In Quartet, multiple conversations become one. Claudia La Rocco, Rashaun Mitchell, Silas Riener & Davison Scandrett muse on the nature of performance during the process of creating Way In.
This week, Way In, a performance choreographed by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in collaboration with poet & critic Claudia La Rocco and lighting designer Davison Scandrett, will have its premiere at Danspace Project. Composed by La Rocco in collaboration with Mitchell, Riener and Scandrett, Quartet assembles language generated during the process of making Way In, interweaving multiple conversations into one stream of exchanges. Four individuated voices emerge, bringing to bear concerns with each artist's respective tools—language, the body, light—while revealing overlapping inquiries into the ambiguity of meaning, formal strategies, and relationships to technique.
Rashaun Mitchell People make their meaning. They will always do that. So then the question is how much or little do you guide them.
Davison Scandrett I think for most lighting designers, drafting a plot is the stupidest part of what they do; they hate it. I hate it too but there’s a certain art to things being laid out correctly and making sense and looking good. So, I do immediately—and part of it is being a production manager, too—go to not just “How is this going to look technically?” but “How is it going to get circuited and how long is it going to take to hang?” That shit does have aesthetic beauty to me, even if I’m usually the only one who would ever know that. There’s something about it; if something is systematic and has its own internal intrinsic logic, then that logic tends to radiate out into whatever you’re creating.
Claudia La Rocco I think my only responsibility is to be honest on the page about what I’m seeing and about my impulses and limitations, how they influence what I see. That’s pretty much it. We’re all limited in what we pay attention to, what we pick up on, what we are biased against and toward. It’s no good to be honest from this God-like position of certainty. Honesty is a subjective, personal, beleaguered creature.
Silas Riener It becomes dance when you create a series of circumstances around the body and you try to communicate through the body. But we do other things, too. We use images. We use space. Other tools. But primarily we're using the body and the body has this kind of complicated dual past in the history of art.
DS How did we look into things before the Internet?
SR You went to the college counselor . . . ?
RM Encyclopedia Britannica?
SR We're endorsing a system and culture for experiencing and viewing by saying that the body is part of this and yeah it's beautiful and that's enough and there's a whole questioning of the beauty of the body that we hope you'll consider. But if you don't question it, it still exists on this superficial level. And then it works below the questions. Every part of this piece has a system like that which works superficially but also works if you question it and also works if you unpack it below that.
RM I don't work in a way that's purely structural, at least at first. I always think about how can I get the audience where I want them to be so they can accept what it is they are seeing and be open to it. So that is how I think of structure in each moment.
DS So, I used to be a performer. Musical fucking theater. That’s what my mom shoved me into. And then there was An Incident. I never performed again. I started doing tech shit because I still felt connected to it in some way. The first show I worked the lighting crew on was in middle school, and I got thrown off the crew because I said, “fuck,” or something. I remember it. I remember walking home from school, and I was like, “Oh, I’m already not good enough to be onstage, and now I get thrown off the lighting crew.”
CLR The art comes into criticism in the same way it comes into making poetry: going with the gut. Structurally the piece begins to suggest itself. There are things that one wants to say perhaps at the outset and there may be things that one has to say, but there’s also the motor of the writing: the language and the sensual textural aspects of it taking over and becoming the thing itself. The writing as writing is doing its own thing, if that makes sense? It isn’t just there to serve ideas, textbook-like.
SR Every conversation we've had about taste and aesthetics and beauty has fallen into the quicksand of this huge question that I think this piece is. Which is what is meaning? Here are 600 ways. So we're having this cumulative thing, presenting it, refracting it, showing it from 600 angles, all to say the multiplicity of meaning is meaningful to you but meaningless in a broader context; or it's so individuated that all we can do is create a mess of meaning. You will take what you will, but the body is central to all of that.
