Elsewhere: Heidi Henderson in conversation with Kinebago’s Sara Smith
Critical Correspondence is pleased to share with you a conversation from Kinebago, a magazine created to foster the documentation and contemplation of dance and movement-based practices in New England. Here, Rhode Island choreographer Heidi Henderson talks with Kinebago’s Sara Smith following Henderson’s master class at Green Street Studios in Cambridge, Massachusetts in January 2012.
Kinebago/Sara Smith: It was really interesting to watch everyone in class today trying to do the material from that piece.
Heidi Henderson: It’s really hard.
Heidi: It doesn’t look hard.
Kinebago: It’s really hard!
Heidi: I say that’s my special skill: to make really hard movement that looks easy to do. I would be a lot better off making easy movement that looks hard to do.
Kinebago: Well you know, I spent this morning talking to my parents, my mother especially—who came to the show—about your piece, trying to explain the difficulty and the virtuosity of what you were doing.
Heidi: She was sitting right in front! I figured it out afterward.
Kinebago: Yeah, they were sitting right in front. And they were like, “That woman who did the solo, she wasn’t a very good dancer.” And so I said, I guess I can understand why you might think that… I was trying to explain, from the dancer’s perspective, how what you’d done was very technical and virtuosic, though they couldn’t necessarily see that because the performance is so understated. And then watching dancers grappling with the material and figuring it out in class this morning… I mean, they know that it’s difficult, but to watch them imitate what they think you’re doing, and then slowly figure out what you’re actually doing, and the technical needs of that if they’re going to do it well.
Heidi: It’s funny. I feel also that it seems less difficult than it is, especially if you’re an intermediate dancer, and you don’t really see what you’re not getting about it yet. Or, I know that in my body I’m doing it exactly the same way every time, to the inch! But, it looks sloppy. But to me, that’s what technique is, doing something exactly the same, no matter what it is.
Kinebago: That’s interesting. Not having seen your work before…do you feel like what you teach in your class is preparing people in the technique that you use?
Heidi: Yes, but it took me years to figure out what it is that I do, and then how to teach it. So it was definitely backwards. I would take a phrase and then break it down and see what is the weight that I’m using for this particular movement and then what metaphor or class-based idea can I apply to prep people for that moment? Now I trust it more. I used to literally have moments from the choreography in the class exercises—although nothing really feels like an exercise, because you have to move the whole time. That’s not my idea—lots of people do it. But I used to kind of snatch moments and find ways to dialogue about them and put them in, and now I trust that the class, if I teach my class well, is going to prepare people to do the work, even if the exact steps aren’t in there. And it’s an easier way to teach, frankly. I used to try to focus so much on the structure. Donna Uchizono is a genius at doing that…you would go to her class and by the end of her class exercises you would know the phrase, even though you didn’t know you knew the phrase—it was incredible!
Kinebago: When you just mentioned use of metaphor in teaching…one of the things that definitely popped out to me when you were teaching this morning was your use of metaphor to help people understand what you are doing.
Heidi: Yeah, for years I tried to avoid the metaphor thing, because I don’t…my dances don’t feel like they’re about something, other than the movement. Even though I recognize that they are for other people. I don’t think of story or meaning while I’m moving, I’m thinking about pure physicality. But in teaching, I couldn’t come up with enough language about physicality to get people to understand what I was doing.
Kinebago: So it’s an afterthought.
Heidi: The imagery is an afterthought. Like, I’ve made the movement, and here’s a way I can reframe what I’m doing so that you might understand it better.
Kinebago: So when you say things like “I’m holding the moon,” when you made it you weren’t holding the moon…
Heidi: Nope, no moon.
Kinebago: But now there’s a moon.
Heidi: Yeah. I can’t… I’m not a literal person. Although it’s funny… at night before bed I read bad science fiction, or fantasy books. I listen to thrillers while I’m driving in the car. I love the idea of plot! But I can’t make dances that way.
Kinebago: Why do you think that is?
