Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Thousand Natural Shocks: A Conversation with Megan Kurashige and Kat Howard

On Monday, we told you about a dance project that Kat Howard and Megan Kurashige have collaborated on entitled A Thousand Natural Shocks; you can find more details about the project over on their Kickstarter page.  

Today, we are thrilled to have Megan and Kat answer some questions for us about their dance, the fantastic, and the fine art of collaboration...

The press release for the dance mentions that it came about after Kat made a casual remark in an interview with Megan.  Could you tell us a bit more about how this ballet came to be?

Megan Kurashige:
Last spring, Kat interviewed me for the Interstitial Arts Foundation about being a dancer and a writer. I was in the middle of performing a piece with Liss Fain Dance that incorporated short stories by Lydia Davis, and Kat was intrigued by the idea of combining dance and fiction. She said that she would love to try such a thing and I said that I would be there with bells on. I thought this was all hypothetical and vague, one of those things you think might be nice to do sometime in the future, but then Kat emailed me and asked if I meant it.

My sister, Shannon, and I had been toying with the idea of working on a piece together. Kat's email sort of focused our desires and gave us a thread to chase after. We already had some dancers who we were interested in working with, so we blithely set off without thinking too much about it. It was almost a lark at first, an excuse to spend time working with people whose brains we love and admire, but we fell hard and fast for it.
Kat Howard: I really fell in love with the piece that Megan is talking about - "The False and the True are One." I had always loved dance, but there was something about this - the direct incorporation of story that really caught at my brain. So I was overjoyed when she said she would be interested in trying to put something together. And it was one of those situations where I was so excited about the idea of actually creating something like this, that I spent the first month or so of the project in disbelief that it was happening.

I am also fascinated with the idea of collaborative art, and so there was the delight in getting to work together with someone whose art I deeply admire, and who is also a very good friend.

How does the text work together with the dance?  Do audience members have a copy of Kat's story?  Is there narration of any sort?  Or is the audience left to intuit the story from the dance itself?

KH: At the beginning, the text and the dance were sort of being developed in parallel. Megan and I (and her sister Shannon, who is also one of the choreographers) would brainstorm, and I'd write something, and send it off. I think a lot of those early pieces wound up being thought exercises. I needed to write them, but they're not part of the ballet itself. As we got more settled into the project, I'd watch rehearsal footage, and see the shapes of the words in the dance, and I'd know what to write.

MK: Shannon and I would sometimes ask Kat to write something that played off a certain theme or emotional idea. And then we would pick apart the text and find things stood out to us--images or certain turns of phrase--and we would use those to generate movement. Much of the movement in the very first section of the piece comes from asking all of our dancers to pick out five or six fragments of text that they found particularly effective. They then explored those fragments, playing with ideas or the rhythms of the sentences or the texture of the words, and made fragments of movement to go with them. And then sometimes we would put together movement in the studio and send a video of it to Kat so she could write text for it.

KH: The text isn't a whole - we're not telling a story in the way that you can pick up a copy of The Nutcracker, and then watch the ballet be performed. But there is a theme, and interconnected texts, and the audience will hear bits and pieces of those texts during the course of the performance, and the performance itself is very much a  complete, integrated thing - a dance, not a series of dances.

MK: The text that we use in the piece is all performed by the dancers. Everyone has one or two sections of text that they perform in front of microphones down at the front of the stage. The texts and the dance share the responsibility of carrying the audience along the landscape of the piece. They both contribute to a sense of narrative and structure, even though the piece doesn't tell a linear story.

Kat, did writing a story that you knew would be performed as a ballet change how you wrote at all?  Were there things that you emphasized more in this story that in others you have previously written?  

KH: It broke my brain a little, honestly. For a while, I was really hung up on trying to use language that moved in the way dancers would move on stage. I don't think we're using any of those bits. But then Megan and Shannon had everyone involved in the project generate a list of likes and dislikes, very quotidian, very specific, and they used them to generate movements. Megan also grouped that into a section of text called "The Natural History of Our History," and those things in combination were a lightbulb moment for me - I knew what I needed to do in order to write this properly. In the course of writing the sections of text, I felt like I learned to write in a way that was both allusive and precise.

At the same time, I learned to relax, something that is hard for me to do creatively. I absolutely trusted Megan, and our amazing dancers to make corporeal what was in the words, and I stopped trying to do their work for them.

MK: I think the geographic separation also helped. I mean, it was definitely a challenge for us to work without being able to get into the studio together, but it also meant that we had to give each other more freedom. And even though we wandered off on some tangents, we also had these great moments when either the words or the movement went off in a completely different direction that surprised us in a good way.

Kat has been a great collaborator. Dance has a tendency to develop and change a great deal as you put it together, and Kat was completely open to going along with all the looseness and switches of direction that we had while building the movement.
Megan, I know that you are a creative writer as well--how does your awareness of the written word inform your dance?

Megan: I think writing has intensified my awareness of structure and narration in dance. Right now, I'm mostly interested in dance that isn't purely abstract. Even if a piece doesn't have a linear story, I want it to effect me beyond being an interesting visual experience. I want to feel like a dance carries me across a landscape of ideas and feeling. I think that writing and reading and looking at stories with a critical eye has helped me clarify my thoughts about how an emotional narrative can work, and I think those ideas translate quite easily to dance, even though the medium of expression is completely different.

(How) does the fantastic play a role in this dance?  Are there connections that you see between fantasy and dance in general?

