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.
Choreographer Maria Hassabi and dramaturg Scott Lyall discuss the importance of space and boundaries in designing their newest dance work Premiere.
November 9, 2013: Maria Hassabi’s Premiere is being performed at The Kitchen. The doors to the theater open and five dancers—Biba Bell, Hristoula Harakas, Robert Steijn, Andros Zins-Browne, and Maria herself—await the audience in a line. They each occupy a specific posture—standing, sitting, or lying down. I walk around them to take my seat on the opposite side of the space, so that their backs are towards me. I’ve never been in the Kitchen in this orientation before—the space feels huge, but the performers appear to be contained. Two walls of lights frame the space: it’s hot and getting hotter. Over the ninety minutes or so that follow, the dancers carefully and ever-so-slowly move through a series of both quotidian and difficult positions. This sculptural meditation is marked by an ebb and flow of anticipation. We expect change, transformation—and while things certainly do change, they also stay the same. The piece ends just as it began, only this time with a flipped image. The performers face us, as if to premiere themselves. Or isn’t that what they’ve been doing all along? Their bodies quiver with the resonance of the dance. The doors on the other side of the space open, it’s time for us to leave—the premiere is over. I left The Kitchen feeling curious not just about what I saw, but also about how it was made. Several weeks later, I had a chance to talk with Hassabi and dramturg Scott Lyall about just this.
Lauren Grace Bakst It’s been a few weeks since the premiere, and I know your work really lives in this moment of coming into contact with the audience. I’m curious for each of you: Maria, how has your experience of the piece changed since performing it at The Kitchen; and Scott, what changed for you as the dramaturg after seeing it with the full audience?
Scott Lyall Well, for me every premiere involves a really important change, it’s the time when my work as the dramaturg disappears. This is because I’m always very involved in the rehearsals, and the dramaturg’s place is at the edge of the rehearsals. When the show in fact performs, I shift away from that position to what feels like an edge on the side of the audience. This means that everything gets telescoped, slightly, and I start to see the work in a more objective way –and more strategically in terms of what is actually playing out.
Maria Hassabi And after each performance we come straight to you like little kids.
SL Yeah. There are notes and so we always reunite, and we talk about what changed and things that ought to change some more. Then there’s another audience and I disappear again. What I think I mean by saying that my work disappears is that it shouldn’t be perceived as being mine by the audience. The parts I contribute aren’t ‘signed’ in that way; and I don’t appear as a performer while I’m sitting in the stands. I used to say my work was in the air between the dancers and that the only way to see it was to notice how they breathed. (laughter) It’s corny to say this now; it’s too romantic and indulgent. So now I’d say that the dramaturg always falls out of the view in the moment that the performance is encountered by the audience. It matters, because these edges of the rehearsal and the audience, these places where I am working, aren’t entirely reconcilable.
LGB So when you shifted into that role of an audience member, did that shift your relationship to the work in terms of how you were perceiving it? Or ascribing meaning to it?
SL I’m still working in the audience. It’s a part of the process. I observe what’s going on in both the performance and the crowd. And the audience is crucial to a work like Premiere where, really, it’s included in the larger choreography. Maria often describes it as mutual anticipation. The audience is a material, and a very energetic, element. I’d say it’s also an index of the future of the work because so much of the performance has to merge with their projections.
MH At the same time I think you are still inside the piece, even if you happen to be sitting in the audience. You share the anticipation that exists between the audience and the performers, and this is different from the experience of the composer or the lighting designer, who both respond to cues during the actual public performance.
SL I agree. And I’d add that the edges I described define a gap that’s internal to a work like Premiere. It’s an inconsistent gap. I have to jump between the sides. When I’m working in rehearsal and observing things unfold, I’m much more physically and intuitively involved … In rehearsals, for example, I can watch from different angles, moving around the different bodies as if I’m looking at a sculpture or assessing the different viewpoints like the rushes from a film. In the audience I am sitting in a structure of seating that provides a much more fixed orientation to the stage. We used the existing risers for the seating in Premiere, so depending where I sat I looked down at the performers. It was still a very active kind of viewing from the audience, but it happened that I was looking down almost all the time. So, for sure, I always stay within the process of the work but this requires a kind of shift across the work’s internal threshold—the space that becomes full of anticipation, as Maria says. Premiere remains ultimately a work that is Maria’s, or it belongs to this tension between the performers and the audience.
LGB And Maria?
