I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Choreographer Kim Brandt strips away excess in her search for a “body of bodies.”
In October 2014, at Roulette in Brooklyn, I was a performer in an iteration of choreographer Kim Brandt’s Untitled, an ensemble work for a large group of dancers—sixteen in this particular performance—and constituted by one deceptively simple task: to use our bodies to construct a vertical pile, to hold that pile for as long as we could, then collectively dissolve. Within this succinct and emphatic gesture, Kim strips away certain choreographic excesses, enabling concerns inherent to the body and the group to rise to the surface. As she articulates in our conversation, Kim is searching for a “body of bodies” and begins by investigating “what the body inherently does,” rather than “what the body is capable of.” Approaching this inquiry through the apparatus of the group, Kim’s performances live in the intersection of body and form. The internal experience of the performers, which relies on sensation and kinesthetic awareness, yields an experience that is primarily optical for the viewer—a kind of image-in-transition. Drawn to the ways in which these performances are both movement and image at once, I sat down with Kim to hear more about how she is developing this singular body of work.
Lauren Bakst I wanted to begin by talking about the series of works you’ve made most recently—these are performances that involve a large group of dancers, ranging from nine to twenty-four people, who come together to collectively enact a movement or action. I’m curious about how you arrived at this model of working, because previous to being a part of Untitled, I saw the piece Today at JACK performance space in 2013. Today felt like it was addressing some similar concerns but from a different choreographic perspective—one coming more from the patterning and sequencing of learned movement rather than that of a group action. Did this shift in your work feel significant, and if so, what prompted it?
Kim Brandt It definitely felt like a significant shift. It was spurred during “Dance and Process” at The Kitchen in the late spring of 2014—a ten-week group process of sharing and feedback led by Sarah Michelson, and culminating in performances of new work. I had shown Today in the fall, and then something at Movement Research at Judson Church in February, which felt like a bookmark between the pages of Today and what I ended up showing at The Kitchen. Over the course of “Dance and Process,” I just really got down into something—into those deeper, more personal questions, like: Why dance? And not just that, but: Why dance for me? What does it mean to work with other people? Who are the people I’m working with? Why am I working with them? It got pretty dark, but I just went there, and I was in an environment that was encouraging me to go to that place, which was fantastic.
About four weeks in, I was in a total panic, honestly. I spent three weeks panicking (laughter). Then I made this list of things that I didn’t want to do any more, things I had always been uncomfortable with but that I felt were unavoidable, like making dance phrases for example. I realized that kind of dancing was never what I wanted. There was a fear of letting go, but when I did I just got down to thinking about the body as a material, and, instead of thinking about what the body is capable of, I began to think about what the body inherently does. The body exists. It breathes. It’s bound to gravity. And so, the stacking of people came out of my thinking about the body as a material. The piece ended up being only six minutes—which was the time it took for twenty-four people to build the structure, to exist in it for as long as they could, and then let it dissolve. Thinking back on it now, I’m glad I felt that kind of freedom in “Dance and Process” to show a six-minute piece. It’s brought me somewhere funny now because I don’t always want to be in a group show, but at the same time, the work is not asking to be created for or shown in an evening-length context.
LB Something I really appreciate about that work in particular is that it takes the time it needs to take. Is that a rule or condition you’re working with across different movements or tasks? I know you also recently had a performance at AVA Gallery that went on for six hours. So, I’m curious about how you’re thinking about time—is it a conditional relationship, rather than a filling in of a predetermined context, like the forty-minute-to-one-hour show convention?
KB Coming to this understanding about time came out of Landscaping at AVA, where I wanted to make these landscapes and environments with the dancers. We decided to do them to fill the time that the gallery would otherwise normally be open—six hours. That was great, and I got it out of my system, but what I realized is that this structure for time in a gallery is equivalent to an 8 PM evening-length show in a theater. In really addressing the body as a material, you see that time and space are equally important materials. The work is asking me to not make an arbitrary decision about any component. Or in other words, if I’ve made a system for the dancers to execute something, there has to be a reason inherent to the work for it to end, or to be in a given space. I’m in the middle of this process right now, and I’m excited by it because it doesn’t take anything for granted. That’s hard to deal with, but that’s where the work is. It’s not making an assumption about anything.
LB Since different iterations within this body of work have taken place in both gallery and theatrical contexts, do you feel the work functions differently in these different spaces? Or, do you think it has to find its own internal logic, and once that happens it can function anywhere? Do you have a preference?
