The Idea of the Unknown: An Interview with Northwest New Work’s Vanessa deWolf

Vanessa deWolf prepares for her Score for an Unrehearsed Ensemble, which is performing this weekend as part of NW New Works at On the Boards. Photo by Bruce Tom

When we looked over the list of artists that will be performing during On the Board’s NW New Works‘ second weekend, we were intrigued to find Vanessa deWolf among the performers. DeWolf has been a something of a unique fixture in the world of Seattle dance for many years now. Her works tend to be small in number of participants — usually ranging between one and four dancers — and often reside in a weirdly lyrical realm, almost as if a particularly witty, precocious and morose child weaned on the works of Edward Gorey, Charles Addams and Luis Buñuel had matured and decided to explore physical movement.

The Star’s José Amador sat down with deWolf to discuss her project for NWNW, Score for an Unrehearsed Ensemble, and found an artist not only interested in expanding the emotional palette typically associated with Dance, but also the democratization of that artform. In a broad ranging discussion, which included digressions where deWolf name-checked Eugene Ionesco to debunk hipsterism (“He said, ‘to try to belong in one’s own time is already to be out of date.’”) and talked about the social chaos she engineered by throwing a large group of performers who had never worked together onstage for the first time (“After the rehearsal was over, they were like ‘Who are you? I just did that kickline with you. Wow, you’re really great!'”), deWolf and Amador define her usage of the word “score”, figure out the first impulses behind her latest project, and compare the act of performative improvisation to following a meatloaf recipe.

Seattle Star: This is for OtB’s Northwest New Works, give me an idea of the scope of the project. Are you performing as part of the Mainstage, or the Studio Series?

Vanessa deWolf: The Mainstage Series. It’ll be my first time on the Mainstage. I proposed this project, Score for an Unrehearsed Ensemble… It’s kind of stunning that I’m in a festival, at this professional level.

SStar: Why do you say that?

VdW: Because I proposed a project that’s just, you know, crazy, it’s out there!

The work that I usually do is very intimate, and has been done on a very small scale for many years now, so I’ve never really made work that was appropriate for NWNW’s Mainstage. I’ve never even been drawn to doing something for the Mainstage. But, this project is so huge, there are forty people involved in it.

SStar: There are forty people involved? Have you worked with all of the artists before?

VdW: No. There are lots of people in the project I don’t know. There are lots of people I’ve known, but I’ve never worked with. I would say the majority of the people involved are people I haven’t worked with, there are few people I have.

The performers will receive the score for the improvisation just hours before the improvisation, and every performance will be different, because it will have a different score.

SStar: When you say “score”, what exactly do you mean?

VdW: It is my understanding that the word “score,” in the context of what would be considered performance or dance improvisation, really came from John Cage and Merce Cunningham working together. It comes from music terminology.

Because artists come from eclectic backgrounds and different ways of approaching language, we may use the same words, but they mean many things. There are lots of different contexts that could be used when talking about scores, even within musicians. When I use the word “score,” I tend to think of it like a recipe.

You look at a picture in a cook book, and you see this beautiful meatloaf, and then you think “Oh, I’m going to make meatloaf!” When you look under the picture, you see a list of ingredients that are carefully measured out. Then, underneath the list of ingredients, there is a list of actions that you’re going to do with those ingredients that hopefully will result in the picture on the page. I just love the fact that we have cookbooks like this, but we never produce that exact thing.

I remember the first time I ever followed a recipe, I did not know the difference between a zucchini and a cucumber. And I cooked a cucumber, instead of a zucchini. This happens in improvisation all the time. We just never know if it’s a zucchini or a cucumber that you’re cooking. Cucumber is really strange to taste in something that’s supposed to be zucchini!

So, I suppose that’s the best analogy for my approach to working with a score.

SStar: All right, so, on the day of the performance, the dancers receive the score, what will it say? “For five measures you will do this or that or the other?”

VdW: It may be something like “Carry this object into the space with a delicate intent. Follow the outcome.” Or, it could be a drawing, a line of some kind.

SStar: Then it’s up to the dancer to interpret what that drawing, that line means?

VdW: Yeah.

I know the project is listed as “dance”, but I really see it as “relational performance.” Because one of the things that really interests me is that here are forty people, who don’t necessarily have any experience with improvising, and that I’m encouraging to be completely autonomous. Meaning, I’m trying to give them as much language and encouragement to do exactly what their desires are. And I’ve given them some material outside of the score that we’ve been accumulating.