MH For me, all the works that I do change significantly when the audience is present. Of course this is the case for many performances, not just mine. In some of my past works the audience was implicated in the space in such a way that they changed the timing of the preconceived choreography, as well as part of its overall trajectory. Each night it had to be different because of the way they behaved. And then, there is always an intensity that comes with the audience that is not completely predictable in advance, and is not really a part of what one can rehearse. I can imagine, I can project, think of possibilities, speak through them—and yet it is beyond any one hundred per cent planning. There’s also so much energy that people bring.
In Premiere the audience is pushed to one side—we sort of trap you away from the entry and exits—and I’m sure this decision creates some kind of energy. It’s difficult to quantify. It’s more of a sensation, and in a closed space like a theater this sensation is felt strongly. And in this particular piece the audience creates part of the set without knowing it. When they enter the space they make a pattern on the floor with their footsteps, two semi-circles on both sides of the performers, like an oval. Very quickly, they see they are anticipated and implicated. And they see that the choreography exists in a container. This might be something that they wouldn’t have really noticed, except we, the performers, never step on this floor pattern. We never trespass on what the audience has created with their feet. Instead we always stay in our preconceived container, framed by your footsteps—which are the sign that you are here.
LGB This is the first of your works that I’ve seen, but you’ve been working with these titles like SHOW (2011), Intermission (2013), or Solo and SoloShow (both 2009). They are self-referential in that they identify the primary conceit of the work and it’s theatrical nature. Have these themes accumulated with each work? Or do you just go into one of these ideas with each new piece?
MH They do sort of accumulate. I like these basic terms that are mostly taken for granted in contemporary theater—looking at them slowly through my own set of lenses and adapting them to questions that are specific to my work. So while I’m dealing with these themes, I’m still always very involved with all the other key components of my practice—particularly the relationship of a body to images, and to sculptural physicality or exertion and duration, and also to an element of cerebral precision. It is also very important that I work on these components by grafting them to performances of a distilled physical task. For example, going up and down the risers in Intermission or having the tableau gradually turn from front to back in Premiere, these tasks can also be rules that tend to structure the choreography, like “being close but never touching” or “being locked in a mutual gaze.” As rules, you know, they have to also pertain to our desire. Once I know them, I can use them as the lens by which to recognize the many different referential viewpoints you referred to.
Premiere, for example, is so much about anticipation and expectation. A premiere is the very first time we meet with the audience, which is also when our work is first evaluated as art. A very important symbolic transition happens here. But how can we sustain this anticipatory energy in a work that is made to be performed many times? It’s interesting for me to have Scott in the rehearsals because he never lets go of these demands of the theme. I might get lost at some point in the process, or get very involved in some other part of the conversation. And then Scott keeps putting it out there all the time: Premiere! What’s premiering? What can premiere again and again? He brings the theme back in. I think that’s really important.
SL A lot of people ask me what a dramaturg is. The term is more common in Europe than North America, so for us it maybe sounds a bit exotic or pretentious. But it only means performing as a certain type of guide. Your stance is in relation to the choreographic theme and you think through all the issues as they appear within the work. So what you have to do is form a theory about the work as it is changing and still unfolding in the course of being made. I don’t mean projecting hard and fast interpretations. You really just account for all the parts as they appear and disappear and try to articulate what the work itself desires. (That’s different from giving back what the choreographer wants.) You conduct a moving theory that is adequate to the work. The word “theory” comes from Greek—the word “theorein”—and is inseparable from the visual regime. You can hear the same word in our English word, “theater”. So it’s always a case of observing what’s happening in the work—what’s happening on the stage as well as happening to the audience—and exercising thought in relation to what you see. (And in Premiere, of course, seeing was also complicated by sound).
LGB How long have the two of you been working together?
MH Since 2007. Scott made the sets for a piece called Gloria. It was a very typical way to start collaborating with a visual artist. And there’s a title for that—set designer! (laughter)
SL Yeah, but it did put an image of sculpture into play. I could see from very early that for the work Maria was doing it wasn’t useful to think of sculpture as some construction on the stage—which, yes, becomes a prop when it’s displaced in that way. She was thinking about sculpture as a programmatic design that could support the flow of experience between the performances and the audience. It was a kind of virtual structure that seemed to model the choreography both as space and as a way to inscribe images into the score.
MH The work moved away from typical set design because the set was already implied by the themes I was choosing. In using the terms of theater, I didn’t want to import anything that was not already there and accessible in the theater. I wanted to bring the focus to the theatre space itself—as an architectural setting, the floor and the lights, a container where something happens, and of course as an institutional form. In Solo, the carpet was very nearly a performer. In Intermission, the risers were in my thinking from the start. So we kept the basic relationship that started during Gloria, and eventually we arrived at this figure of the dramaturg. Scott gives input for the lights and staging, and even costumes. He gives his input for the whole space, always. It’s a collaboration.
