Unsettling and Plush at the Same Time

A conversation with Meg Wolfe,  Stacy Dawson Stearns, Taisha Paggett, and Greg Barnett (via Text); originally printed in issue #2 of the Native Strategies journal (Winter-Spring 2012).


(Setting: Salt water, outside of linear organization of space and time. MW and SDS float, considering the implications of manifesting formless forms and hosting the movement of energy in the physical plane. But first, they start from an ending.)

SDS: Oh Meg! You are the rare artist who advocates and nurtures others in your own field. Thank you for that. Your ongoing curatorial series Anatomy Riot had a long life: 45 shows over the course of 6 years. That is a lot of giving. Now that AR has passed, can you tell us why you started it, and why you ended it?

MW: I was new to LA and feeling disconnected. It seemed there was no outlet for experimenting. Lots of people were in the universities doing stuff, but I wasn’t a part of any university.  My own dance-making didn’t feel like it “fit” into the LA landscape. I needed to make a place for it, in order to keep making work and to be in some sort of dialogue with other artists. It felt strange to me that there was nothing else like AR here, coming from NYC where it seemed like there was a performance going on in every available space. I certainly didn’t expect this to go on for six years.

SDS:    Did it fill the void?

MW: I think that it helped to build some critical mass in the dance scene here as a regular meeting-place.  (she empties water trapped inside of her goggles. . .) But it feels no longer necessary for me to continue with this particular format. It had expanded beyond its original intentions and people were seeing it as some sort of “showcase”, which did not interest me. I was getting burnt out from producing it month after month.  So I decided to kill AR off and take a break to see where inspiration leads me.

SDS: So here we are in the breaks! So why are dances and dancing so necessary? What goes on that makes you need it?

MW:    For me, dancing is an energetic channel.  We are energy that happens to be expressed through human form- the same stuff as energy expressed in tree form or animal form or pile of rocks form. I think that dancers are some highly-trained energy workers.

SDS:  In this context, what is the work?

MW:  I am responding in a physical way to information in the energetic field.  trembler.SHIFTER was a physical response to a series of natural and man-made disasters – but I’m not making work “about” disasters. I’m making work about the energy I feel, and I am trying to transform it for myself, and others somehow.  I think making & performing dance is a healing force. I wasn’t trying to represent that situation, but coming to some kind of acceptance of it.

SDS:    It is interesting to me that you are able to deal with such intense material and allow it to really take root in your physical being without becoming didactic or insanely angry. You create a processing phase-space, in a way, where the phenomenal reality of these events can be expressed through many bodies, many perspectives. This makes me curious about the way inspiration works through your organism.

MW:    My inspiration organism is looking for patterns I think.  Pattern recognition in large and small systems.  The ways things relate.

SDS: “Things”?

MW: Images, words, sensations. Looking at others dancing and seeing how they move intrigues me. I’m looking at these pictures. I read this story. Things drift into the field of perception, a sort of sensory osmosis.

SDS:    Does this osmosis generate the initial images or movements of a piece?

MW:    I never have anything worked out before I go into the studio. I just get terrified every time because it is a thing of exploring, setting out on a journey, being a channel for something, a moment in time or information that is coming through. As far as movement, I don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it.

SDS:  I guess this kind of exploration could be challenging for dancers who are used to dealing with VOCABULARY. Are people able/willing to work within an uncharted space in which there is actually no tangible material?

MW:    I can’t imagine working with me.  It requires a certain kind of patience – of “let’s explore this thing endlessly for weeks, and then throw it away”.

SDS:    This doesn’t seem like “throwing away”. It sounds like adjusting the path of energy seeking manifestation. (Something bigger than a typical fish brushes past her leg underwater.) How and when does form actually emerge?

