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Sunday, February 19, 2017

“Everything Has Changed": A Conversation with Laura Peterson

Laura Peterson in "Failure" 
-- By Tom Phillips 

If your step has a name, keep working on it,” Laura Peterson tells her students. A dancer, teacher, and choreographer of the 21st century, she has created a whole vocabulary of steps without names, drawing on modern dance, ballet, sports, physics, animal behavior and pure play. Endurance and resilience are job requirements for her company, usually three women and a man, always including herself. Their moves are physical, fast, often punishing. Knee pads are essential. Stamina becomes style. 

She begins with a setting – sometimes outdoors, sometimes in, sometimes a combination, as when her company danced “Wooden” on a live lawn at the Here Arts Center in New York, or under a huge kite-like structure designed to collapse during their performance of “Failure.” (Above.  All these constructions are made to order by her husband and long-time collaborator, Jon Pope.) Lately she has also been using her own abstract paintings, as a backdrop, a floor, or even a covering.
In the thirteen years I’ve followed her work, it has moved from satire, through abstraction, to an almost reluctant admission of the personal and political, brought to a head last year by a family tragedy and the shock of the election. At Judson Memorial Church in January, she wrestled with her own grief and anger in a ground-breaking “Solo.” With politics in mind, she’s now creating a new production of “Failure” for Judson this summer. But even with feelings rampant, her compositions always retain a strong formal structure -- and this is what sets them apart from mere bodily emoting.

Laura grew up in Syracuse, where her father Philip L. Peterson was Professor of Philosophy at Syracuse University. She learned about Epistemology at the dinner table, and she’s bold enough to say she plans to explore its fundamental questions – what do we know and how do we know it? -- in dance. 
Like most Syracusans she was also a rabid follower of the school’s basketball team, the Orange. Laura and I met recently at a café near Marymount College in Manhattan, where she had just taught a choreography class, and started by talking sports.  

TP: I see athletics in your choreography. How does dance relate to basketball? 
LP:  I feel like basketball is so much choreography and improvisation, and constant movement. You’re saying Yes and No, but within a highly structured score. So you have all the plans, all the intentions in the world, but you have to react to what’s going on. And you have to be positive, and say Yes, Yes, Yes all the way down the court, but when the ball changes over you have to back up and say No, No, No.  There’s a lot of choreography and traffic, quick starts, fast breaks, constantly shifting tempos. And there’s also a lot of arcs, the ball is arcing, your pathways are arcing, you’re spiraling, trying to reach something. I’m working on my transition game… 
OK then, what’s new with Laura Peterson Choreography?
Everything has changed since the election. Every single thing I see or do has a new content. I see content where I saw form only. I see content in relationships – not necessarily narrative – but politics, the power dynamics and negotiations between people.  And it’s directly related to the election and the current political climate.
I saw Lucinda Childs, who is among my favorite choreographers. And I thought, what a wonderful break from humanity, just to watch this form. But then I wondered, what are the relationships here, what are the dancers experiencing? I was watching one dancer breathe. So there’s that kinesthetic empathy. But now I thought about what she was thinking, whereas before I would just say – person, design, organization. So I wonder about what’s going to happen next.