SL Over the course of several projects together we became really aware of this sculptural dimension that had always been a backdrop, a kind of supplement, for the work. (I’m thinking of the plinth that was constructed for Soloshow). I found it interesting that my experience with plastic form could be translated into the theatre through the functions of a dramaturg. I feel like this relationship of sculpture and the dramaturg is something that was possible very specifically in her work. But Maria performs these works in both the theater and galleries, so we also needed to think about what happens to a performance when it is brought to a museum space and installed with visual art. These shifts between the theatre and the sculptural body, generally, seemed to both of us to enliven certain dimensions of the work. The slowness, for instance, was not to mimic sculpture like the buskers you see dressed as the Statue of Liberty or a Pharaoh; it was about understanding this sculptural orientation as the mise-en-scene for specific kinds of movement to unfold.
LGB I’m curious about how you develop movement in relation to sculpture, and how does moving slowly come in? Is it there from the beginning? Does it take time to sculpt the slow pace of the movement?
MH Yes, it does take time. I don’t approach movement by saying, “Okay, let’s move slow now.” Performers would tend to misunderstand, and think I was calling for ‘slow-motion’, which is something I don’t care about very much. Slow-motion implies slowing down a recording that would normally go faster. But for me the slow pace is directly what I want because it’s integral to the bodies as both image and physicality. It’s really about paring things down and trying to stay with what is essential, with what is really indispensable in what we already have. When I start to pare things down, I start to see what’s going on and I can begin understanding what we’re doing. Usually with this process, very few things are left so every detail that survives becomes a clear, suspended moment. This brings precision and clarity to each action, and that is what makes the physicality appear sculpted. I’m interested in the stillness and the emptiness that result from zooming into all this slowness in a particular frame of mind.
SL Insignificant gestures gain the dignity of close-ups. It’s the sculptural mise-en-scene that tends to figure these details, where breathing and even stillness can be perceived in dramatic terms.
MH Even in staying still—and of course you are never still—it ends up being perceived as a body moving slowly.
LGB What comes first in your process? For instance, you’re like, okay, Premiere, this is what I’m going to work with and then how do you go from there?
MH I usually come up with the proposal for a space (which often is the space of a particular theater) and then I decide on an appropriate theme. I don’t call it an idea, because I’m not really working with ideas. Premiere is for me a theme and not an idea. But I need to understand my space before I start working, and of course I need to decide who is going to be performing. Is it going to be a few, one or two, or ten people? And for this one I knew I wanted to work with these five particular people, I wanted to do it at The Kitchen in New York, and right away I thought, I want to turn the theater around so the audience has to enter and walk through the stage. It’s really important whenever I start developing a new work: I have a space, the people, the title (…). The same thing when I did Intermission in Venice. Even before the title, I saw the space. I chose where I was going to perform it and then came up with the title and the people, and then I started working.
LGB And Scott, at what point are you invested and integrated into the process? From the beginning? Or what is your role pragmatically throughout the process of creating it?
SL For me, I follow this set of decisions that Maria has to make and then provisionally communicate. From a dramaturgical perspective, something has to come first because the dramaturg observes, and then develops a theory. Maria determines the theme and I respond by saying, yes—that’s a question. And then we elaborate it together, as she says.
LGB Could you talk about the theories that you developed in relation to Premiere?
SL What I noticed first about Premiere was that this word allowed for two different attitudes toward time-based performance. There was obviously a premiere in the sense of ‘Opening Night’. But there was also this emphasis on difference and appearance that imposed itself on Maria’s way of thinking from the start. She kept on insisting it was about anticipation and that this was the sensation that must be central to the work. I started to try to contrast this sense of anticipation—a kind of affect—with the one-time event of ‘Opening Night’. The opening involves an important social distinction for the patrons, but it is a night that passes away and only dwells for us in memory. It’s transferred to recollection and into photo documentation—and therefore to a temporality that we associate with photography and that has already been important in Maria’s other work. But compared to opening night, which as I said becomes a ‘has been’, the aspects we empowered by embracing anticipation—never knowing, always noticing and thinking, always wondering—these needed to be sustained in every one of the performances. So when I came to the rehearsals and saw this temporality happening, and I could see how things appeared and disappeared in small detail, I felt as if this flux could be the index of a tension that would have to be anticipated for every audience, every time. This metastasizing aspect that was defining the durations: we could only everanticipate it; it was premiering all the time. Yet, I also want to emphasize that all these details are intentional, and the process of rehearsal is very diligent for this work. Maria isn’t an improv or ideas-based artist who merely sets up verbal instructions and lets contingencies play out. The work isn’t conceptual or open-ended in that way. Everything—the details—are considered and scripted out. Otherwise this experience of sensuous anticipation would be strangled by old concepts like ‘chance’ or the ‘Happening.’