MG:     I’m looking for something and this can mean a long time of doing stuff without much direction, waiting and watching to see what presents itself. I’ll use a few prompts. Or ‘what you just did – do that again’ or sometimes, it’s months later when I’ll be like “Oh! Do you remember when we did that thing, you were over in the corner, we were in that studio, it was really late at night? Remember?”  And hopefully the other person will remember, too. This is why I get so freaked out, every time! I think I will not find it, I will not recognize it, what ever it is.

(The entity that is not a fish emerges from the depths. Here is Taisha P, doing that swirling around-with-no-arms-thing that keeps you afloat for really long periods of time, making the world turn into a melting soft-serve ice cream cone. She picks up the thread:)

TP: But then there are temporal realities, premieres, dates on postcards.

MW:    The moment when you just have to MAKE. SOMETHING. NOW. And then I work very fast. Pressure is sometimes good for the decision-making process… but I feel like I need all that exploration time before starting to make decisions.

When it comes to changing gears from exploration to actually putting something repeatable together for a deadline, I am always very last minute. Taisha is (at least appears to be) really comfortable taking that journey.  And Greg, we’ve been working together for a while now and he sort of knows my patterns. They are both great at kicking into gear when that moment comes.

SDS:    This indicates a specific kind of intimacy between you and your collaborators- to be able to leap from the goo to form all at once. I like to imagine that moment of shifting intention and the sensation of that.

(Pause in conversation while Meg joins Taisha’s swirly game. SDS texts Greg out there in 4 dimensional-land for a psycho-physical breakdown of the critical “now we test our synergy and collectively commit to form” moment)

Greg: (remotely, via text) I don’t know I don’t know. If I knew I wouldn’t have to do it. There’s logic I’m no longer familiar with and it’s always there with me and I value finding it. Detective. And not sure I’m going to get it again. Never sure if I’m going to again. Green. Green feathers then burn them off burn this off. Burn off this thing then slightly better or worse for a moment. Then do it again.

SDS: Thanks, Greg, for translating us into the closed circuit of collaborative intuition.

SDS:   So Meg, I am interested in the energy of intimacy, and I don’t mean the inferred intimacy of gestural semiotics of sensuality and emotion that are found in the lint trap of contemporary interpretive dance forms (At this point, something bites her foot- she thrashes it wildly and accidentally inhales some water, coughs, feels mildly guilty about dissing dance, realizes that is the result of some kind of ill-advised training, then starts again). When I see you dance, I feel as if I am being given a sensory glimpse into an intimate space that is purely Wolfe-ian. Can you describe this space? Does it connect with an intimate space within those who witness your dance?

MW: That’s interesting and exciting somehow. And I don’t know what you mean.

I’m making something that’s going in front of people eventually, I keep that in mind. It’s an emotional thing, making and performing, working something out physically. Being a sensual being. Having a place, a safe container. A Meg space. Hmm. What’s going on in the world around and how does it affect the world inside?  How do you feel???

TP: You let yourself stay tangled up in your work and that’s where I see the intimacy. I mean, everybody is perhaps, but they (at least try to) cloak it and pretend that the questions they pose in the studio are about the thing itself/the world/Bush/this issue or that, as they see it… Opaque choreographic structures, motifs, movement vocabularies, etc. come into the process as a way of shaping their questions and making them tangible like an exoskeleton. But in your process, there are no structures to hide behind…  or perhaps they are so translucent they appear to be invisible… we just start moving, with nothing but our soft wears on and maybe just maybe a few words and images in our heads. It’s a most unreal process. Unsettling and plush at the same time. And how a piece comes together seems more like sorcery than anything else. Or a space mission. We’re looking for something but won’t recognize it until we see it and then it’s another month before you actually name or frame it.

MW:  This is really good to hear. It’s funny too because I think of structure SO much, making a framework/skeleton for the piece, but it grows with its own logic in a wholistic way. and I don’t want to frame it too soon. we investigate/develop modules of action over time, and at some point, it becomes clear (hopefully) this idea follows this idea follows this idea. that’s when speed comes in, like I have to catch it (maybe that’s the sorcery thing).  I feel allergic to formulaic composition structures, so hearing you say there are no structures to hide behind is deeply satisfying.  There’s definitely structure, but I don’t want that to be what an audience sees.

