Frankfurt that choreography becomes pointless if the dancers don't have enough time to assimilate my thoughts and the mechanics that inform my movement, because then the choreography can't enable their own dancing.
WF: My function became - because people are less experienced at putting ballets together - I have ideas about how to use material, about the scenic context and all that stuff. I can create a certain atmosphere, what the atmosphere should be for this particular body of material. So I'm like a magazine layout guy or a gallerist, saying OK, the gallery should be hung this way, given the material we have. That's my job. I have a question for you, do you enjoy dancing?
JB: Yes, I've accepted that (laughs). You know, because you go through a period of time when you wonder if you just think you enjoy it, because it's all you know how to do.
WF: I really enjoy dancing too. I just enjoy it because it feels good. I mean is there something wrong with that? I don't see the need to give it a false earnestness. Why be so serious? You know, it's dancing, which is serious in some ways, but doesn't have to be made more serious than it is. When we're dancing we get a tremendous amount of delight.
JB: How did you take ballet dancers on this trip with you?
WF: That's where I come from, I'm a ballet dancer!
DC: Balletic training itself is great, but I find often the ballet institutions instil a strong sense of shame in the dancers and weaken their belief in their own ability to make decisions about art. So sometimes people have to struggle with that (laughs). I was working with some new dancers, excellent dancers, last week, and they were lying paralysed on the floor, just terrified at having to make the right decision.
WF: And making the wrong move, yes, God forbid! That's why I think they joined the ballet, because making the decision is over. I see at one point that kind of feudalisation of the body, where they build a little fortress of knowledge and this will protect them - you know, it's an environment, it's a self image.
JB: Yes, it's like a given as to what might be beautiful or not.
DC: And why The The is beautiful.
WF: What could possibly constitute beauty?
© Jonathan Burrows, Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe, 1998