The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
The dancer on repetition, transformation, and abstracting everyday movement.
Milka Djordjevich has always been somewhat of a shooting star to me. Our paths have crossed many times over the years, with overlapping circles of friends, collaborators, and colleagues. I witnessed her finesse as a curator at the Movement Research Spring Festival 2008: Somewhere Out There, when I made a brief visit as a guest teacher and artist. I remember that over a dinner during the festival, Milka turned to her then fellow curator, Chris Peck, and started a conversation with him about how dance and music could be composed at the same time by both the choreographer and composer. That conversation was the seed for what became An Evening with Djordjevich and Peck at The Chocolate Factory Theater in 2009. Hearing of the continuing success of their project, as their collaboration took them to the Whitney Biennial in 2010, Milka stayed on my radar.
It wasn’t until January of 2012 that we met again, this time at the Movement Research office. She was there, along with Lydia Bell, to hand off the annual cycle of the co-editorial position of Critical Correspondence to me. At the meeting we briefly discussed her move to California, and I exchanged some reflections with her on the experience of living and making work in other cities and communities. It seemed like this was what we were fated to do, to work in tandem without ever seeing of one another exactly what brought us to New York in the first place—being artists and performers.
I was ecstatic that finally, in 2013, five years since meeting Milka and knowing, albeit remotely, of her conceptual and relentless work, I was going to get to see her perform. I felt extra lucky that I would see her perform a solo. Kinetic Makeover, which premiered at the Chocolate Factory Theater this April, was a trance-inducing, morphing, highly-driven performance that left me stunned. I immediately felt the need to ask her questions, artist-to-artist, and probe further into her choreographic process. How was she able to carry out one gesture past the point of exhaustion until it became something else? What does it mean when a dance is made to become a collection of images? How can a body be an object, but not be objectified? We sat down together for a lengthy discussion of her relationship to her body, her previous dance training, and the evolution of repetition toward a greater consciousness of and possibility for performance.
Marissa Perel I thought of your solo as one continuous piece—how did you come to make decisions about the transitions from one set of movement phrases to another?
Milka Djordjevich It was a combination of things, of having different outlets. It was this perpetual action that was evolving, and it was a practice of sensorial interest. Where do I want to go with this morphing, evolving movement? Kind of like how you’d dance at a dance club. I started associating images and contexts for the actions, and then would play with how their contexts change over time. I wanted to use the repetition to retrain the eye to see the body differently, and then to see how the body transforms with the morphing repetition. On an incremental level it doesn’t seem like change, but over a longer period of time, I’ve shifted completely.
MP When you were clapping your hands, I went into a trance. I really fell into that repetition. It went from being a choreographic gesture, to being demonstrative, to being reflexive, to being something completely alien, with no purpose. Your hands are probably getting raw, but you keep going, and I experience these waves of sound and movement.
MD That action is a good example of incremental change over time. It was a key moment for me to experience the subtle evolution of performing the action and of letting the audience into what I’m doing. The performance is so sensorial that I get caught up in the minutia of what is moving in my body, but clapping is a universal action. I know the audience can connect to it, so they can witness me changing it, making it other. It almost became separate from my body, so together, with the audience, I’m going in and out of a relationship to what it is. My hands start tingling and go numb, and I’m just trying to let those experiences wash over me.
MP I was struck by your relationship to the movement as a reflexive tool and as a conduit for exploring states. It’s a way of dancing that seems more about the sensorial exploration of an inner experience, rather than as a demonstration of an action. Although demonstration can be visceral, it remains on a representational level. You were interested in the effect of repeating the phrases on your body, on the audience witnessing you doing the actions and being effected by them. There was a sensorial nexus or node within the dance that drew together these experiences.
MD I think many choreographers don’t show that they’re feeling it. I think part of that has to do with what the person is doing formally or compositionally. Dance training is mostly about anonymity, producing an army of beautiful bodies that conform to an ideal. In contemporary dance, it has to do with an abstraction of that ideal, but in both instances, it reduces the self. I’m drawn to how people with limited training or no dance training move because they have no other reference point. There is also an aspect of dance training where you’re expected to always do something the same. But it’s never the same because your body is always changing; your energy shifts; your mood is different. I’m not interested in my body always being the same, but in exploring how it is different, when my experience of what I am doing changes within the repetition.
In talking about your term—states—I’m often conjuring associations with what I’m doing in the dance, letting my imagination take over. There is also a common value in dance of neutrality, but I’m questioning that as a baseline of experience right now.
MP I want to pick up from your statements about abstraction and neutrality being an erasure of the self. In the piece, it seemed like your selfhood was transparent, like you were channeling the shifts in movement. Your gaze was definitely neutral, which seemed like you were interested in reflecting something back to the audience.
MD Well, it’s interesting, I think solo work often becomes too personal, and too much about the self. I wanted to create a distance from the self as personality or person. I wanted to focus on my body and its parts as individual entities. Then each of these parts of my body had their own tasks to fulfill. I made a bunch of studies toward this piece, treating body parts as objects. There’s the inherited discourse on the female body and the gaze that I know are present, but in committing to these tasks that I take myself through, limb by limb, I am seeking a distance from that discourse in order for it to open up to something else. I want to create a space for the body to transform, not to represent an ideal female body, or comment on it. It’s a kind of shape-shifting.
MP It’s a very different use of repetition from how it is used many times in performance, which I usually see as means of catharsis. The repetition is a tool to exhaust the body, to finally expose it, or its truth, or a truth. When it comes to a woman performing a repetitive act, it is usually to push an image or experience of oppression that she is attempting to represent, deconstruct, or destroy. The image or feeling becomes abject.
MD When I was working on the music with Chris Peck, we were originally working with sounds coming from my body during the dance. I would also make sounds while I was dancing. Without my intention, everything sounded so sexual. One simple gesture of a leg with a sound would create a completely different association than simply dancing. I was surprised, in the process, by how critically I had to assess the way the performance would come across because I have a woman’s body. Many of the gestures started from exercises I was doing to recover from a back injury, and the repetition that is necessary in building strength. Scissor-kicks for instance, are therapeutic, but are also dance, but can also appear to be sexual. I wanted to use all of the movement I was working with at the time as material for the solo, not to exclude the therapeutic from the dance, but to work out of it into the choreography.
MP At one point in watching your performance I just wrote a list of words, “inertia/ filmic/ moods/ conventions/ affects.” I wrote it when the music started and the light started to amplify and shift. They were bringing your repetition to another level, and they multiplied the associations. You were a rock star or go-go dancer, or you were shelving objects, or just bending an elbow. What was Rebecca Brooks’s role as the “eyes” of the piece?
MD I saw her as my body advocate. She was there to see me through my natural movements, and remind me of the options available to me in making choreographic choices. I’ve been in the process of re-discovering my body, and not taking for granted everyday movements. Isolating body parts to get them moving also creates this abstraction and availability to move them through to new modes of perception. As an Alexander Technique instructor, Rebecca is very unique in that she honors the quirks of the individual body. Instead of trying to teach the body to move and appear in a uniformly “released” way, she can see what the body’s natural tendencies or desires for movement are, and help to find a pathway to bring that out.
MP That is a very unique and powerful practice when it comes to release. It’s a rare kind of permission to let go of what is wrong or right in that practice.
MD Having her input gave me more awareness of the evolution of my movements as a whole, to understand what my tendencies were and whether or not I wanted to follow them.
MP I needed to take time after the piece was over to readjust my perception of reality. I felt like I was still in the piece long after it was over. It was hard to see you as Milka in a normal way for while. The image of you in the light just left an indelible impression on my psyche.
MD The sound and lighting were designed to deepen the context for the movement, creating a perceptual space for the transformation of my actions. It was a way to open up the viewer’s mind about what I was doing differently from working in silence. Madeline Best’s lighting, which created a gradual shift in the gradation of the light, was meant to subtly open up the viewer’s perception of the movement that had been happening the whole time. The gradations were so subtle, multiple hues of one color that would change the tone of my repetition. I really see Chris’s music, Madeline’s lighting, and Reid [Bartelme’s] costume as three parts that make up the whole of the piece, that transport the dance into another space.
Marissa Perel is an artist, writer, and independent curator whose work spans performance, video, installation, visual text, poetry and criticism. She writes the column “Gimme Shelter: Performance Now” on the Art21 blog, and is curator of the Spring season of Lobby TALKS at New York Live Arts 2013. Her work has recently been presented at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, One-Shot video project, curated by Aaron Mattocks, and Golden Gallery, NY.