SStar: Like what sort of thing?

VdW: There’s personal cultural material, like a stack of cards: some of them have names on them; some have numbers, a couple of them have bodies, or phrases like “Focus on both of your elbows” or “Focus on the inside of your ribs.” A few people have a paragraph of text.

I tell them, “I don’t know what that material will do for you, but it may fill your inner life, it may give you material you want to work on.” Or it may be something they read once and throw away. Or they’ll say, “These three cards really interest me,” or “I hate this card, and that’s why I’m interested in it.”

Simultaneous with that, I’ve developed a Tumblr page, which gathers all the material. Every time I worked on the project, whether in lab work or in small groups, I could never explain everything to everybody, so I just decided to throw it into the Tumblr for forty people who will not understand it. Even I don’t understand it. These include clips from films that I’ve been watching, or have become obsessed with.

For some reason, for this project, I’ve been obsessed with French films from the 60s and 70s, some American films, just a broad range of films. Scenes that really interest me. Also short stories, poems, songs and their lyrics that interested me. All of that is in the cultural material, and people could use it as they want.

SStar: Seeing as the word “unrehearsed” is in the name of the piece itself, how did you prepare for the performances?

VdW: You know, after I pitched the project, I was a nervous wreck, because I realized I couldn’t control it. Who isn’t a control freak in that situation? Right when you propose “unrehearsed” all you want to do is rehearse and determine it!

“Score? What do you mean score? I want them to execute my images!” I had to let that go, because that is not the project. I wondered what I could do in the three months getting ready, so we ran for labs of the piece… We’ve done some really subtle things, like just breathing.

We did a breathing score for twenty minutes, and then a breathing score for three minutes. That was really interesting, really beautiful. People breathing and people paying attention to other people breathing is so beautiful, in my mind. I love it. I could watch it forever.

Still, I have no idea what will happen at performance.

When we did the preview, the score was incredibly complicated. It was like, “Move here, and when you achieve this state then move here, and do that, and there’s going to be this sound cue, and there will be this and that.” After the first three minutes, all the cues were off, everybody and everything was off. You could have seen it as a disaster. I ended up calling it “my beautiful disaster.”

But I’m setting out to do a beautiful disaster, so it was sort of perfect.

SStar: Well, it seems like, no matter how it turns out, there are going to be elements that will be successful. Especially when the entire premise is predicated on improvisation.

VdW: Somebody asked me at a recent meeting, “How will I know I’m doing it right?” I said, “If, while you’re onstage, you feel like you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing, you’ll be doing it right.”

I don’t know what the outcome of it is, I don’t even know what it’s going to look like. That part of it is kind of genius.

I want it to be anything and everything, an emotional rollercoaster: sad, happy, everything. During the labs, we started playing with melodrama as a potential mood in the improvisation, just so that the emotional landscape was opened up for the performers, because I feel like there’s such a suppressed emotional landscape in dance.

There’s so much pressure for “authenticity.” Which is just so much–as an actor, there’s no way you could play Iago authentically. For that matter, there are so many characters that murder, but you don’t hear an actor say, “Oh, by the way, I’m going down to Pioneer Square to practice on murdering.” The actor fakes it. They learn to have an inner life that’s very connected to the character. There are a million ways of getting at that emotion. There’s Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Meisner…

I’ve thought about this a lot: As an actor, especially a comedic actor, you’re given a parameter that allows you to be large, or small, or subtle, or fast. An actor has that capacity. Personally, as an actor, I was always a physical person–I was always the one who would “generate all the magic” in the scene or whatever, all of that. But then, when I started to do dance, I felt like I was perpetually at a sixty percent level. A little bit above half of who I was, but not much more than half, because it was “too big.” Because it was “too emotional,” or “too vulgar.”

All of these things, I called it “Agreement.” So, the basic principle of this project is called “Against Agreement,” which is really fun. I told the group, “If you see someone grandstanding, upstaging, being melodramatic, all the things that are kind of forbidden, these huge things… You just assume they’re doing it exactly right.”

Which is a little bit of a Deborah Hay idea. Do you know who that is?

SStar: No.

