Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
DD Dorvillier on her transnational upbringing, the origins of The Matzoh Factory, and her artistic development.
DD Dorvillier has long been a dance hero of mine, as a choreographer whose work reads more like visual art than dance, despite its kinesthetic virtuosity. Earlier this month, I spoke to Dorvillier about her studio practice, her upcoming performances at The Kitchen, and the music of Ludwig Beethoven. When we spoke, Dorvillier was sitting at a desk in Bandol, France, a small town on the French Riviera where her in-laws have a home. We stole a few hours to talk via Skype, shortly before Dorvillier embarked on a month of rehearsals and performances in Paris and New York.
She is accustomed to radical (and frequent) changes of landscape. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she moved to New Hampshire in her teens, spent a year in France, and later graduated from Bennington College before landing in New York, where she established herself as a choreographer and performer among a close-knit group of downtown choreographers whose stars continue to rise. A few years ago, Dorvillier began spending time in France to be with her partner, composer Sébastien Roux. Currently, she splits her time between New York and Paris, and continues her transnational collaborations with musician Zeena Parkins and lighting designer Thomas Dunn. She explains that she never truly left New York, physically or spiritually. None of this lessens the anticipation of her return, this month.
Suzanne Snider Let’s talk about the life and death of The Matzoh Factory.
DD Dorvillier The Matzoh Factory was a loft that Jennifer Monson and I founded in Williamsburg in 1991. It had a concrete floor and we built a dance floor, a bathroom, two little bedrooms and a kitchenette.
Our first year, there were six homicides on the block. Rents were very low. There were no shops. There was a place close to the L Train called the L Café that was, like, the first café in Williamsburg. For the first two years, there was not much else other than boarded up buildings, drug activity, police, and a lot of automatic weapons. I lived and worked there for twelve years.
SS What went on inside the space?
DD We rehearsed. We slept there. There were readings, improvisations, choreographies-in-progress, somebody singing or making music. We would have parties that became performances or we would have performances that became parties. People like Scotty Heron performed there, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Jennifer Lacey, John Jasperse, Becky Hilton, Chrissa Parkinson, Laurie Weeks. I can’t remember if Eileen Myles read there. Jennifer Miller, of course. The Circus Amok rehearsed there quite a bit for a certain period. Jennifer [Monson] organized something called Improv Group that was a little bit like Open Movement where there was no score or structure proposed. People would just warm up and dance and then you’d have lunch or dinner and everybody would go away. A lot of people would borrow or rent the space and that money would go to paying for heat or paying the rent.
Looking back, I realize how hugely important The Matzoh Factory was, in terms of my personal artistic development. Jennifer continues to be, of course, a dear friend and sister but also a major artist in my life.
Sometimes, when I’m having trouble teaching because I feel like I’m working with people who are half my age, looking up to me as if I’m a successful artist or something, I just imagine that I’m at The Matzoh Factory where it was never a question of someone being older, younger, or more or less experienced.
We had a lot of vision and went with our instincts to make things happen with joy.
SS What was the fate of the building?
DD The building was artist-owned. All the artists there had bought their floors except us. The owner of the first and second floors decided to expand the gallery he had started in the front of the building, called Sideshow. They moved the wall backwards and I think the floor of The Matzoh Factory may be intact, so you can see part of it from the gallery, today.
SS How did it feel to move to France, after so many years building your company and the loft?
DD My so-called move to France has been kind of gradual. I’m living my personal life in France but I have to travel a lot in order to rehearse. I lost my apartment in Williamsburg, but I still have my office there and my company is still based there, and I’m doing a big collaborative project at Danspace Project next year.
I didn’t move to France with this idea that I’m going to be a French artist, because that’s a process. It’s not an overnight thing; it’s something you work on. It took me twenty years to become a New York artist—in terms of a career, audience, and financial support.
I have no intention of leaving my New York roots. There were some practical difficulties in New York that I just couldn’t overcome, plus I discovered that I was happier being with my sweetheart and happier being outside of New York for a while.