DS In college we got taught that if you’re doing your job people don't notice. But in this medium, in this form, in contemporary performance or dance or whatever the fuck you want to call it, that’s a pretty good way for me not to have a career: to do lighting that’s always subtle and you don’t notice it but it looks good. I’ll make that choice if it’s the right choice for the show, but for most shows it’s not really the right choice. So, I don't know. You also have to figure out what the visual element is and then deal with that as an encompassing design aesthetic. It's a really hard thing for me to navigate. I don’t get “Oh my god! Your lighting was incredible!” for a piece I do that just has competent, understated lighting. The weird stuff is what I’m getting feedback on. I’m going to hear “Your lighting is beautiful” when I’m doing crazy and invasive shit . . . I’m good at measuring what the piece wants or needs, and only going there as much as I feel comfortable. But it’s a real struggle to walk the line between innovation and cheesiness and beauty and—
CLR [ ] and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday and we had this whole conversation about proprioception and if you looked at the average New Yorker, like versus the average person living in Spokane. I love the energy of New York. Whenever I’m staying in a midsize city, there’s a certain part of the day where I just feel like, “My God what is the point of any of this I just want to die.” I’m blown away by how beautiful New York is. I think of it as a wilderness in a certain way. Sometimes I cannot stand the sheer amount of noise just walking down a given block. How dirty it is, that people just throw trash everywhere. And that it’s right on the ocean and you wouldn’t know it. It’s really easy to just be on this drug of being busy all the time. And to use that as a way to not be present at all.
RM I'm always thinking about what's the way into this and out of this. The thing doesn't exist and isn't successful in and of itself without that knowledge and execution of what comes before and after. So, if I were wanting to completely control your mind, I would want to hypnotize you with my structure; I would bombard you and repeat things and make you loop yourself in until you're trapped. But if I wanted to ease you into something because I felt like what I was doing was going to be too hard for you to accept, I would have to put in a series of steps, until you realize that you're in this place. Here I'm not sure.
DS Working for [ ]—
SR Ruins you!
DS No it completely makes it so much better.
RM It helps.
SR No, it ruins you.
SR We have a structural criticism or criticism of craft because of its pragmatics, which we judge but also employ. It limits the power. Our criticism is that movement as metaphor, as a message, is controlling. The ways the brain acts and creates meaning are part of our investigation.
CLR Art has its own intent, usually divorced from the maker’s intent—that’s the same whether I’m thinking about my poetry or my criticism; often what I think a piece is doing or even when I’m saying what a piece is doing, it’s not what it’s actually doing, or it’s only one of the things it’s doing. But at the same time, I’m looking at work made by people who have intentions, who have intelligence and methodology, so it’s trying to be open to those things, especially when I’m maybe disinclined toward them. And then I’m trying to use those things to look at the ideas. Ok, so if this is a durational piece with very minimal movement happening, four bodies on stage, what are the ideas in there? What are the politics of that? Politics are a really important thing to me, especially politics that are built into the micro issues of craft. The politics of how—if we’re talking about dance specifically—choreographers and dancers are choosing to present themselves in every way. I mean, you can just go down and down and down that road.
RM We are also inside of a culture and system that values ambiguity and abstraction. And if we were to go to Europe, it's the [ ] example where she talks about the different camps European/American: there it’s about a clarity of vision, transparency and exacting meaning and message. And here we are fine to follow instinct.
DS My designs absolutely have to have an arc. You have to set someone up with something; it’s like any piece of time-based art. Not that it’s a separate piece but it has to have some place to start that makes sense in some way, whether it’s conceptual or visual or holistic, and then it has to go on some sort of journey. I obsess over that a little too much, how you get from point A to point B. But then I have to see it in time and space to actually craft it into something. I think in my process I occupy this weird space where if I know what I’m doing and it looks the way I thought it looked in my head I can move through it very quickly. But as soon as it doesn’t I get completely slowed down. A lot of other lighting designers are the opposite of that—they don’t have an idea necessarily of what it will look like but they’re able to fix it on the spot.
SR I wanna know what you think about puppies.
CLR I’m pro. Pro-puppy, anti-dog.
RM I know, can’t they just stay young.
SR One important thing is comfort level. That has to do with familiarity and it has to do with otherness, alien things, things that I don't understand. There is a way that we are talking sometimes about care, the care of the audience. Are we taking care of the audience members by holding their hands or by having confidence in their ability to read this or not? By that I mean every reference that we are putting in this work but also every way that this work is made for humans who also have bodies, who also have sets of experiences with those bodies. We're using all of those systems.
RM The idea of action allowing for thought. I think a lot of people would separate movement and thinking but they’re completely related for me.
CLR This nutso idea of the critic sitting there with the notebook as somehow separate, not deeply engaged—it’s something that only people who never actually practice writing would think. It’s like saying dancers aren’t fully dancing if they warm up. One time I looked at my notes at intermission and realized I’d been writing over other notes, so I couldn’t read anything and I sort of panicked—until I realized, Eureka! I don’t need these things to write, I only need them for the first thinking phase.