VdW: She’s a hugely respected choreographer, has been working out of New York City for a long time. She just worked on a project with Baryshnikov. She had a really famous project called the Solo Commissioning Project, which she did on Whidbey Island, I believe.

Anyway, she’s a Buddhist and has Buddhist influences in her choreography, and I’m going to paraphrase terribly, but she once said: “When I look at you, doing what you’re doing, I’m inspired to do exactly what I’m doing.”

Putting this together, I’m not looking to say “You’re not doing that thing that we’re supposed to be doing.” I look and say, “You’re inspiring me to do exactly what I’m doing, which is exactly what I need to do.” Does that make sense?

Because to me, then we can have simultaneous qualities on stage. Which I think is the thing that I’ve been longing to do. I kind of do it in my solo projects. It’s very difficult to describe, because it’s two directions at once. It’s simultaneous. It’s kind of exciting that I have multiple bodies to try to achieve that.

SStar: Even if the path toward achieving it is unknown?

VdW: Especially because it’s unknown. Oh, wait, let me read you this quote from Ionesco. As this project started gaining steam, I went back and re-read Ionesco’s Notes and Counter Notes

SStar: Is it like bunch of his essays?

VdW: No, they’re just notes on theater… There was something he said on the nature of the avant-garde. “The avant-garde is really the unknown. As soon as something is known or understood, it is no longer avant-garde.” I think that’s a really interesting idea, this idea of the unknown. I’m really glad I came back to it for this project, because it’s so encouraging to people to approach and use the state of the unknown.

SStar: Let’s talk a bit about what inspired you to start this project.

VdW: Well, I’ve been teaching classes over the last few years, and for the longest time I would just teach writing, or I would just teach dance. But I never taught in context of what I really do in my artistic life, which is both dance and writing with equal weight. Not only that, but I also work in visual art, in installations–figure skating is somewhere in the background, you know? For years, I’d been encouraging people to teach what they do, yet I myself haven’t done it.

So, last year, I set out to teach a class that had no objective in it. I promoted it saying, “You’re not going to know what you’re going to learn in this class.”

SStar: Where did you teach this?

VdW: I taught it at Studio Current and it was called Muck. It filled up quickly, and while there was a little bit of attrition in attendance, everybody was really devoted; they stayed the full length of the program. It was so liberating to realize that people are inherently creative, and they are not inherently creative in just one medium.

People like to think that, people will say “Well, I can’t draw,” or “I can’t dance,” or “I can’t sing.” The truth is, given just a few little contexts, people can do astonishingly creative things. They just need a little inroad. So that was sort of the starting point of this project.

You know, it’s hard to go to all these dance performances, and see all this dance over the years, and feel like there’s only one body type up there. There’s only one kind of person up there, a certain range of movement. I’m tired of the kind of thinking that goes, “If you can’t do that range of movement, you’re not a dancer.” Or “There’s only certain things you can say onstage.” “The performer’s personality should be kind of subdued.”

SStar: Is that still a going concern? I mean, I’m relatively new to the Seattle dance world–

VdW: But, you’ve seen dance in Seattle long enough to know that there’s… There are variations, I’m not at all saying that–

SStar: It’s not uniform.

VdW: No, not rigid, or uniform. But, there’s still this kind of, I don’t know…attitude about exactly what is dance. I’m not at all proposing that the next thing I’m going to do is choreograph a ballet, I’m not proposing that.

I’m just saying that body weight, movement, and the terms of dance are really available to everybody these days. That everybody has the capacity to do those things. Does that mean that everybody should? I don’t know–aesthetic and societal values, and all of that.

But what’s interesting? What’s interesting is the idea of calling on somebody who’s never done dance before and letting them breathe, letting me say to them that “You could breathe on stage and that’s dancing,” because it is, ultimately.

 I’m really interested in doing something that doesn’t fit into a performance mold.

Because it’s a spectrum, like in the recipe. You think you’re making something savory, but suddenly you realize that it takes so little for it to become something sweet. Once you make something sweet out of something that was supposed to be savory, you realize you have a lot of freedom. That in itself is a shock. It may be unexpected, just like the cucumber was unexpected.

To be honest, I’d never baked a cucumber before, so then I baked a cucumber. It was a very odd taste, an odd flavor. I’m not saying I’d do it again, but it made me realize that a cucumber could be baked.