Let’s talk about what’s already happened. You did a piece, a Solo at Judson Memorial Church, during the campaign and then again after the election. It was emotional, it was personal. 
I started it last September.  And then, my brother died, suddenly, just before I had a residency at Marble House in Vermont. And I almost didn’t go. I thought, I’m going to be the weird lady crying in the garden.  But they said come, we get it. And they didn’t tell everybody, and I didn’t either. So there was this emotional impetus that I never previously addressed – that I never thought I was addressing – in previous work.
I had a lot of space and time, so I started painting more, which is something I hadn’t done in many years.   And I incorporated the paintings in in my dance.  I had several showings, and worked on it.   And then I did it at Judson in December, after the election, and everything was different then. The grief remained, but anger also emerged. I was feeling disillusioned, dealing with an unexpected death. I was shocked and angry, and all the feelings you have, that shift every day. 
 I took the piece as political, and I think it worked that way. It was extremely intense. I mean, you’re banging your head at the floor.    
Yeah, that came up after the election.  But the use of the paintings – being on a black surface, and then on a red surface, that was more of the original design. 
There was one moment I wanted to ask you about – when you actually crawled under the black painting.
I didn’t really think about that, I decided it at the tech rehearsal. Previously, during a showing, I had picked one up and put it on top of the other, which shifted the thing completely. But this time I thought, there’s more. I’m three-dimensional, why am I on top of something? Why is it flat, how does that relate to the movement? What is the texture, what is the texture of my body? And I feel there’s still something to do with that, there’s a lot to do with that idea of being Under. 
In the little Manifesto you put out after the election -- two of your postulates are that art is political, and art is a haven. On the surface those seem to be contradictory. Political means an engagement with the world, a haven is a kind of withdrawal.   
Let me say I mean political in more than one way. It’s the system we live in, but it’s also just power dynamics, which can be very abstract.  Who’s in charge of what, what has the power on stage, what is the relationship to power -- who’s driving? 
On the other hand, when you crawled under your painting, I saw that as a kind of a haven. A temporary haven – you didn’t stay under the painting. 
I know, I think I should stay longer. When I was under there I was thinking, how long does this take?  And I wasn’t totally sure, so I thought…
I better get out of here?
Yeah, get out while I can. But it felt safe under there, like a breath from everybody, like crawling under a blanket. But I was acutely aware of folds and formalism, and how this was going to shift the painting, and does it look like an iceberg, or a blanket.
About your painting -- to me it looks like Abstract Expressionism, the kind you see at the Museum of Modern Art.  Which is my favorite kind of art, I love that whole period.
Me too, I’m such a throwback. To me it just feels right. I feel, that’s enough. That is such emotional work, that pre-minimalism, where there’s still some sense of the body that has made this thing.
You’ve always started with a setting, a context for movement. When did painting occur to you as a context?
I had painted a lot, a long time ago.  Then in 2012 the Here Arts Center asked me to do an installation for their gala.  And I got these big canvases, and I just started painting. Their theme was Alchemy. I found that very difficult, I didn’t know what to do with it. But finally I figured, gold. So I started making these big gold paintings, very abstract, just shapes, but it had an energy. And that led me into it, and I thought – I’m back.  


                                                                          “The Futurist,” 2014

I think they work very well with your choreography. I remember the big gold painting you used as a backdrop in “The Futurist.” (Above)  It was very bold, and very you, it was like you were marking your territory. 
Right, this is it -- the beginning and the end, this is what the shape is. And yellow is very physical. It seemed like an exclamation point, it framed it in a way that was emphatic. But it’s up on a wall, that’s different than an object. So then the next thing is – this is a flat surface, but is it really flat? Paintings aren’t really flat, they have a surface. What if it moves around? Maybe it’s time to move.
So that’s how you came to crawl under your painting.
Yeah, I crawled under it. I had this big space at Judson, and I had gotten back into painting. And at this residency, I had all this stuff. At home I’d found a whole bunch of paper in my hallway, giant paper from an architect who had moved out and left it behind. I was going to throw it out, and then as I was getting in the car to drive to Vermont, I just said – I’m bringing it. I decided that any rules that I had for myself, they were gone, irrelevant. And the idea that I’m not supposed to be a painter, I’m supposed to do this -- why am I saying I’m supposed to do anything? I’m not supposed to do anything I don’t want to do, I’m supposed to do everything I feel like. Because this was a big shift in my life, having my only sibling, my older sibling, disappear. Everything’s different. I just decided I don’t care anymore, I’m going to bring everything I want. Then I just started, I had no rules for myself. I completely let go of the project I was going to work on at that residency. I decided, why am I doing anything? Why am I limiting any possibility?  
And out of that came your Solo. But you know, I think you have always been like that. This was just like busting out a little farther – leaving limitations behind, which you’ve done one by one by one. I’ve been following your work since 2004, that’s 13 years.
I feel we have some kind of dialogue, in our abstracted way, and it’s long-term. Thirteen years is a big part of my life. I mean, everything’s changed, we went from George W. Bush to this.
And you went from bugs crawling around the floor in “Security,” to this. That was your satirical phase, when I first saw you, and I said Wow, this gal is funny. She can put her finger on things that are too small for other people to find.
I still feel like I can be funny, and put my finger on one little thing and amplify it in absurdity. 