This is also something that Aaron (Drake) plays with in his music, crazy layers of structures going on, things that shift gradually over the course of the entire piece, or sonic ideas going simultaneously in different directions, or things going on in an almost inaudible realm that effect your inner equilibrium…

SDS: So is the rejection of structures, escape from structures the thing you are seeking? Must it be made by being un-made? Is there a through line, a course for this energy to flow through- even though structure is shunned or betrayed or denied, is there a necessary path here, or roles that must be assumed in order to find a sweet spot?

MW:  I think that the thing is not complete until an audience is there, and there is an energetic exchange going on.  It is a ritual, we’re all in it together, and it’s a lot of energy to be moving around.  Sometimes the ritual feels like a failure, you know those times I’m sure, when it feels like the audience just isn’t there with you, they’re asleep or wishing they were home watching tv or something, or as a performer something is just not flowing and you feel like you are dancing in a vat of glue and just hoping for the end of the piece and go home and cry…

TP: Which is interesting and another type of intimacy.  The work, the feeling, the energy, etc doesn’t change in the presence of the audience. I think you ask your audience to look in, down your blouse, up the skirt, over your shoulder, etc even though your work sits in vast landscapes and never seems to sit comfortably in its skin (perhaps that’s too much of a luxury…?)  In the making, your work is about an us-ness, and in the presence of the audience, they become part of  that us-ness. Our container doesn’t change, it just balloons out to include everyone in the room. That’s radically intimate and scary because, as you kinda said, if the audience doesn’t take on the us-ness, doesn’t recognition or accept the invitation, you can REALLY feel it. Their resistance. Again, I think this is the case with all dance but in your work Meg this feels excessively real. And I think it goes back to the transparent structures you use that make people have to look through you not just at you and the things you’re doing. God it makes me question everything i do! I think it also makes us hook onto each other and to ourselves onstage because that world (the audience) can be just as cold as the real world. In your work i have the same hopes that I do venturing out into the world (God i hope we’re all together, hope no one’s gonna try to shoot me, hope I get home safe).

TP:  In the studio, we dance for hours and no one ever knows what’s gelling with you. we just keep looking. you let it happen. Obviously very little of what happens in the studio goes into the work but you have/let us stay with things for so long. What i’m interested in are the moments you say no because they are rare, usually to Greg (ha ha! Or you’re only comfortable externalizing your disagreement towards greg??!?!??!) and are fucking subtle but pretty unshakeable.

MW:    hmmmm… this is actually something I have been trying to figure out, and I think part of getting more comfortable as a director, working with different personalities, trying to find out how they work best, what they need as far as encouragement or more specific direction or just to let them get lost and bored for a while.

Often, I’m just watching and waiting. I think there’s something about trust in all this – that actually I do have an idea that is very clear, I will know it when I see it; some things when I see them are not what I’m looking for at that moment and I don’t want to spend time figuring out why not… so i say no, put it aside, and keep excavating.  Sometimes I may be mistaken, and those things actually are just exactly what I was looking for but didn’t recognize at first, and I’ll need to go back and dig through the pile of dirt later!

I think saying no is a quick (not always the best) tool to re-focus boredom and speed up the process by short-circuit/bypassing habitual movement patterns, get back into investigation mode.  At some point, you do have to say “THAT. That, there.” Sometimes, we don’t find that.  Or we only find part of that.  So you go on to the next project…

Which may also be related to the death of AR. That there is NOT it!  It was, and now it is not. I’m looking for something else, waiting to recognize it.

(Exhausted from this span of verbalocious activity, Meg returns to the swirly thing while Taisha floats without trying at all. Stacy considers the risks of going really deep to retrieve the pen she dropped halfway through the interview.  At any rate, the time for talk is over.)

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