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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.