But you moved on. So let me ask you, why does one move on from satire, why leave satire behind?
That was a process. It was also a little bit of insecurity, I think, like you can hide behind humor. But you really can’t hide behind formalism.
And that’s your second phase – things like “Forever,” and “Atomic Orbital.” That’s when I called you an Artist of the Infrastructure, looking at things below the microscopic level. I don’t know if you ever took physics..
I grew up with a philosopher who studied physics a lot, so this was a common conversation at dinner.
OK, I don’t know anything about physics, but I love to read in the paper about the particles that make up the universe, and their behavior, which is really very strange and kind of human. 

It’s very strange, and counter-intuitive, it doesn’t look like what we were taught to think it looks like. Somebody wrote about electrons in a “smear.” A smear of electrons! That rocked my world, I had a crisis over that.
What rocked me was a particle with a quality they called “charm.” It’s like other particles, but it behaves differently, has a different effect. Anyway I think of one of your dancers, Kate Martel, as having something like that. Here you are leading these severe, rigorous movements, and she’s doing the same thing, but it’s softer...
It’s a more magical, ethereal quality, you can’t pin it down. It’s less definite. But then there’s more possibilities, it’s a celebration of the indefinite. There’s a continuation of the energy that’s going off the top of her fingers. It’s as precise, but it has a different finish.
Anyway, I’ll call that your particle physics period, your atomic period, and the height of it was “Forever.” 
We do that piece a lot, people like it. It’s colorful, it’s happy. The music is hilarious – but the amount of time we spent trying to analyze it kind of takes away the hilarity, because I’m just trying to figure out how to count this, and organize it. It’s kind of goofy, that we are going to adopt the musical structure and be super-specific -- this requires so much concentration to do, and it’s dumb. Like why? And why am I wearing entirely pink?
Laura Peterson and Christopher Hutchings in "Forever"
It’s hard being a particle.  But the proof is in the pudding – because people watch it, and they’re fascinated by it, and they may not know why you’re doing it. But it doesn’t matter.

I think it’s commitment, and formality. 
Yes, but that formality reflects something real. It’s abstract to us because we can’t see this stuff happen.  But I feel like the infrastructure of matter, mind, experience, is these moving, dancing particles that move in very odd ways that we don’t understand. 
We have a set of parameters that are very specific and that sort of narrows the possibilities. And if you don’t follow these rules –like the way an atom does – then chaos ensues. So the parameters rein it in. There’s 26 sections, and it all takes place in a circle. And one of the rules is that everything has to be equally interesting from every direction. And every section has to resolve just as the music resolves. And the sections have to be distinct so you could take them out and re-arrange them if you chose. 
Have you done that?
We’ve done it, but not lately. To remember everything that happens in that dance is a lot. And also where the energy needs to dissipate and where it needs to build again, that’s a concern.
So there’s an element of showbiz.
It’s a performance, you want people to come and sit and watch, so you need to create an overall texture. 
One that’s pleasing to the eye, and the ear, and draws you in, but also shows you something that’s beyond words.  
It’s not a narrative.
No, it’s not.  And that’s why I think you are such a bold artist, because you really eschew the story line, and all the romantic relationships and the angst ..
It doesn’t interest me. (Laughs) Sometimes I feel, there’s so much angst in the world, I don’t want to look at that. I get it, I feel everything very deeply, and I want to go and just look at form, what a relief from everything. 
OK, But. This brings us to the present period, that I think extends from 2012, when you did “Failure,” up to now. And for lack of a better term I would call it Abstract Humanism. 
Oh I know, it’s embarrassing. I don’t know what happened. I mean, I know what happened. But I will say that these ideas overlap.  “Atomic Orbital” is actually newer than “Failure.” And so it’s not a straight line, nothing totally disappears. 
It’s true. Your dancers are still particles in many ways, they still behave oddly. But at least starting with “Failure,” they are people too.
We’re doing “Failure” this summer at Judson. But now, everything’s different.    
(Part Two of this interview will focus on “Failure.” Laura Peterson Choreography will present this full-length piece June 28 through July 1 at Judson Memorial Church in New York.)

Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips and Laura Peterson