KB I don’t know yet. I have a residency right now at ISSUE Project Room, which means that I’m able to rehearse on a consistent basis. So, these questions are evolving pretty quickly for me, especially with regards to space. Because ISSUE Project Room is under renovation, we’re trying to figure out where the residency show will take place. Right now I’m not looking for a theater. I’m trying to find a space that exists between the theater and the gallery—some other environment. I’ve been thinking about what’s “front,” and not in a “let’s do it in the round” type of way. I’m interested in giving the viewer spatial and temporal agency, which the dancers also have. The process with the dancers is so intimate, and I’ve realized recently it’s verging on some kind of philosophical inquiry that gets manifested through movement. While it’s very insular, it’s not like we know something the viewers don’t. There’s no trick or secret to how the work is made—Untitled begins by watching the dancers build the structure. There’s also this question around duration and holding an audience hostage—what is it if we could all have more agency? I don’t know how that’s manifested, but that’s really what’s informing where this work happens. I’m not interested in a neutral space because that doesn’t exist. This is art. This is dance. I’m not trying to subvert any of that. I’m just trying to be real about where the work is asking to be.
LB I’m not quite sure how to articulate this as a question, but I’d like to try and talk about the relationship between the terms “dancing” and a “dance”—particularly going back to the shift in your work from “dancing,” in which a series of prescribed movement are enacted, to a “dance” that emerges from a collective action. I’m thinking about the feeling of dancing and how that might live inside these different containers, or even come from the experience of watching. For instance, when the stack of bodies disintegrates, can the spectator experience that as a dance outside of, but also possibly within, themselves?
KB So, to add a third component to this, there’s the dancer, dancing, and the dance. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I find no difference between the dancer and dancing. What is the dancing without the dancer? What’s the dancer without dancing? Right now I’m not interested in starting as though I’m consciously going in to make a dance. I’m trying to start with my own set of criteria, which for me is the body, movement, time, and space. That could or could not end up yielding a dance, but what I’m most interested in is creating a criteria for actions, ways to move, and really, ways of moving together that see themselves through to their own logical ends. So there’s this involvement from me, a lot of involvement from the dancers, and then stepping out of it and asking: What happens next? Do they exhaust themselves in five seconds? Sometimes I ask them to try something, thinking, Oh, it would be amazing if they could travel one hundred feet together. But they cannot do that. No one can do that. That’s me having some idea of what should happen, and I’m trying to have absolutely no ideas. Having no ideas might mean it doesn’t end up being a dance. I feel fine with that, and I’m not saying that meaning it’s going to turn into a sculpture, or a drawing, or a performance art piece, or a protest, or whatever. There’s no agenda for me. It’s having those constraints, which sound so limiting, but which have actually been so generative. It just means I don’t actually know a lot. The work answers the question. It’s not a thinking thing. It’s doing it. It’s an experiential thing for the dancers, and it’s an optical thing for me. The only way to answer the questions is by just doing and not having an idea about it.
LB There is indeed something very optical that happens—the work seems to yield an image that then falls apart.
KB Nothing starts from an image, but I think it happens because of the movement—it’s almost not ephemeral. It’s not trying to resist ephemerality, but I think it inherently does. If you’re holding your arms and legs up in the air for an hour, and take a photo at the beginning of the hour and at the end of the hour, the photos will look more or less the same, but if you’re there watching it, and definitely if you’re there doing it, it’s a whole different experience.
LB It’s not just visual. It’s sensorial. You feel it. There’s no way you can’t.
KB Even simplifying and abstracting things down to that level, I’m still looking at it the way I look at other people’s dances—the nuances in how someone moves. You know, one dancer holds her arms and legs up in the air and hardly moves at all for such a long time, and it’s unbelievable next to someone who’s legs are almost violently vibrating and shaking. For that dancer, it was the only way for her to perform without it becoming a struggle or something painful. She just had to let the body do what it was going to do in those circumstances. It was totally amazing to see those two bodies next to each other. It really changed the energy in the room. So it’s working with imagery, but because you have time involved, the tone shifts. And with that particular score, the body is trying to do something that gravity doesn’t want it to do.
LB What methods do you use to get at what the group action or movement will be? Do you come to rehearsal and say, “We’re going to try this”? Or does it evolve by being together?
