Monkey House intern Gaby Mervis talking with Jody Sperling. This interview originally appeared on the Monkey House blog.
GM: How and/or why did you start choreographing?
JS: I’ve always loved dancing and I can’t imagine being a dancer without making dances. My first choreography was for our high school musicals (including “Kiss Me Kate”). My first semester in college I founded a dance troupe.
GM: How do you record your choreography?
JS: Of course, video is key . . . BUT as far as notes goes . . . The first thing is that I give names to all the moves. It’s important in the process that we all agree on the same names for the steps — and I do sometimes offer “naming rights” to the dancers! I sometimes make a vocabulary “key” (eg. correspond name to sketch) and then write out the sequence of moves of the dance, along with sketches for spatial orientation. If the work is musically based, I’ll write out the timing as well.
GM: In general, do you show your work to people while you are developing it? Why or why not?
JS: I think it’s a good idea, but it doesn’t always happen. For a while I was working with a dramaturge (another choreographer whose sensibility I admired) and she gave me feedback on helping to shape both the structural, but in particular the character and narrative elements of the piece. I rely a lot on my collaborators, especially composer Quentin Chiappetta, to give me feedback as we go along. Quentin and I have worked together for so long he knows what I’m going after.
GM: Who are some of your favorite choreographers?
JS: Philippe DeCoufle, Pina Bausch, and Merce Cunningham.
GM: What was the first thing you ever choreographed?
JS: I think it was a jazzy number to “Heard it through the Grapevine” for a school musical . . .
GM: Have you seen any significant shifts in your work or the creation of your work?
JS: Yes. I’ve been making work for about 16 years. About 10 years ago I hit on the idea of “time- lapse” dance (i.e work that acknowledges the trajectory of history into the present) and have been simultaneously exploring the “Loie Fuller” idiom and my infatuation with the idea of “cheapness”. (I made solo “Cheap” in 1999, duet “Cheaper” in 2003, and trio “Cheapest” in 2005. Recently, I added the quartet “Bang for the Buck” to the series.)
For a few years, I focused on solo work, but have been working to literally expand the vision and grow the company. When I first started choreographing, I tried to make dances with no props or costumes that were easily portable with my own body. Now, with each new project the production values are higher. We are “choreographing” lights and video projections and using set pieces and more dancers. Right now we are four dancers, but I recently did pieces with seven and eight dancers and want to grow TLD larger and continue to work with more elements of production design.
GM: Is there anything specific you look for in dancers when hiring for your company?
JS: Flow. Strength. Musicality. Flexibility. Comfort with partnering. Versatility. Special skills, such as gymnastic ability or acrobatics. Confidence. Positive attitude. I’d say hard working, but all dancers are hard-working.
GM: You say that your works are based upon the style of dancer Loie Fuller. How did you first come across Loie Fuller and what about her motivated you?
JS: There is a specific story, and it is completely an accident. In 1997, I was working as the Illustrations Editor for the International Encyclopedia of Dance and the Managing Editor of that project, Elizabeth Aldrich (also a social dance historian and film choreographer), got a gig to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Library of Congress. As part of the program, she wanted to choreograph a “butterfly dance” a la Loie. One day, she put a picture of Loie Fuller on my desk with a post-it that said “How about this?” At first, I protested, but relented when she promised it would be fun. I ended up performing in the rotunda of the LOC in a costume with 15-feet pink wings while an 18-piece brass band played Wagner’s “Ride of the Walkyries”. Video here:
What continues to draw me to the work is the way that the body is connected into space and how the fabric makes the eddies and vortexes of every movement visible. It’s quite a transcendent experience to work in these costumes.
GM: How do you incorporate Loie Fuller’s style into your work?
JS: The process for each “Loie”-influenced piece is different. After a decade of working with this vocabulary, it is entirely integrated into my being. I am interested in expanding the boundaries of what you can do with the material and the lighting and technology how to make dances that work visually, kinetically and musically. People sometimes say what I do is “reconstruction” and that is wrong. I use the word “re-imagination” (and I have been arguing for greater use of that word generally). I think about what I do sometimes as historical fiction — the way a novelist might set a work in the past, but it’s still an original work. Only, to extend the analogy, I’d say I’m particularly interested in anachronism at the moment.
GM: What was your process of becoming an expert on Loie Fuller like?
JS: Gosh, I just made one piece after another. I really enjoy library research. You get to experience delving into materials that are rarely viewed. It’s a privilege.
GM: It seems as if lights and costuming are a big part of your pieces in addition to the dancing. What background do you have in these fields?
JS: The lights and costumes are completely integrated into the choreography. I don’t have either a lighting or a costume background, but I collaborate with wonderful designers — David Ferri (lighting) and Michelle Ferranti (costuming). I’ve worked with both of them since 2002.
GM: What happened to your tour to India?
JS: We were supposed to perform for the opening ceremonies of an international cricket championship in Bangalore. The entire tournament was postponed due to the Mumbai attacks. Hopefully, we will reschedule the performances as well.
GM: Where has been your favorite place that you performed?
JS: City Center, at Fall for Dance. Such a lovely stage, and in my hometown.
GM: Where did you grow up and how was your transition to New York City?
JS: I grew up in NYC, in the Village, but now I live way uptown on the Upper West Side, so it’s been a pretty big transition ; ) . . . Honestly, I love the city and could never live anywhere else.
GM: Can you tell me briefly about some of your newest pieces?
JS: Of my recent works, I’m most excited about “Ghosts.” I was consciously trying to expand the “Loie” vocabulary into new directions. The score is by Quentin Chiappetta and it’s outstanding. We got a grant from the American Music Center for the commission and to have it played live at the premiere in October. I’ve listened to it probably over a thousand times and am not bored yet. The music uses gamelan rhythms, including sudden tempo changes, and is scored for cello, piano and percussion.
The movement has a “dervish” section in which the dancers keep spinning and changing shapes. One dancer snacks on crystalized ginger between runs to keep from getting nauseous.
In one section, I wear a bodysuit with LEDs on it that I can trigger manually in performance. It was quite a feat to rig this up, but it’s fun to improvise the lights in relation to the pauses in the music. This concept was inspired by an act (of a Loie imitator) from 1893.
GM: When and where are your next performances?
JS: We have a residency at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in March, with a public performance on March 27. Our next season will be in November at Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Details will be posted on our events page.