MK: We began the project intending to explore stories about journeys to the underworld. We had all these myths in our head--Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice, Tam Lin--and Kat wrote this fantastic skeleton of a story about libraries and ghosts and a river of forgetting. But as we worked, some of those things fell away. We kept stumbling into a different territory, one that was less connected to any particular myth and furnished instead with the sort of odd, personal objects you might find on a shelf in the back of your head.

I think dance and fantasy can work in similar ways. They can both compress expression, build shortcuts to emotion or understanding with things that are, to some extent, both inexplicable and unbelievable. They can both be incredibly efficient, in the most roundabout way possible. These strange things happen and you understand immediately what they are trying to make you feel, even if you don't know exactly what they're supposed to mean. It all makes sense on that tender level of dreams and guts.

I have always seen a direct connection between the fantastic and dance, because of the ballets I feel in love with as a child - Swan Lake, Giselle, The Firebird. All of these are stories with a strong element of the fantastic in. And as Megan says, strange things happen, and you understand immediately, on a gut level, how to feel, how to react to that strangeness.

With this piece, there was never any doubt in my mind that it would be full of the fantastic. One of the things that has been very interesting to me is incorporating the more personal, real-world elements and juxtaposing them with the fantastic. It has been a very different way to think about building a world, because on a certain level, I think that a theater already comes with its own sort of magic - you expect to suspend your disbelief when you see a stage, when the curtain comes up. But at the same time that there is that outside framework to help carry the magic, I want to be sure that I am using that framework as a tool, rather than as a crutch.

I noticed that the one of the duets used Debussey's "Clair de Lune."  How did you select the music for the ballet?  Was this a collaborative process as well?

MK: Shan and I mostly chose the music. In rehearsal, we tend to play random music. Music has an enormous influence on how movement is both danced and seen, so it's interesting to work out choreography to music that ranges from pop to classical to odd things with pan pipes and theremins. As a dancer, you can find entirely different details in a phrase of movement. As choreographers, changing the music helps us to see different possibilities for texture and emotion. Eventually though, something just seems to fit better than everything else.

The duet that we set to the Debussy originally had a rehearsal playlist that included Beethoven, Offenbach, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Roberta Flack, and Django Reinhardt. 

KH: For the most part, I didn't know what music would be playing when I wrote the text. This was really odd for me, because I soundtrack my writing, and I use music very consciously to help me immerse myself in the tone of what I'm writing.

I did know the music for the final piece though, and that one was one of the easiest for me to write. Partially because at that point in the process, I knew the dancer well enough to know the style of piece I could write with her in mind, and I knew the staging, but when it came to specifics, I sat down and listened to the song on repeat about five times, and then I had the framework in my head - I could feel the story, and when I needed to make a choice, I just cued up the song again and used that to guide me.

What are your favorite moments in the dance?  What makes these moments special?

KH: I want to cheat, and say "all of it" because I love this project so much, and because every time I see footage from rehearsal, I am in awe, and feel so lucky that I get to make art with these people.

But if I have to pick: there are three duets, each very different, and each very evocative. I love to watch them because I love to see the relationship between the pairs of dancers, and because those moments feel very close and personal when I watch them. And in terms of text, I am most pleased with the bit I wrote that is the closing piece of the dance, "Kairos."

MK: I love the duets too. Each of them is a completely exaggerated portrait of a certain kind of relationship between people and they really reflect the personalities and individual quirks of the dancers. They feel clear and vivid and immediately understandable to me, and I love that.

Kat wrote this beautiful piece of text called "Expected Things." Shannon asked her to write something about the rituals and routines that people go through after someone they love dies, about how people go along like they know what they're supposed to be doing, even though they have absolutely no idea. Two of our dancers, Josi and Kelvin, split the text between them and every time they practice, it's this huge punch in the heart.

With Kat on the East Coast and in Minnesota, and Megan in California, I imagine that there must have been quite a few challenges working together on this project. What was the most challenging part of this collaborative process?  What was the most rewarding?

MK: It has definitely been a strange process. I don't think I've ever been as delighted about the possibilities of YouTube before. We always send Kat videos of the movement we're working on and she's watched a few rehearsals through video chat. I think I had the easier time of it though. I get to be in the studio in San Francisco, immersed in the company of five really brilliant artists who I love working with while Kat has been our lone East Coast comrade.

I think the most challenging thing was the realization that the languages of dance and writing can be so different. Shan and I have a huge history of shared experience in dance. We've seen the same performances, trained with many of the same teachers, worked with similar choreographers. We're also really close. So, there's this ingrained shorthand, and our dancers share much of that because they come from similar backgrounds. When you're collaborating with someone who comes from a different field and a different history, you realize how much of your understanding and working process is based on that shorthand.

The most rewarding part of this project has been getting to work with people I am absolutely crazy about, both as friends and artists. They are all brilliant, exceptionally interesting individuals. They each have a pungent and unique point of view and are the kind of artists whose work is compelling because it offers you the pleasure of learning more about the way they see things.

KH: The distance was definitely a challenge. Especially in the beginning, when we were really figuring out the tone and shape of what we were trying to do, I would have loved to have been able to actually be in the studio for rehearsal, to have my own reactions to what was working and why and how. I would have also liked the immediacy of being able to make changes in real time. Not that I didn't absolutely trust my collaborators, it was just, as Megan said above, a sort of translation challenge.

The most rewarding part is getting to work with these amazing people, and seeing this project turn into something I am so proud of. I get chills as I watch something that started out as ink on paper become something moving and alive, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.