KB It’s like following your nose. We’ll often just start by trying something—for instance, a way to move from here to there together as a group, or even just hovering or occupying some kind of space. I don’t do the actions. I watch, and we talk a ton. I listen to what feels weird or why it feels weird, or what feels great and why it feels great. In whatever the action from here to there is, we’re looking for some sort of transformation from an individual body into a collective body, a body of bodies, a system that passes energy through the bodies. We’ve been working lately with movements that one person makes that can transfer to another person. There’s this communication that’s occurring between the dancers, and that will be the thing that generates a way of moving across or within a space. From the outside, I’m also looking for the body of bodies, and for the optical experience of the metamorphosis that’s taking place within the group. It’s very much about how one person does it, but only in the sense that it’s in relationship to how each dancer is doing it. Everyone is asked to do the same thing, but there’s an intentional openness for a dancer’s immediate experience—influence from others around you, and the viewer’s presence. Even when I’m asking for something with little motion, there’s always movement. A mountain can avalanche; a tree responds to the elements. We think of these things as being static or fixed when they’re actually not at all. In rehearsal, when I’m watching, I’m looking for that place where you can see both the micro and macro simultaneously. Then with the dancers, I’m trying to facilitate an environment where they are working within a system that they can also have some freedom within. Not freedom to make some kind of rogue move. We have this rule: no solos. No one is ever going to have a solo—but, a freedom for experience within a system, within a structure.
LB It seems like it’s about how to take this very physical and energetic thing happening among the dancers and allow it to translate or produce something very different in a visual register. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite complicated to be able to maintain the internal system the dancers have and allow it to be totally available to an external eye. I feel like that might be something fundamental about dance as a form, or what dance might have the possibility to do. This also has to do with the fact that the work is a formal gesture, visually—but it’s also inherently social in terms of how it comes together and the people who are in it. In the one experience I had as a performer in your work, we were all just talking before we went out to do this thing, and like you said, there’s no solos. There wasn’t really a fear of like, “Oh my god, the performance is on.” (laughter) We had just been hanging out and talking, now we’re going to go hang out in this other way.
KB I love that. And, I feel I’ve been doing that for a long time, like even the show at JACK, Today. The three dancers were instructed to never look at the audience. I always had them looking at the edge of the stage. I think it was a step toward where I’m at now—inward focus instead of outward. It’s funny because I’ll still hear things from the dancers like, “Oh, am I messing up?” Sometimes I’ll show them a photo or video of something, and someone will say, “Oh my god, why was I doing that?” So, it’s still there. It’s still a thing.
With Untitled, at Roulette and at The Kitchen, the instructions for the pile were to construct it, hold it for as long as possible, and when you can’t hold it anymore, dissolve the pile. That was not an instruction for one or two people—that was the instruction for everyone. It isn’t one person’s job to cue a shift—it’s a group decision that’s made and communicated through movement. That means I don’t know how long it’s going to be; it depends on how everyone is feeling that day. The timing is affected by whether we’ve constructed it in a certain way or not. If someone’s knee is on someone’s pelvis in a slightly off way it might dissolve faster than if it were somewhere else. It makes certain things quite variable. But, that’s something I was very happy with. There’s no verbal communication, like: “Okay, we’re going down now.” (laughter)Everyone is just walking out and draping on each other. In that way, it might be appear to be simple, but it’s actually complicated and requires deep skill. That’s why I work with highly attuned movers, because to make a collective, conscientious choice in that way takes a lot of attention and inner awareness. I think that’s also what the philosophical inquiry of the work is.
LB Like you say, there might be this artifice of “Oh, they just came out and climbed on top of each other,” but in actuality there’s a lot of time spent and care put into how, say, a knee is placed.
KB That’s the choreography. It took a long time to figure out how to make the pile in such a way that everyone could repeat it. Everyone has their path they take, the place they get to. Everyone is safe. Everyone is relatively comfortable, and it looks the same from my or the audience’s point of view every time.
LB Do you feel like your work is participating in any particular artistic lineage? Are there other artists, or maybe not even artists, but things in your life and the world that you’re drawing from?
KB I would say that I’m definitely interested in—at the risk of sounding trite—the differences and similarities between our movement, and therefore existence, as people to other things on the planet. I’m reducing it down to how movements can reflect and be evocative of each other, as a way to find a connection between those things. That’s more the viewer’s perspective of the work. Between the dancers and viewers, or just between the dancers themselves, it’s about how you coexist—just really basic shit. How are we communicating? How does some form of internal communication within the group lead to some kind of communication with the viewer? How do we support each other? I will say I have never in my life had such an amazing working experience—this current group of dancers brings so much to the table. I feel deeply committed to the people I’m working with, and they commit something to me that’s hard to articulate.
Choreographer Kim Brandt premieres a new ensemble work commissioned as part of ISSUE Project Room’s 2015 Artist-In-Residence program at Artists Space Books & Talks on October 12, 2015.
Lauren Bakst is an artist whose work takes the forms of choreography, writing, video, and performance.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee