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
Moriah Evans’s Social Dance 1-8: Index premiered last January at ISSUE Project Room, where she developed the piece over the previous year in our beaux-arts theater. The relationship to the architecture is not insignificant, as the series of forty-five dance steps that created the basis for the choreography were drawn from the patterning and ratios of the theater. As in Evans’s previous work, the relationship between structure and the performing body form the conceptual armature of Social Dance. Not having a formal background in choreography myself, I feel like I am constantly approaching dance through other ideas, through thinking about other forms and disciplines.There is something in Evans’s work that lends itself to this type of inquiry. After watching the piece develop over the last year and having countless conversations along the way, we sat down a few months after the run’s conclusion to speak about her work.
Lawrence Kumpf During one of the performances of Social Dance 1-8: Index, three dancers spin around in unison, and Sarah Beth Percival mistakenly did this old move that was rather flamboyant. It induced a lot of laughter among the dancers and the audience. You commented later that it was okay and that “the dance could contain that.” Can you talk about your relationship to structure and the ability of your work to contain deviations?
Moriah Evans What else is choreography other than structure? Dance can be a deviation from structure.
LK Dance as opposed to choreography?
ME If choreography is the score, the expression of that structure is dance/dancing, and that expression has many ways to fulfill itself. I realize we cannot control the conditions in which dance emerges as a “true” state, a magical moment. These questions and concerns pertain specifically to Social Dance 1-8: Index, as the structure is almost algorithmic; there is a mathematical sequencing in terms of the sets of possibilities of steps and configurations of the dancers in the space. There are some ruptures to and within the system, but most of the dance transpires within a limited palette of operations. When Sarah did a seductive pose as opposed to a minimalist, deadpan reveal—why did I say that the piece could contain that? In some ways, the choreography was conceived as a vehicle for various expressions, in hopes that dance would emerge.
LK Even though the move was a variation, it worked in that particular moment. It said something about the piece and the way you’d been developing it. The musician Keith Rowe talks about this idea that he gleaned from Philip Guston’s writings, about a moment when all your intentions leave the work—the painting or a piece of music—and the work begins to speak for itself, answering its own questions and making its own demands. At that point you’ve removed yourself from it. Is there a parallel to this in the way you work with dancers? What is that moment when the dance, as performed code, becomes independent from your intentions and becomes its own thing?
ME It’s a process and it goes back and forth. The dancers must catch the energy of an experience, especially in a minimalist and repetitive structure. That possible state of exuberance varies from performance to performance, from performer to performer. The performers are not necessarily going to feel the same thing at the same time. During the process, after the overarching structure has been determined, they have to understand their pathway through the piece performatively, conceptually, and logistically.
So for Social Dance 1-8: Index, in addition to hours of movement-based rehearsals, I met with each dancer to talk about their own subjective relationship to, and experience with, the structure I was proposing. I took scrupulous notes and considered their viewpoints when determining how to finish the piece. Their understandings, misunderstandings, and intentions with actions were understood amongst us—and resolved, hopefully. There’s a certain point when you have to let the thing do itself. I don’t ever know when it happens. In this piece it happened early, perhaps because it is also the first piece where I do not perform, so I don’t have an internal—
LK This is the first time you’re not dancing in your work?
ME Basically. The cast was people with whom I wanted to dance, like in a partner dance, but I wouldn’t be the dancing partner—they would dance with each other. I worked systematically and for the specific space of ISSUE Project Room. The floor insists on pattern, repetition, and variation. So the architecture constantly inscribes proportions and relations in a way that an open dance studio does not. The logics of Social Dance 1-8: Index came from external sources rather than an internally driven understanding of choreographic method.
LK External in the sense of the space determining your structure?
ME Yes, I limited the way we were going to move through space to a pattern with four quadrants—front-right, left-front, right-back, left-back. There are fourteen trajectories in every quadrant of the pattern. It’s just spatial organization, essentially.
I stepped out of the piece early on and surrendered to the motor that I decided to commit to, a method to produce the choreography. This got complex later on, when I was trying to achieve the overarching structure. You saw numerous iterations of the piece, right?
ME You saw the most nascent form of the structure of steps, what it was moving toward and later became. It was hard to determine the order of the dance. Now, post-process and post-performance, I am irritated by the way that the work moves through a series of little episodes.
LK That segues into my next question, which moves away from the spatial and structural aspects to the ideas and uses of time in the piece. It really struck me to see different temporal and durational levels unfolding. At the beginning, you have this movement of the dance, but you also have the architecture and then this sort of very long-form, resonant sound happening—a kind of rich drone. You also have the pace of the audience entering the space in small groups while there is a series of solo preludes being performed. The dance at that moment feels as indifferent as the sound or the architecture. What are your thoughts on repetition and how time unfolds in the work?
ME It was tough because the quadrant pattern and variation within set up a time signature, or basically a fixed temporal unit. It was hard to break the rhythm of the pattern and the duration of the sections. My insistence on, and the relentlessness of, the dance’s relationship to the pattern produced a limitation with the timing. I made an index of steps—there are forty-five different ones, most of which take about the same amount of time to move through. I kept bumping my head up against it. Also, the dancers negotiate timing with each other in the process of dancing. Sometimes they disagree with each other; if a dancer has a tendency to go faster, another will demonstratively move much slower—signaling “Slow down!” I wanted these real-time negotiations to show the dynamics of the group and the social experience of dancing together. The focus on the pattern as an anchor for the group dynamic was not the easiest way to manage the orchestration of time and duration, so other elements like the architecture and the entrance of the public gave different senses of time.
Thankfully, David Watson’s beautiful sound score worked with and against the timing of the dance steps, adding another layer. Never having worked with musicians/composers/sound designers before, I explained the method by which the dance was made and trusted David. We had to be careful that the music did not agree too much with the dance and also that it was not entirely indifferent to it.
The very first thing that happens in the dance is the music. The drone sound starts before the first dance step, and the audience hears the sound as they await entrance, possibly peering into the room. The dancers aim for a meditative zone, without punctuation, while each executes a set of turns dancing with their shadows and the room. They try to be indifferent to the public in this opening section, which I think of as another time zone entirely. The music is different. The performative state is different. We watch each dancer separately. The actual piece has not yet started. This is a pre-show.
LK Yeah, that first section feels almost like an index in its patterning and its temporal structuring, which creates this feeling of a suspension of time. Then we move into the piece and the work starts to become about how these patterns come together and interact. There seems to be a shift too in relation to indifference to the audience.
ME After the performers dance with themselves (as opposed to dancing for the public), they come together as a group in a circle, holding hands. Then they include a few audience members in their curtsy dance. It’s about one third of the way into the total duration of the piece when they finally address the public.
LK It’s a strange move to physically interact with two audience members in that way, but once it happens, it almost reorients you in relationship to the dancers. It makes you aware that you’re sitting only a few feet from them.
ME The paradigm I set up prioritizes the dancers’ relationship to themselves and dancing with each other over being perceived by other people. In the section called “Ritual,” the audience automatically notices the repetition and the different types of time expressed in the performers’ steps. “Ritual” is the lexicon of steps that almost resembles a dance class. Through a frame of pure demonstration, one can actually witness so many ways of dividing time through the different types of steps. And because they’re re-inscribed, again and again, on the same template, through the pattern, one can recognize time difference more readily. It becomes hypnotic because there’s a state of cyclical return.
LK There are moments of unification or synchronization that pop up from time to time throughout Social Dance 1-8: Index. Here the dancers come together in complex patterns, as opposed to performing the choreography apart from one another. How does this relate to the idea of the social? Are there different roles of the social that are being played out?
ME I was working with unison for togetherness and finding differentiation or parallel tracks. The big together moments are “Circle Dance”; “Ritual”; the section called “Marbles,” which has the performers marching around almost like a military battalion; the “Jump” section, where they hold hands as a representation of an ensemble that quotes folk dance or structures from Corps de Ballet; and the section called “Unity Star Assembly,” which segues into the section of group turns that spills into the final “Trio and Duet” moment. We are never outside of the social field.
LK How are you thinking through these politicized notions of unity?
ME Well, different sections have different tones. The “Circle” section is “folk” with ameliorative conditions and togetherness, a gentle utopia of agreement accommodating difference. The square formation with back-to-back stepping, “Unity Star Assembly,” is a Fordist assembly line, a utopian Busby Berkeley notion of coordinating bodies in a group, a belief in the industrialized, machine-like cooperation of flesh. In “Circle Dance,” they dance with and for each other, but in “Unity Star Assembly,” they face the public and display cooperation—as an external structure—as opposed to existing within cooperation. These are parallel scenarios, but the agreement to cooperate comes before the display of cooperation in the piece’s timeline. Social relationships are signified in varying ways throughout, with constructed placement in the timeline. It is possible to imply short narratives. There’s something slightly militaristic (yet playful) about certain sections, or there’s a kind of violence of order at times.
LK There are definitely some sections that evoke militarism or even violence, but it’s also an underlying condition of every movement in the piece. Each section is as structured as the others, even if one seems to be signifying “more militaristic,” “more violent,” or “more ordered”—
ME —or “this is more cooperative.” Everyone is oppressed. A commitment to a choreographic order also oppresses me! The social field is hardly a utopic space, though it can be, at moments. This also pertains to the journey of my process. Initially, I envisioned a utopic plateau of beauty and order: something serene and totally relational, yet also very open, a gentle agreement. The initial casting of performers didn’t work out, so my wish to produce a utopic plateau of relational patterning forever displaying unification, opposition, and mirroring failed. I decided to stick with the system that I had built. But the system would function by producing togetherness—as a political and social act. The dance veered increasingly toward the social field and even a potential dystopia. And yet there are many moments of beauty and utopia in the piece, without question; some friends were surprised that I made such an “elegant dance” in comparison to other pieces I’ve done. Regardless, there’s a relentless existential return to the nothing—just to the obedience/disobedience to order and an attempt to inscribe a pattern with others.
The piece’s ethos is such that structure comes first and signification is secondary or incidental, as opposed to the other way around—which is often a standard expectation about how dance in the theater should be constructed, displaying signs and obscuring structure.
LK There is almost a natural structure to the choreography that allows the dance to emerge, and this goes back to my first point, which is that there is a lot that can be contained in your work.
ME Actions of steps meet the theories of what choreography and dance are. They’re within the social structures that we commit ourselves to and that we obey, whether we are aware of doing so or not. Nonetheless, we do find moments of bliss, freedom, and insurgence. We find all sorts of folds and textures inside the social field that we exist within. This happens in the dance, and it could happen even more if we had more time to discover these moments of transcendence or devices to reach it. Even though the dance is fundamentally pedestrian, it’s not easy, and is hard to learn mentally, intellectually. However, you do not have to be a dancer to learn that dance.
LK But there’s still a discipline in this piece.
ME There’s a total discipline. But the steps of Social Dance 1-8: Index are basic actions organizing the whole body through parts—emphasizing fragments in relation to the whole. We’re just moving our hips against our shoulders, but our shoulders are moving with our feet. Or we’re rippling through our spines or through our sternums. Very simple but intricate physical propositions guide these steps.
So the ability to go to a level of expression versus commitment to the structure was part of the work we were doing. The dancers had different relationships to that experience. Maggie [Cloud], for example, was in the process the longest, and it was easier for her to move toward states of expression alongside her mastery of the steps. Jeremy [Pheiffer] could express himself readily and naturally irrespective of the steps. Each performer had different moments of exhibiting their identity through the steps. The performers’ personalities really factored in. Each one of them had to figure out on their own how they wanted to express themselves and how they wished, performatively, to adhere to the structure, and how to respond to the insistence on cooperation and coordination. Sometimes types of performativity can undo the structure.
LK In a way, that’s five people undoing the idea of structure. You each have an individual relationship to a given condition. In music and dance you often find this tension between the idea of freedom and the idea of structure and it’s just a false dialectic, because there are much more complex relationships at play. As if there would be total freedom if you removed the structure, as if you could remove the structure at all.
ME It’s an absolutely false dialectic. In this work, the relationship between the formalism of the structure spatially and where the performers are in the room is calculated, proportional, and arranged to be seen from three sides. How the dancers deal with the expressions of themselves, the expression of themselves with each other, and the expression of themselves with the audience—there’s a lot of ambiguity in that and much space for further exploration and different types of decisions. My friend Elizabeth Ward asked, “What if they weren’t allowed to smile or relate to each other? What if it were strictly structure law, an unexpressive zone?”
Maybe I’m not at the point artistically where I’m ready to propose pure structure or pure obedience to structure. Maybe I am not that depressed in relation to the social field. I will not/cannot propose a totally lifeless choreography drained of the possibility for the emergence of dance, the state of transcendence from structure. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I’m genuinely trying to produce a structure that is hardcore and is present, while also trying to showcase people negotiating structure as individuals, as themselves.
LK Everybody is different and completely distinct. The relationships between the dancers are different every night, too.
ME It’s a motley crew. I think that is an important question: Why do we turn people into “dancers”? What is this discourse of the dancer? What about a discourse of the person? The human? In the act of dancing you can see who someone is. I question my identity as a dancer and a choreographer constantly—I wish that those terms and identities were not a site of struggle for me. Why do we have to learn how to dance—aren’t we learning choreography? What is this about? Why can’t we just be born into or reach a state of dance? In some cultural spaces, like in Brazil, for instance, dance is inherent to the social field—people will dance on the streets in an everyday way. I grew up dancing all the time, with my siblings, but I feel like a bit of an outsider. Obedience to structure in the act of dancing is part of the social experience of learning how to dance, and the hierarchies around value that are produced through it. All this is re-inscribed by the reviewers, who love to make stars. Not that certain people don’t deserve extra visibility, they absolutely do. But there are other criteria for watching dance besides the execution. It’s not about excellence of execution all the time, or the display of finesse—as if dance were a competition.
