A cross-country conversation on long-distance dance collaboration
By Eliza Larson and Rachel Rugh
Across centuries and around the world, the process of crafting a dance has historically required that dancers and choreographers find time and studio space to work together: sharing movement, trying out sequences, testing ideas, throwing some out, revising others until finally … eventually … a finished work emerged. It could take hours, days, weeks, months or even years. One of the key requirements was gathering everyone in the same space at the same time.
Today, with the expansion of technology – from cell phones and texting, to Skype, Google chat and Google docs, choreographers don’t necessarily need to be in the same room or even same time zone as their dancers to call a rehearsal. The Mountain Empire Performance Collective, created in 2013 by Eliza Larson, Rachel Rugh, Katie Sopoci Drake, and Barbara Tait, has become an example of how to unite dancers and choreographers while exploring ways of making work beyond geographic limitations. The company utilizes both traditional and contemporary methods of communication, including but not limited to video chats, telephone calls, letter writing, emails, and working together face to face. This expanse of technology, initially a means to an end, has become an integral part of their work, both in process and in performance.
Everybody Knows This Is Now Here, the company’s most recent full-length work, premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Fringe Festival in July 2014. The multimedia performance explores physical and virtual distance and blends dance, film, personal story and song as the performers search for home in the digital age. Emerging out of Larson and Rugh’s shared experience of moving from Seattle to small cities on the East Coast, and armed with laptops, cell phones and somewhat reliable Internet connections, they created a full-evening concert almost entirely via long-distance methods. This article was written in the same collaborative technology-enhanced manner that the company uses to choreograph.
Here, Eliza and Rachel discuss the intricacies of their long-distance choreographic process:
Eliza: I’m wondering how to start this thing.
Rachel: I’d say that’s as good start. I feel like we always begin in a different way.
Eliza: Like the first project we did: I suggested collaborating via snail mail. I was dancing in Germany over the summer and in a moment of whimsy/artistic inspiration, I wrote Rachel a letter, and inside the letter were drawings, suggestions, and a score. Actually, I can’t remember what I wrote, but I’m sure Rachel has the letter somewhere still.
Rachel: I DO! Except it’s buried in a box somewhere and I don’t know where anything is these days. I remember so clearly receiving that letter from you, Eliza -- after moving to an area in Southwest Virginia with few dance resources, that letter felt like a catalyst to stop feeling sorry for myself and just figure out how to make work with the people I want to work with. Which is what we proceeded to do. The fact that we were living in different locations became an exciting parameter to place on our choreographic process, rather than a stumbling block.
Eliza: I agree. Pretty early on we stopped considering living apart and creating remotely as a set-back. It’s felt like a fun puzzle piece to play with -- a way to get out of our choreographic ruts.
Rachel: Because we were new at these long-distance methods of working, our approach during the creation of Everybody Knows This Is Now Here was kind of like throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. As a result, I think we tapped into just about every single method of (a) communication, and (b) travel that exists today. We used quite a bit of “new” technology, such as Skype and Google Chat for online rehearsals, but we also fell back on plenty of “old” technology like letter-writing and phone calls. And, about once every other month, we were able to manage in-person rehearsal weekends during which we were able to figure out whether all this stuff we’d been conceptualizing from afar even made sense when we were in the same room! Through all of these methods, we’ve simply widened the breadth of possibilities for communication and connection that have always existed.
Eliza: This way of working has definitely been a means to an end. I had (and still have) no special desire to use computer technology as a dance making method. In fact, I’d really like to chuck my computer and phone out the window right now. But the expansion of connectivity via the Internet has made it possible to do what we do.
Rachel: Same here, on the whole “means to an end” thing. This use of technology evolved purely out of necessity, rather than a distinct urge to play with different “virtual” methods of making dance vocabulary.