SS What was the dance scene like when you were at Bennington?
DD Strange. In the mid-eighties, Bennington was in a big transition because Jack Moore had just left. Wendy Perron wasn’t there anymore. I was coming to Bennington thinking I was going to quit dance and do theatre but then I met my voice teacher and discovered the Alexander Technique, and it blew my mind. At Bennington, I met a lot of artists that I’m still connected to. I studied with Milford Graves, percussion and dance, and with an incredible voice teacher named Frank Baker. When I was his student, Frank had already suffered a stroke and lost the full use of his vocal chords. He taught himself to speak again, with quite a bit of effort. He was the best teacher I ever had and he taught me how to sing Bel Canto and Opera arias, and to see, feel, and hear music as something more than a physical operation or translation of notes. Milford Graves also gave me this, from his own unique perspective. They both instilled in me a deep sense of self-sufficiency, that I had what I needed, and what was necessary was to work with it and develop from there.
At that time, there was this history that people kept referring to. I heard references like, “Oh, that’s so Judson,” but I actually managed to graduate from Bennington College knowing that there was something called Judson but having no idea what the hell it was.
When I was graduating, I came across a very thin book of photographs taken by Peter Moore, I think, and it was edited by Bennington College Press. I looked at them and said, “Oh yeah, I keep hearing this word Judson.” This was June of 1989, my graduating year, and Miles Bellamy, who was working at the bookstore at Bennington College—and now runs a great bookstore in Williamsburg called Spoonbill and Sugartown—just froze and was like, “What?!” He knew what Judson is: he’s a New Yorker, his Dad was Richard Bellamy who ran Hansa Gallery; a big art family. How did I graduate from this school not knowing what the hell Judson Church was? I quickly found out.
I moved to New York right after that because I had gone to Open Movement while I was in school and I saw these people. I thought, I’ve never seen people move like that, that kind of audacity and fierceness and strength and power, and all that. It turned out to be Jennifer Monson and David Zambrano.
SS Speaking of the Judson Church, I received an email from Performa that they’re hosting a panel at Judson in September, titled Why Dance in the Art World?, “a look at the recent explosion of the art world’s interest in dance.” Do you think there’s been an “explosion”?
DD I’m really dubious. You know if Sarah [Michelson] does something, everyone tries to see how they can maybe capitalize on it—the media and curators.
I have gotten so much energy from discussing my work in places that aren’t typical dance institutions, the kind of discourse that has been extremely limited for years in the dance world. There has not been a single place for this except for spaces like Movement Research Studies panels, but even those have been limited.
It’s all so susceptible to institutionality, to the rules of the game that were largely set up by The Poor Dancers’ Almanac, created by David White when he was inventing Dance Theater Workshop. I think the book served a purpose for people at a certain point but I think the mentality of discursive impoverishment has really worn out its welcome. I think a lot of people who have been working a lot in the field for years are very frustrated and are inventing their own spaces for discursiveness within the dance field.
The acknowledgement from the art world has been positive. I’m just dubious of it when it comes to money, capitalizing on dance entertainment.
SS I’m curious whether the so-called “explosion” will be a trend or a commitment.
DD I’m thrilled about visual artists and visual art audiences crossing over with dance and performance. I’m excited that they’re more interested in art and ideas than they are in keeping the disciplines clear. But I’m not one percent interested in the art world and the dance world. I’m not at all interested in institutional acknowledgement.
SS Do you remember the first piece you made?
DD At Bennington. It was called Beatrice and it was a collaboration with Jennifer Lacey and Leslie Ross who played the bassoon. I think my work went from being concretely about image made from stuff —costumes, lights, props—to something more abstract, since 2005.
SS What marked that change in 2005?
DD No Change or Freedom is a Psycho-Kinetic Skill. I’m performing it again in two weeks in Paris.
SS I saw that performance at the Context Studio, which was a wonderful space that I never returned to again.