MH And although I try to control every one of the details, the bodies sometimes hold a pose so long that the performers start shaking, sweating, and trembling, or my eyes tear up while some of the other performers’ eyes don’t. That’s where I get excited about the limits of choreography, because that’s the part that I cannot entirely control, and these movements that are beyond choreography usually only occur on stage. What attracts me so much to this art form is that it always breaks images, it can never sustain an image for too long. Paradoxically, I make work that’s supposed to produce images but then at the same time when it’s performed, it also breaks these images. It has physical reactions that, even if small, remind you that this is not only an image, this is breathing, this is still something happening to a body in time.
SL One of the things I loved in Premiere was the way, when we got into the theater and had all the hot lights, sometimes little traces of sweat would appear on the costumes, and these rhymed in a visual way with Biba’s costume, which was tie-dyed. For me, this appearance gives a very good example of neither a fully formed image, nor a case of broken imagery: It was a becoming-image, (I mean this in a Deleuze-y sort of way). It was a little mark of something that individuated the performance, but that was very hard to control within the rehearsed, or scripted, terms.
LGB In the performance that I saw, towards the very end, when the tableau we were greeted with initially had flipped, you were all so still and then I noticed that Biba’s eyes were twitching, almost uncontrollably.
MH From the brightness of the lights.
LGB Yes, and it really brought my desire to hold this image to the forefront of my experience—I had to deal with it, which really means to deal with the body and its excessive nature. The body will always be in excess of the image.
MH Yes, when I saw it from the outside—how much she was struggling with her eyes right there, not able to control it and not giving in entirely. There was no lie. The human condition was just playing itself out. And very simply, it was very simple. She didn’t have to do jumps or anything to get there.
SL From a dramaturgical perspective, you can probably over-emphasize this excess of the body as material resistance. I think it’s very important that a flux is made of images and that bodies are materials that don’t exist without images. What begins to break is a duration defined by pose. These very important details are spontaneous, for sure, but they are also things we notice and account for in our notes. They have to be articulated, and very consciously analyzed. For me, I keep incorporating these images and details, these ‘rushes’ of attention, into the dramaturgical score. The sweat and the twitches aren’t ornaments of resistance. They’re becoming-conscious aspects of the substrate of the work.
LGB I’m thinking about ephemerality, because I feel like in Premiere, yes, it’s ephemeral of course, but there’s also a persistence to its ephemerality. Not only because it’s slow but also because of how shaped and sculpted everything is. You have time to sit with it. You see something unfolding in one person and as an audience member, you can feel your perception folding in to its unfolding. And then your eye moves and that image is gone. Somehow one of the other bodies has receded into the back, but you don’t know how. I was really aware of this interesting play with presence and disappearance throughout the whole piece.
SL The slowness and the irregular shifting of images suggest the way we want the audience to give their time to the experience of this work. You have your own life, you have your schedule and there is never enough time, but in the theatre you nonetheless have to give some time to us. That is how you become a part of the choreography and let the flux of performance meet the flux of your own mind. Today in most experiences of contemporary art, being asked to give of your time seems luxurious or far-fetched. Turn off the smart phone and see the temporal object that is thought …
MH … and hopefully, we give the audience our time too, because we always stay aware of the energy they give back when they are noticing the details that they usually dismiss, even though they’re everywhere in everyone’s daily life.
LGB You mentioned that the four performers—Biba Bell, Hristoula Harakas, Robert Steijn, and Andros Zins-Browne—were very specifically chosen for this piece. What was the process of developing the piece with them? Were you creating the work separately or were you all together?