Eliza: I think this is really a big difference between our work and others who are engaging in similar methods: I know a lot of choreographers who like making work that involves technology, and they do so for the sheer joy of it (sheer frustration?). There are a lot of people making incredibly interesting art that revolves around interactions with technology, the relationship of virtual body to physical body, etc., but I think that usually starts out with an external idea or desire to explore the possibilities or limitations of a certain piece of technology.
Our process involves technology from the inside out. We need technology to do the work we do. But because we’re starting from a place of trying to create, our ideas about what technology to use or how to use it have been pretty free and open. Technology doesn’t have to mean machine. The first technology we used was the good ol’ United States Postal Service! Our process has involved technology from the inside out. We need technology to do the work we do. But because we’re starting from a place of trying to create, our ideas about what technology to use or how to use it have been pretty free and open. Technology doesn’t have to mean Skype. And it doesn’t have to mean machine. The first technology we used was the good ol’ United States Postal Service!
So what I’m saying is that our work isn’t derived from questions about technology or our relationships with it: rather, our processes and works are usually about something entirely different, and end up accurately reflecting how we actually engage with technology. At least, this is true of our last piece. We held real conversations via Skype, and real telephone calls, and real audio recordings. The technology that appeared in the piece was there because it had to be. Not because we wanted it to be.
Rachel: In an ideal world our process might look totally different. If I had my way, we’d all be in the studio together all the time! But on the flipside, I think we appreciate each other more because we have to work so hard to make this happen.
Eliza: It’s hard to stay with this less tangible way of working. I can’t even begin to remember how many times the both of us got into the rehearsal space for our scheduled meeting, only to find out that there was either no Wifi connection, or the connection was so terrible that we couldn’t see an image clearly enough to tell if it was a human on the other end (much less see the movement material).
Rachel: But then -- remember how the whole “bad connection” thing turned into a jumping off point for phrase material? A lot of glitches and frustrations have become embedded or used in our work in some way or another. Although it was still maddening when you looked like a Matisse painting on the other side of the Skype connection …
But we’ve gotten really good at problem solving using these varied methods too. We toggle between Skype and Google Videochat depending on the connection, or we’ll talk via phone, or record videos to send later if the Internet cuts out.
Eliza: Treating all the snafus and glitches as a choreographic tool to work with rather than against is especially key. Dancers work with limitations in the studio all the time -- when you can’t do what you originally intended, that’s when you get out of your own head and create something new and interesting. Distance is like a giant limitation. It’s not about what we can’t do because of the limitation, it’s about what we can do by working within those limitations.
Rachel: Like right now -- we decided to write back and forth in Google Docs. But now we’re writing at the same time and we keep typing over and on top of the other person and I can’t tell anymore where I end and you begin.
Rachel + Eliza (writing simultaneously in realtime via Google Docs):
That sounds like a topic for our next piece.
I feel like everything we do together is something we want/could/should use for a dance piece at some point.
Even this thing that we’re doing right now is both writing and process and dance all at once. We are reflecting on a finished piece, but this is a dance too. The dance of fingers on the keyboard. The back and forth between us, listening and not-listening. Writing on top of each other and finishing each other’s sentences. The terrible faces we’re both making at our computer screens that should never be seen by anyone.
I want to record the typing sounds you were just making and create a sound score from them.
There’s been a lot of written or verbally communicated material throughout our projects: the letters, the emails, the phone conversations, and the Skype conversations. We’ve rarely created without words. We talk a lot. But it’s not a bad thing, this use of language. I find, for both of us, that words are as integral a part of creation as the movement and partnering.
There’s always been a languaging about what we’re doing. Because there has to be.
I feel like something is happening here as we type, losing track of who is writing what. Listening versus not-listening is a big theme that’s come up with the technology component of our process: the play between working individually and in tandem. We keep toggling between both.
The overlap of words, typed … the rapid-fire turn taking… this is like one of the improv sections in our last piece. That part felt like a game on stage. I wasn’t ever sure whose turn it was, so we were constantly watching each other and waiting -- trying to discern what was about to happen, or deciding to move together, or waiting and reacting. This was always my favorite part of the piece to perform. Kinesthetically, the rapid fire movement, not being allowed to think. I wasn’t ever sure whose turn it was either. Both constantly waiting and also constantly REACTING. We lived in the place between doing and listening. Or acting and re-acting, maybe. Or like right now, when I pick a random place to interrupt you. Without paying attention to where the interruption is happening.
It’s funny how resistant we both were initially to the use of technology, but then we end up utilizing it in ways that feel very exciting. Which is how it always happens: we often both slightly dread “rehearsal” because there’s a technology barrier that feels hard or scary, and then as soon as we begin it feels like a game and then we get excited. I like the way that this process keeps evoking that experience. We keep surprising ourselves and one another by finding new ways to create and interface with whatever modality we’re currently tackling.
I realized recently that the playfulness of this process has been important. It’s boring when you already know the outcome. Or when you know the pathway that you’re going to take (even if the outcome isn’t clear). I like the creation of the pathway the most. Changing pathways and switching it up and making a new decision about how to proceed in the middle of it … it feels like a game, as you said. And that makes it an act of problem solving, a puzzle to figure out. We’re figuring out what works and doesn’t work, hypothesizing and testing theories, carrying out task-based projects and then going back to the drawing board when they flop or don’t end up exactly like we originally envisioned. And like scientists, our outcomes are often wildly different from what we originally expected.
The process of creating Everybody Knows This Is Now Here felt similar, like a constant discovery. We struggled to define the piece even after the first performance. Because it was such an exploratory process, both the piece and our experience kept changing and evolving.
As we’re writing here now, we have no idea what we’re creating -- but we are making something together in real time.
I can’t tell the difference between what you wrote and what I wrote.
I love that.
Eliza Larson (www.elizalarson.com) is an independent artist based in Northampton, Mass. Eliza holds an MFA in performance and choreography from Smith College. She has performed works by several prominent choreographers including Paul Matteson, Mark Haim, Chris Aiken, Angie Hauser, Kathleen Hermesdorf, and Colleen Thomas. She has taught ballet, contemporary, contact improv, and yoga at Smith College and she currently teaches in and around the Pioneer Valley. Eliza’s choreographic work has been presented around the country, including Conduit Dance Center in Portland, Ore., Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, Wash., Earthdance in Plainfield, Mass., and the Southern Vermont Dance Festival. Her latest solo, You Are Happy, recently premiered at PortFringe in Portland, Maine. Eliza’s writing has appeared in Contact Quarterly and Kinebago, and her research has been presented at the Congress on Research in Dance. She is also the author and illustrator of Terpsichore’s Deck, a set of 52 cards for choreographic inspiration, available at www.terpsichoresdeck.com.
Rachel Rugh is a dancer, teacher, mover and shaker currently residing in the hip little hamlet of Blacksburg, Va. She received a BA in dance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and moved to the Pacific Northwest a year later. During her four-year tenure in Seattle, she worked with several prominent Seattle dance artists including Pat Graney, Jurg Koch and Amy O’Neal. In 2012, she was one of four emerging choreographers selected to create new work in the Bridge Project space residency at Seattle's Velocity Dance Center. Her choreographic work has also been presented at the Seattle International Dance Festival, Lo-Fi Arts Festival and Evoke Productions’ Full Tilt (Seattle, Wash.). She is one of the founding members of the long-distance dance collaboration, Mountain Empire Performance Collective (www.mountainempiredance.com). The company’s work has most recently appeared in Washington, D.C.’s 2014 Capital Fringe Festival. Rachel teaches contemporary dance technique, yoga, composition and improvisation at several institutions throughout the New River Valley. She was on faculty at the 2014 Virginia Governor’s School, and has also been a guest instructor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Keep in touch: www.rachelrughdance.com.
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