DD That was close to the end of that space. It was a very participatory process to make the contact with Ed Montgomery, who owned Context, and to negotiate with him. Even though I had a commission from Danspace Project, it was very self-produced. That space was magic because of that. I’ve never had another space that had the curved wall. That would be the ideal.
SS Can you make a curved wall?
DD Yeah, it just takes time and so it takes money, plus some materials. Usually that’s the stuff that we don’t have: time and money.
I was making No Change for over a year and a half, in lots of different spaces. Every time I rehearsed in a new place, I repeated what I did the day before in the studio. It was about reproducibility: everything had to be same. So if today there’s a window here but next month I’m working in another country, and I have studio time for a few hours after class, and there’s no window there, I still refer to that place as a window and I still try to look through the window; I still put my arm out the window even though it’s a wall.
I started using a trashcan and then the trashcan finally became a bucket. But every room I went into I had to find a container that was like a trashcan. So each space that I worked in was an accumulated space.
Context really gave an identity to the piece but by the time I got to Context, I already knew, “the bucket always goes there because that’s the place that the garbage can was in Australia.”
SS So you have this invisible architecture to which you’re loyal.
DD Loyal-plus! Every time we go to a new place, I’d know, “Oh that used to be a window, now it’s a door.” Before, it was a wall and then a curtain.
SS I remember a critic called you a “louche child,” in her review of No Change at Context. Did you embrace that phrase?
DD I appreciated “She is a treasure” more than “louche child.” I don’t appreciate the infantilizing reference. Maybe I looked like a crazy toddler because I pull my pants down.
SS I found two different descriptions of Danza Permanente. One states that it comes from “a musical composition created in Vienna two centuries ago by a deaf man.” In The Kitchen release, you identify Beethoven, explicitly. Was this a change in thinking about the piece or was this a matter of two different audiences, European and American?
DD Both. I kind of regret that I started announcing it as Beethoven. At the beginning I was very idealistic and exigent about the concept—that it doesn’t matter who wrote it or what it is. I was very curious about the structural procedures of music, how music produces thought and feeling—at least this Western classical canon. I wondered if that exists in dance. It’s a whole different system of representation because you see human beings moving.
SS The piece of music you chose involves such precision. Just watching and listening to the dancers’ feet and seeing all the triplets made me wonder wondered how committing to this piece of music changed your choreography. Did it demand that you to go to new places?
DD I really had to have an open mind as to how the dancers would respond to it. At the same time, I had to be really demanding. I questioned whether I was committing to this out of a kind of egotistical tenacity. When the memories of the dancers were about to explode, I said, “Okay, let’s not finish the fifth movement!” but it was totally inconceivable to them. There was a need to see it through, just to see what it produced. In the end, in a total of twelve weeks spread out over a year, we managed to do this hour-long work.
We have only performed it four times, and I think they’re still in the beginning stages of really getting it. By the time we get to the performance, it’s going to be a new experience.
SS What do you want someone to know about the piece before s/he sees it?
DD The piece was written by one of the first freelancers. It was written in a really intense time of history, 1825. The guy who wrote it was deaf! And the first time it was played, people were very disappointed and then a few people were weeping. I have no idea what it sounded like when it was first played because there are no recordings. It’s gone on to become this canon of early romantic western classical music.
SS And how did you choose the particular piece of music you were going to work with?
DD I chose that one because of the central adagio, the Heiliger Dankgesang.
SS And was there music in the studio while you were working?
DD Yes, there was music to a certain point. Towards the end, it was almost an insult when I would play the music unless they asked for it. At one point I played the music before one of our performances and I think it made it a very difficult performance for them.
DD Dorvillier/human future dance corps will perform Danza Permanente at The Kitchen, September 26 through 30, in a co-presentation with the French Institute Alliance Française as part of the Crossing the Linefestival.
Suzanne Snider is a writer and oral historian. She is the founder of Oral History Summer School and is currently completing a book about rival communes on adjacent land.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.