DS I would make spectacle-y choices if it's the right thing, but it’s almost never the right thing. If you’re going to do that shit there has to be a reason. If you watch an entire evening of it you’ll get amped up and psyched but it’s just people fucking with your evolutionary instincts on a very basic level; how your body and your brain reacts to light, that's all it’s doing. And that’s fine, but anyone can do that if they have training.
RM So what we're doing in this piece is putting a fire under the question of meaning. We're saying this can mean so many things. And we want you to question it. We want you to question yourself and your own preferences and habits while watching. That's the meaning of the dance right? And we want you to do it with text, with sound, lights, the body, costumes, performance. In that way it's really clear in the piece what we're doing.
CLR We could also talk about gender and aging and the male gaze and the relationship of the body to all of that, you know, as a 36-year-old woman, who sort of sometimes thinks she wants kids, but time is running out and she’s not getting any closer to “yes definitely.”
DS In college I never thought I’d be a dance designer because I was so into text based stuff, and analyzing the text, and “What does this mean?” How do I work from the text to create something specific with lighting to support the text in the director’s world. Dance isn’t like that, a lot of the time it’s just like, “I think this should be lit like this.” Then you rationalize it however the fuck you want. But ultimately that's where a lot of the decision-making comes from, if it feels right and looks good and supports what you’re doing. If I hadn’t worked for [ ] I don't think I would have the ability to just make choices like that from nothing, without all the information I thought I needed.
SR Does it relate to this kind of organized principle around meaning or creating the space for the individual to make meaning? That we would have controlled things sufficiently or abstractly or reference-wise to make room for someone being in front of our work to have a relationship to themselves—to finding themselves or to discovering or naming something?
CLR I read from a pretty early age, several years before school. I taught myself, apparently. An early memory is being on my parents’ bed while they were getting ready to go to sleep. I was reading a real book—it was a novella, it was probably like seventy pages, about horses. I went through this immense, vast horse phase, like if it didn’t have to do with horses, I didn’t want anything to do with it. (I think I told you guys about the [ ] book that I wanted to read in fifth grade that was written by the woman who wrote [ ]? My dad was like, “This isn’t really about horses, you can read it when you’re older.” I lost my shit. And then I snuck up to the second floor of the antique shop where they put the book and read it anyway and was like, “Oh this isn’t really about horses.” Soft porn for Neanderthals.) So I have this really intense memory of reading this book about a wild white stallion; I don’t really remember anything more, only being in the middle of this utterly familiar space, my parents’ bed—and they were puttering around me, but I was simultaneously somewhere else, in this wild place, totally transported. I felt this rush of traveling.
SR That's the nextness/newness thing that we're inside of. We have to make the work we're making now. We have to exist in a context. We don't have a choice. Which for me goes back to subjectivity but it's also a fundamental truth that we feel in the making of our work.
DS I take on a lot more of a passive role as a collaborator. I have ideas when I go into a process, and I want to try those ideas out, but if a choreographer or director doesn’t like those ideas I’m not going to sit there and be like, “No, we need to do this.” A lot of lighting designers are like that—they take this ownership of it. So, I don’t know if I see it as we’re fully in collaboration. I definitely see it as I’m working for you to help you achieve something. If the person I’m working with doesn’t like what I’m doing, then I’m not doing it well.
RM That reminds me of this idea that, when people go to the theater (and you can question this), they are either looking for something they've never seen before or looking to be reassured about what they already know. Don't you think? It's either one or the other?
CLR I’m not so good at being alone in a room.
RM Because you’re a Libra.
CLR Is that why.
RM Maybe. You like to be around people. Stimulation over isolation.
CLR Yes, but not with clamor.
CLR I’ve thought a lot about what responsibility one has to the form one is writing about in terms of knowing that craft from the inside and how much you need to know it in your body. For a long time I was very self-conscious about not having trained as a dancer. One of the things that it makes me as a watcher, for better and for worse, is more generous. And the “for better” is the generosity, right? It’s being open to a wider range of movers. Whereas with writing I’m not generous at all. If that semicolon is not where I think it should be, you’re dead to me. But I see the limitations of that generosity; it can become a muddiness.
DS Unless it’s really specific and backed up by all the things we’ve been talking about, I don't like seeing a light show. You have to have a really good fucking reason to have a light show in a piece.
RM Maybe there are fewer reference points for people who haven’t trained. They see a given movement and they take it at face value. Whereas if you’ve trained a lot, you’ve probably seen it done a million times. You know at what level of failure or success it’s being executed, and how it can be done differently. So, you’re always adjusting those references as you’re watching, which complicates looking. It’s better and worse.
