The Visual Choreographic: Walter Dundervill Interviewed by Ivan Talijancic

The art and science of the costume.


Walter Dundervill, Skybox. Photograph by Maria Baranova.

I first saw an excerpt of Walter Dundervill’s work as part of a group show at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn in 2012. I still vividly remember his quicksilver weaving around his performers, creating a mesmerizing whirlwind of ribbons, fabric, and props that shape-shifted into one baroque costume after another in front of my eyes. Fast-forward to 2017: Dundervill will premier Skybox, an elaborate, large-scale installation/performance presented by New York Live Arts, at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, from Friday, October 20 through Sunday, October 22. I recently had the opportunity to converse with Walter as he puts the finishing touches on this ambitious new work.

—Ivan Talijancic

Ivan Talijancic I have been revisiting in my head the works of yours that I’ve seen, and the word “costumography” came to mind. It is not really a word in English, but in Europe it refers to costume design, elevating it to an almost scientific level. I thought we could repurpose the word to define the seamless integration of choreography and costume/visual design that characterizes your work. What do you think?

Walter Dundervill I love it. When I was younger, I was primarily focused on dancing, but always planned to eventually make performance work. I would make occasional forays into choreography, and the costume ideas would emerge along with the movement. Then, I got someone to teach me how to use a sewing machine so I could construct what I was imagining. With these early pieces, I was operating under the concept that the dance was the primary experience and the rest was in support of it. Regardless, I always focused on the visuals along with the dance itself. Years later, when I began concentrating on creating performances, I came to the decision that this was my world, and I had the freedom to construct what and how I wanted. I came to understand that I was interested in enabling the audience (and myself for that matter) to switch back and forth between experiences—visual and choreographic alike.

As far as the costumes themselves, I had been obsessed with historic representation—how our concept of the past is so often formed through the clothes that people wore as represented in painting, primarily, but also in other forms, like sculpture. I looked at how these notions have been explored and re-represented through television and film—both serious and kitsch—and how the modern viewer is forming ideas about history from TV and film from sources that are sometimes reliable, but more often ahistorical. I would give myself the challenge of re-creating costumes from specific eras with fabrics and materials that were readily available. Exactly how those ideas would play out in a dance performance was unknown to me. Was it even worth proposing? So, one part of my work has simply been asking myself that question and seeing where it takes me.

One of the things it has brought up has been a theme of “a reference of a reference.” For example, when I attempt to re-create an Empire-era dress—which itself was in its time inspired by an idealization of ancient Rome—is the audience seeing a recreation of an Empire dress, or are they assuming that I’m making a direct reference back to the ancient world? In terms of the overall performance, these investigations of my own interest are not attempts to provide an answer—it is something for me to dig into.

IT You are getting ready to unveil a brand-new work, Skybox. What is the title referring to?

WD The title comes from a text I wrote for the sound score at the end of ARENA—my last work. In that text, a voice speaks about a group of people—or entities, or whatever they are—gathered “in what appears to be the skybox of a stadium.” In that section, the dancers and the entire performance space are being covered in foil and Mylar—turning everything into a still, reflective world. This was the starting point for Skybox, at least in how I began building it. From there, the term has taken on a variety of meanings or implications—one of which is the image of a vast, three-dimensional coordinate plane that the performers visualize within the space they occupy and operate in.


Walter Dundervill, Skybox. Photograph by Maria Baranova.

IT What was the impetus for you to create this new work?

WD In ARENA, I had created a performance piece that seemed to sum up what all of my interests were—dance, costume, sound, and visual design—and how to bring them together into the same world. It was chaotic and discursive, meandering and focused. Skybox arose from my contemplating what came next in terms of my own process, but also in terms of the world of that performance. It didn’t seem finished—it struck me as a narrative that had another volume to come. Skybox is that next volume.

Some of the landmarks are familiar—the costuming, the reflective material, and the way I roam about the performance dressing the dancers and constructing the world around them—but Skybox is quieter and more focused as an overall experience. The dancers are less dependent on my interactions to have things to respond to. It is also more collaborative in terms of the visual information, because I’m working with visual artist Diana Puntar; she is building various sculptures, including a wall, a ramp, a low rider, and a Mylar dispenser, along with several smaller, potentially wearable sculptures.

IT What prompted you to expand your collaboration to include Diana into the project?

WD Diana had previously invited me and my dancers to perform inside her environments. We had already been planning a collaborative performance/exhibit, when we decided that Skyboxwas the perfect vehicle to begin that process. Our collaboration has been an ongoing dialogue in response to each other’s work. We have several intersections of specific interests. We have both been working with concepts involving mushrooms as organisms. In her own work, she used a mushroom garden at the base of a sculptural environment, and, figuratively, I’ve used the image of a mushroom’s structure as an underlying practice that the movement stems from in ARENA and Skybox.

IT Can you trace the evolution of your work from ARENA to Skybox to what comes next?

WD That question has been rolling around in my head recently. Honestly, I’m not sure at this moment. Early on with Skybox, I thought perhaps I was embarking on a Proustian process, where I would just continue making volumes of the same work. Now I’m thinking that what comes next could be a complete departure. Having said that, there are two upcoming projects—first, Iki Nakagawa and I are doing a three-channel video installation of ARENA and Skyboxat Harvestworks in December. Then, sometime in 2018, Diana Puntar and I will present the collaborative exhibit I mentioned earlier, with a series of performances to accompany it.

Walter Dundervill’s Skybox will be performed at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, from Friday, October 20 through Sunday, October 22. Tickets are available here.

Ivan Talijancic is a founder and artistic co-director of WaxFactory, a New York-based interdisciplinary art group. He is currently completing his first feature film, 416 MINUTES, and regularly writes on the arts for London-based Bachtrack, The Brooklyn Rail, and HowlRound.

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