LK Often the question seems to be: “Who’s doing it best?” But there is no best. In your work there are five different iterations acting together.
ME They’re acting differently but trying to act together. Or trying to negotiate their differences to try to be together.
LK Let’s circle back and talk about Out of and Into (8/8): STUFF, the first full piece that you made in 2012, in Switzerland. It was redone in American Realness in 2014, which is where I saw it. This dance also plays with the idea of what the body can contain, in a way, but using these anti-dance tropes. You’re thinking about horizontality, hysteria, and movement overflowing the body—yet the piece is still structured in this highly organizational way.
ME Out of and Into was conceived as a research project with endless iterations. I didn’t want it to become a finished piece. I didn’t want to put a single movement in it that I had been trained to do, in a kind of codified Western dance sense. There are some formal references to the work of Xavier Le Roy, and specifically Self Unfinished, but the references are imploded or exploded, with a kind of hysterical or excessive body. It was also about methods of organizing the body without a vertical spine.
LK What are you specifically using as source material? Famous photographs of female hysterics, like the Jean-Martin Charcot photographs that Georges Didi-Huberman writes about?
ME We used those, and other texts that I don’t actually remember right now because I worked on that piece from 2010 to 2012. We also were thinking about Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. There’s a lesbian doubling that goes on in that piece. I don’t know if lesbian is the right term, but there’s a certain type of queer aesthetic in it. We also reference Beckett’s Quad, a piece he made for BBC television in the early 1980s: four cloaked figures walk around a square, and they always pivot to the right, avoiding each other in the center of the space.
LK Out of and Into also seems to be a reading of the history of dance; tracking the idea of hysteria could almost be thought of as producing an alternative history of dance.
ME The piece worked to really have its own voice. There were certain ways I wanted to inhabit a female dancing body—an enraged or abject female body that treats itself as material, as opposed to careful flesh. There’s an anti-preciousness that’s quite aggressive and psychological, and that brings up, because it’s this duet, questions of self and other—relational concerns that also are present in social dance. Physically, the movement research of the work is “original.” That is, the actual physical movement vocabulary came out of research. I was trying not to use inherited styles or assumptions. The anti-verticality proposition of the piece already examines the premise of the vertical spine—the walking human, active person—that’s a huge factor in most of Western dance.
In Another Performance (2013), similar questions were being asked about the material of the female dancing body, what frames it, and dance history as it is commonly understood—not an alternative dance history. Another Performance uses the trope of repetition as deconstruction. Everything happens at least twice, but the literal costume and prop elements change how these sequences appear. It’s one picture of twentieth-century American dance history. I chose four white female American choreographers—Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Lucinda Childs, and Trisha Brown—a lineage I find interesting for myself. I was really looking at the question of inherited forms: dance is an oral history form, because you learn to dance. Today, the idea that we can produce singular artistic vocabularies, stylistically, is a farce. The history of choreography has mega-authors developing new styles and techniques, but usually those styles are all in conversation with each other, because we all learn to dance somewhere—on the street, from our cultural backgrounds, from specific types of dance classes. Our bodies are always asked to obey these forms and styles in society. So my way of inhabiting a dance history was to collapse all of those things into an abbreviated form, reducing them to some vague imagined representation, and to work with performers who were not specialists in any of those genres.
LK So it becomes a history with a perspective, or a willful misinterpretation of that history. Maybe we can link this to The Bureau for the Future of Choreography’s The Flowchart Project. In another interview you said, “We’re not MoMA; we’re not keeping history intact.” There are two things I want to point out. It’s an archive for the future, right? An oral history, but not thought of as archival matter that you’re trying to preserve. There’s a willingness to have it be incomplete, in a way.
ME The Flowchart Project is, first, a call to participation to various members of the dance and performance art communities to document and diagram the history of dance over the past fifty years and into the future. It’s a process-based and task-based performance of the creation of a temporary archive/history, as well as the performance of its destruction. One source of inspiration for the project is Alfred Barr’s 1935 Flowchart of Modernism and his essential proposition about how abstraction developed. In dance, we don’t have this synopsis of history as a means to reflect and instruct. We certainly have a tradition of learning and pedagogy—a very strong heritage that can be oppressive and burdensome if we are always trying to fulfill it and keep it active. The Flowchart Project is an invitation to share history and to misremember it. Collective memory is as valid as an accurate historical document, because we are practicing this form—with each other, and through each other as groups and communities. We have to care about the past, but I think it’s okay to digest it and regurgitate it in the wrong way, sometimes.