SR It’s like when in [ ], the watcher, oh no it’s not [ ], it’s [ ]. There's this cast of watchers and slowly he develops a personal relationship with the immortal that he’s been tasked with watching and documenting. He gets drawn into the struggle and the life of that.
RM I think our work is a mixture, of conceptualism and craft and performance art, and the ability to dissect and create idea based work. But there is also this technique and training.
DS I can never admire a designer who can’t do the technical-human-being-not-being-stupid-and-an-asshole part of their job. It’s impossible for me to separate that. I think of [ ] who does awesome work, really beautiful, clean, not heavy handed gorgeous work, is a super cool dude and knows everything you need to know about how to get it done; he’s someone I admire because he can produce beautiful work but it’s also not a crazy process. I like [ ] work, [ ] a really good lighting designer. But [ ] doesn't have any of the technical knowledge to get [ ] from point A to point B. And [ ] is challenging to work with. What [ ] produces is amazing but if you don't know the half of your job that it takes to get there it’s hard for me to say I admire you as a lighting designer.
SR Maybe something about the practice of training for dance gives an embodied eye. You’re not always just looking with your eyes, you’re having a visceral response. Especially if it’s a movement that any point you have tried to do. You have a body opinion about it.
CLR I think of ambiguity as the space in which I can operate as an audience member. I’m not interested if your performance is the equivalent of your hand being centimeters from my face dictating, “These are the emotions you should be experiencing, this is what the piece is,” and as an audience member I have this tiny amount of space to essentially agree with your proposal. A typical [ ] would be that right? Or [ ]—there’s no space in that for anybody to disagree with it. I really like indeterminacy, and delicacy of structure. Quiet things. Variation and juxtaposition. Things that sidle up against each other and maybe rub each other a little bit the wrong way. I like collage. I use it a lot, probably too much, in my own writing. But I also like precision; if I’m getting lost or if there’s space for me to be lost, I want to know that that’s intentional. That it’s not just ambiguous because it’s messy, because choices weren’t made. I don’t like didactic things, I don’t like bombastic things. I have a really hard time with a certain type of overtly political work. I can be a sucker for beauty and pleasure; I’m not sure to what extent I want to get over that.
RM People want to see dancers do something that they can't do.
SR That's fetish to me.
RM Or they want to be reassured: “I’m not alone.”
SR And that's the faith experience.
RM Right. And it can be anything. It can be a single moment.
SR So people go to the theater looking for meaning. They want to be taught.
RM Or at the most basic level they want to be entertained. To have a sensation.
DS A lot of it’s just a weird combination of the pure aesthetics, which are very much from the gut, and logic-based, conceptual ideas. That middle ground—having things visually make sense and carry a concept—I don’t naturally have that. I operate at the two opposite ends of the spectrum. So, I don’t know—I see questioning looks on your faces.
CLR I’m happiest in criticism when I’ve fallen in love, and when you’re in the earlier stages of love you move toward the thing, right? There’s something about my hand moving on the page when I’m watching. Something like a muscle memory.
RM That's why setting up in the beginning of this work a situation that demonstrates confidence is a way to get people on board. They get in your car and you can drive them. But if you don't make that possible . . .
SR But the way that the work uses all the things inside the system is about the size of the bubble around the audience member and the meaning and message that the work contains. It’s super specific.
RM What does that mean for us?
SR I think it means we're making American work.
CLR Bad, bad to have expectations. I’d rather see new work that doesn’t really work than see something again and again that I love. Especially as a writer; I want to be able to explore something that is itself being explored.
DS Even more than special, it has to be right. In a great piece of art 70% of your decisions are good and then you get 20-30% that are perfect. Like when people say shit like, “Something else was speaking through me and I don't even know how I did it.” You created something that was just right. And not in a right or wrong way, but at that moment in that space and that time it just happened.
SR It's all true what you said but it's all just subjective.
RM Our particular subjectivity, maybe it has the potential to infiltrate different camps. We're constantly shuttling inside of that. I think it's an interesting friction.
Way In will be performed at Danspace Project November 14–16.
Claudia La Rocco is a poet, critic and teacher whose work typically revolves around interdisciplinary projects and performances.
Rashaun Mitchell is a choreographer, performer, teacher and fantasizer living in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Silas Riener is a dancer and choreographer living in Brooklyn.
Davison Scandrett is Joe Levasseur's roommate.