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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Failure: A Conversation with Laura Peterson, Part 2

-- By Tom Phillips

In Part One of this conversation, Laura Peterson talked about the sea-changes in her art over the years --- from satire, through abstraction, to a complex vehicle for personal, emotional expression.  

After years of being cast as microscopic bugs and atomic particles, Peterson and her dancers emerged as human beings in 2012, in a piece called “Failure.”  It addresses a universal human experience, but you’ve never seen the human condition rendered like this. The unique touch is the scenery -- a huge kite-like construction, designed to collapse during the performance.   

Laura Peterson is the daughter of an academic philosopher, but as an artist she is also the child of the Judson School – drawing on the ideas incubated at Judson Memorial Church in the 1960s – among them minimalism, repetition, unusual settings and collaborations with other arts, and chance combinations. 
In “Failure,” it all comes together. We see choreography as philosophy – a working out of the paradoxical relationships of determinism, chance, and human will.  And in a particularly satisfying twist, we can see it this summer at Judson Memorial.   “Failure” will make its New York debut in that sacred space, June 29 through July 1. In March we talked about the work, and its new, post-election incarnation.  

LP:  “Failure” I did after “Wooden” in 2011.  Something happened there, in “Wooden,” when we’re running back and forth, over and over, but I didn’t think it went far enough.  I could see a possibility there, the possibility of exhaustion, and that it has an emotional quality to it.  And then I thought, when does the body fail?  What are your personal physical limits?  And can you go farther than that, can you ask more of your body than that?  The 2012 Olympics were happening then.  And I looked at people’s effort, and their limits, and then more effort and passing a limit you think you have.  And then watching somebody collapse, because their effort goes beyond their limit.  And then you become a person, which is excruciating.  I keep thinking, why do I have to have limits? 

TP:  For me, “Failure” is the most clearly realized piece you’ve done, because the concept is very simple.   It’s just that people tend to avoid it.  They don’t want to talk about it, everyone wants to be a success.  But even success has its limits.  And then what?

One of our premises was – who decides?  Do you?  Or does someone else say – you’re a failure.   If you decide it’s failure, then it is.   We’re doing “Failure” again in June.   But now, everything’s different.  What does it mean now, after the election?  Last night I was thinking, texting Kate like crazy, saying now the dance is in the wrong order.  Maybe it should start with the sculpture breaking, maybe that’s the first thing that happens, everything is destroyed.  Maybe we do it backwards. 

I loved the way that was placed in the original, the version that’s on tape. 
Kate Martel in "Failure"
I liked it because the thing gets taken down in the middle, not at the end.  Because failure is something you live into, with, through.  It takes time.  And I also loved that it wasn’t you that took the thing down, somebody else did it.  
Somebody – Kate --- who is delicate, and elegant. 
You didn’t self-destruct, you’re not a failure, it just got taken down. And that is such an authentic way of showing it. 
The score for that is not timed.   We just sat in the wings and watched while Kate did it.  We decided to strip away all the artifice, and all this stuff was in the wings where we did it – there was a podium, and some fabric, and we just said, leave it all there.  This felt like it, this is failure, with these ugly walls. We just watched her and her task was to pick it up – bring it over there – and if it’s still standing, spin it.  And if it still doesn’t fall down, pick the entire thing up, and see how it drops, and then put your weight on it.   And if it still doesn’t break ..
I see this running throughout your work, humans in the context of a structure that isn’t human. I see you as a philosopher, and a determinist. Things are written out for us, our behavior is programmed by forces we don’t understand.  This only becomes interesting when you as a human being are moving through these programs, but at the same time you’re struggling against them, there’s something in you that doesn’t want to be programmed. 
But is it successful?  Can you do that? 
No, you can’t.  And that’s failure. But the way we live, the way we come to life, is in struggling against this inexorable fact that we’re programmed, we’re going out of business and we don’t even know when.  And this goes back to the very beginning of philosophy, to Greek tragedy.   Oedipus does everything he can to flee from killing his father and marrying his mother.  And yet in the end he is powerless to resist his fate.  At the end of the Iliad, Priam says all we can do is struggle against our fate, that’s the meaning of our lives. 

OK, I’m not completely on board with that --- the idea that something or someone is in control, that there is some other-worldly thing that is not just the accumulation of everything that’s been built before us, and it could have gone another way, but it went this way.  And now we’re here, sitting at a table.  It could have gone another direction, but it didn’t.  And who decides that?   I guess that’s part of “Failure” – who decides what direction this is going to go in?  Because we don’t decide in advance how long each dancer is going to go on – you do it until you decide.  

Really?  The dancers decide when to stop?

Oh, yes. It has to be under-rehearsed, because from night to night it gets longer and longer. Your stamina immediately builds from night to night.  You do it until you physically cannot do it anymore, and that means failure.  It can be emotional, it can be like “I gotta go home.”   

It’s not set at all. One night, Kate stopped, and then Janice stopped, and this woman in the audience said to herself, “Laura and Michael are really stupid!  What are they doing?” (Laughs)

You were the last one to stop.

I have been every time.  I don’t know, it’s just more personal to me.  I think of this as Sisyphus.  If there’s a Greek analogy, that’s what it feels like to me.  But now, the whole world’s different.  So I wonder what it’s going to be this time.

I think if you didn’t change anything, it would still be totally relevant -- the way the concept is realized, the experience that the audience has in seeing this incredible effort, seeing these dancers exhaust themselves, and the different ways that they resign themselves to being exhausted.  That’s why I like the way you end the dance, with all four dancers standing there, each in a different position. 

We call that the parade. 

And each position is an attitude – this is the end, this is how they’re taking it.

And there’s a certain dignity – we’re still alive.  We have a moment we call “Joan of Arc” that Kate does, when she lifts up her arm, and then there’s another we call “Vegas.”

And then this wonderful idea of the structure that collapses, that falls to the floor.  And that’s the structure of your imagination.  

The other thing about that section is, who decides when it's over?  We’re sitting there watching from the wings, and we decide, we the other dancers.  Like, OK, it’s over.  And we come back on stage.   

So you’re working in a creative universe that is very intricately programmed, down to the last detail, but there is chance involved.

A lot of chance.  The parameters of what you do right then are very determined, super detailed.  But there is chance. 

And I think that’s why it is so much like life.  And so fascinating to watch.                   


“Failure” may have an air of finality, but Laura Peterson is not about to quit making art.  Her next project is to explore her father’s work in Epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge – what we know and how we know it.  Skeptical, I asked her if she really thought she could present these questions in dance form.  Her answer was immediate and firm: “Yes!"     

Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips and Laura Peterson