If you’re trained in codified dance traditions—and, of course, that’s not everybody’s training—there’s so much obedience involved in the practice. I struggle with that as a choreographer asking people to do things. How do I stage that tension in an honest way?
LK Do you think it’s because there’s such physical discipline in the practice of dancing?
ME That’s part of it. I also think that in social dancing there’s not necessarily a ton of physical discipline. People dance to be together, to express themselves, to feel joy or connection, to move through rituals. Why do people have dance parties at weddings? What’s the function of dance in our social world? How does that match up or disconnect from concert dance, or dance as art? I’ve been trying to think about those things. I still want to make dance as art—to produce thought or to challenge, provoke, generate a shift or disagreement. And that, to me, is what experimental work should be doing.
LK How do you differentiate between social dance and concert dance?
ME The moment you go into an institution to watch a dance performance onstage, with performers who have varying degrees of training and a consciousness of their histories, that’s concert dance. Say, the Paul Taylor Dance Company or Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or New York City Ballet. I hope my cronies and I are making dance as art, though I’m sure to an outsider it appears as concert dance because it’s inside of an institution. We deal with certain histories, but we’re not fulfilling them to their height—we’re wrestling with, and struggling through, these histories.
LK How do you understand social dance?
ME In the world at large? There’s a liminal space created in dance. We have a body that’s moving in time, that cannot be fixed, that defies significations. Various theories of affect coming out of Deleuze, Bergson, Massumi, and Spinoza—theoretical propositions around what affect is and its transmission of understanding between people, its production of bodily states, and states of flow and energy as a means to defy fixed signification systems—apply to what’s happening on a dance floor in a bar or a club or a high school prom. When people are putting their bodies in physical communication with each other, what kind of information exchange is transpiring? When people dance together they come to know each other on some muscular/biological level.
LK So you think about social dance as a shift out of a symbolic framework, where the interpersonal imaginary or meaning becomes more localized?
ME Yeah. It’s preverbal or nonverbal, physical, emotional. Another side of affect theory looks at this more concretely, in terms of science—our body responds and understands information faster than our brain. That’s a part of it too. Body information is being exchanged with people, and they’re thinking and sharing together in social dance. This body information hasn’t been super prioritized in the history of Western aesthetics. I don’t want to go back to the mind-body split in Cartesian dualism and the proposition of the universal subject, that’s quite old-school by now and a false dichotomy already. But that tension is present in our cultural history. I think it’s one reason why people love to look at formal dance and find it gratifying to see an organized body. That’s why people like unison dance and don’t enjoy watching abject, disobedient bodies do things. They don’t get it.
LK How do you link what you just described to Social Dance 1-8: Index?
ME Well, it’s a contradiction. I was proposing a tension between the obedience to a choreographic system and the potentiality for expression on the part of the performers. I’m staging the ritual of the creation of the social dance in a formalized, systematic way that is a meditation on all these bigger questions about dance and choreography. Box step, or fox trot, the Charleston, or swing dancing—these known, codified small social dance choreographies relate and inspire systems utilized in Social Dance 1-8: Index. I tried to reduce them to a state of abstraction so that you can see structure. The goal was not to produce a free, expressive body. In the world at large (or in social dancing), the experience of social exchange overcomes structure. So the idea for this piece is that the structure becomes so insistent and so described, and the dance steps so abstracted, that the system is constantly revealing itself as operating on the individualized body. Therefore, it comments on choreography in the expanded sense, and power structures informing social behavior, identity, etcetera. Even though I believe dance can be this site of freedom, joyousness, and formlessness, there’s a tension going on all the time. I was trying to stage that tension so that when an excess emerges, it almost makes the structure better—it produces energy and spontaneity.
Lawrence Kumpf is a curator based in Brooklyn. Her serves as Artistic Director of ISSUE Project Room, a space dedicated to time-based performance. He has co-organized exhibitions with Justin Luke—The String and The Mirror at Lisa Cooley and Graham Lambkin: Came to Call Mine at Audio Visual Arts—and collaborated on programs with a number of galleries and museums in New York. In 2015 he launched Distributed Objects, an imprint focused on documenting contemporary experimental time-based practices.
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