MH It was mostly created separately. We had five and a half weeks to work together. A lot of it was imaginative, you know, because I would only have one or two people in the room at a time. And then, of course, when everybody was finally together, things shifted—imagination cannot be entirely accurate. It was important to me that each individual should understand what we were going for. I knew when we all came together we would have to be aware of our effects on one another. It would be like being in any group in society: we’d end up imitating or mirroring each other. And I didn’t want that to happen. Unison and all of that, which is typical for dance, I didn’t want to go there. I wanted them to be different. Different people. Individuals. When we were all together they had to feel comfortable with what they already had, so that they could observe each other without losing themselves. I wanted each one of them to stay with what was represented for them and to be thinking all the time while they performed. One thing that happened in the theater which I hadn’t quite imagined is that a few people said “Oh it’s very lonely.” This was honestly something I had not projected. Of course if I am making a piece where there are five individuals who never touch or really look at each other, it makes sense that this impression would come through, but it was not part of my consciousness before people said it. Perhaps for them anticipation is like longing or desire.
LGB There was a shared mode of attention among all of the performers, but very distinct approaches to the work within that. And I know you have future performances, will things continue to change?
MH I have to change the work in some ways because the setting is going to be different all the time. The first place we’re going is a museum space, so we’re not going to have the clear theatrical elements. There won’t be any lights and the floor won’t be black so we’re not going to be able to see the footsteps of the audience. It’s going to change a lot and we are still in a conversation about how we’re going to do this under very different conditions. I’m not even sure how the title, Premiere, ought to shift if it’s not going to be installed in a theater. Premiere is such a theatrical term, at least as I imagine it. Then, most of the other performances we’ve already scheduled are in theaters but every theater has its own specific character. When The Kitchen’s doors opened we were right there in front of you. In other theaters, even if you turn the theater around, the doors are along the side or they have not so many lights. Things are going to have to shift a lot, and how we end up shifting them … it’s a process. It’s a premiere every time.
SL Parts of the work are flexible and easier to adapt, while other parts are bound to be carved away—destroyed. It’s true of any space between an audience and a performance. The flux itself repeats but it’ll be different every time because this flux can only be issued in highly variable surroundings.
MH And ideally you want the audience to not even be able to imagine the work in another space.
LGB It really held the space in The Kitchen, and the space held it. I’ve never been there in that orientation, so it feels like a very specific, singular experience to have there—noticing the footsteps and also the fading of lights, how they would disappear and reappear to play with our expectation of something ending. It’s hard to think about how that would be recreated in a museum space or in another kind of space, but interesting. At what point did the decisions about the lights come in?
MH All the components of the set come directly from the theatre and are installed in a sculptural, or even architectural way. The lights, for example, become objects in space and the audience gets to see them in a very factual way. It isn’t something deep and mysterious that changes the tone of the space and gives it an artificial effect. Instead it is prominent in your vision—it’s almost like another performing body in the space. Because I like to insist the word “theater” means seeing-place, the lights are very important as what enables us to see. Slowly, they also become this source of the heat that really affects the performers and, as we said, has an effect upon the audience. When they fade down it brings a short moment of coolness.
For Premiere, I wanted two bracketing walls entirely banked up with lights, on either side of the space of the performance, like a frame. I wanted the walls to be made out of lights, which meant incorporating every light The Kitchen had in its inventory. I didn’t know whether or how this could be possible. Were there even enough lights available on the site? I mentioned it to Zack (Tinkelman), who is the Production Manager at The Kitchen, and who had already agreed to be my designer for Premiere. I said, “Listen I have this idea, I don’t know if it is possible, I know it is very ‘80s. What do you think?” And he was like, “OK, let’s try it!” It was amazing he said let’s try it. I feared he’d say it wasn’t possible. I mean, how can we put up these hundreds of lights? It took a lot of labor and a lot of electricity. It wasn’t a green decision. (laughter) But I think it was good.
LGB Will you begin working on a new project together or are you still pretty deep in this?
MH Right now, for me, it’s mostly about planning the places where we will go with Premiere. Adapting what exists for a number of different sites involves a totally different approach and a different set of skills. In the meantime there are also new projects to think about, and to start working on. I hope I will work together with Scott for a long time.
SL I feel like we’re still in the middle of something. Even though it goes out under Maria’s name, our work together links to what I’m also doing myself. The way we’re elaborating the dramaturgical figure is important to what I am doing with painting, for example. I abstract things in a very different way than Maria—more directly in relation to a critique of theatricality—but I like the way the process allows our worlds to overlap. Probably we’ll naturally just talk and keep talking because we’re also good friends who really like each other’s work. That—and the fact that the theatre is an anticipatory thing—it’s bound to fortify what happens into the future.
Maria Hassabi’s Premiere premiered at The Kitchen this past November, and will be performed in New York’s River to River Festival this June.
Lauren Grace Bakst makes dances and organizes conversation.
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.