Heidi: Well mainly, because I don’t believe the movement means that… like, I’m thinking of a dance I have seen where it’s sort of swoopy movement, but then someone is using a speech as sound, and suddenly the piece is ABOUT that.
Kinebago: Right, like I’m making a dance about say, Democracy, and it goes pas de bourrée, pas de bourrée, chassé, jetté.
Heidi: Yes, that! I don’t believe in that. So then I have to find a way of moving that feels like something… and I don’t know what the something is and I don’t need to label it. But like, for this piece, I was making movement, and all of a sudden the movement just felt really sad. So I was like, maybe I can make more “sad movement.” What does “sad movement” feel like? But there was never a reason to feel sad, until I got plopped in this piece, with a duet, hugging.
Kinebago: So this is part of a larger piece.
Heidi: Yeah, there’s a duet. Karl [Rogers] and Molly [Lieber] are downstage, hugging, the whole time I’m doing this. This is part of a trio.
Kinebago: So when you’re making more “sad movement,” how do you go about doing that? Do you put yourself in a state of sadness? Or…
Heidi: No, I’m moving around until the movement feels sad, and I don’t know why.
Kinebago: So you just say, “that one—that movement was sad. That one stays!”
Kinebago: So did you weed things out that stopped feeling sad?
Heidi: Tons. I mean, I’m a slow maker. I work very sequentially when I’m on a phrase. But I edit out a million… Like Karl Rogers and me, we have this piece that we want to install in a space from 9-5 for a week. We’ve done it in smaller chunks in a few different places. And within that score, we each have 10 minutes to work on a solo. And in that 10 minutes he’ll have come up with 4 minutes of material and then in the next hour he’ll cut out about half of it. In my 10 minutes, I’ll have come up with 20 seconds that I will keep. I used to write papers like that in college. This was before computers. I would have probably 8 versions of an opening paragraph and then I would edit and copy it by hand on to the good paper and then go on to the next paragraph. There’s something… I’m just really picky, like I can’t just go on if something’s not working. There might be a lot of phrase making, before I figure out, “Oh, I’m working on sad material.” Like, I think there was quite a long phrase, and then I was like, “Well, that was nothin’.” If I learned to videotape myself, then I might have a lot of nothings left over that I could make into a piece another time.
Kinebago: A nothing piece.
Heidi: Yeah, that’s good! A nothing piece!
Kinebago: So, what I love about your performance is how open it is. It has this great combination of openness and specificity of movement together. So it feels both external and internal. Vulnerable and emotional, but still geometric and anatomical.
Heidi: Yeah, and part of it is that difficulty. The movement is difficult enough to do that I can never count on it being easy. So in performance, I have to pay attention in a pretty extreme way. So the movement is built to be open, but it’s so hard to do that the care that I have to take to dance it demands that other presence.
Kinebago: Right. And I think that the care you’re taking with the movement reads as emotional too.
Heidi: Yeah. And it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever made myself do on stage—the beginning solo, the first six minutes of the piece. I’m doing this very slow, carved solo. But it’s so hard to do that I’m very internal, because I will fall over. I’m standing on one leg for a very long time, and it feels extreme, but if you go to an extreme place slowly… like, if you whack your leg up, that’s extreme because your leg is high, but if you’re trying to do that same thing slowly, you have to stay on the other leg so carefully. And it starts out being 25 seconds maybe, but then I open this place up and add another 25 seconds in there, so things repeat, but they don’t repeat in an organized way for the people watching. Things come back. And material appears in what Karl and Molly are doing too. And I do five minutes of that slow, curving stiff to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Kinebago: So, at what point in your process does music come in? Because the music in the solo you present in this show is very present.
Heidi: Well, it depends. I have a piece called “We Wait,” that’s 20 minutes long and in silence. And then, well, this is what’s on the docket for the concert we’re going to do in May. I have a duet that I do with Molly to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” and we use it three times in a row, but very differently each time. And I got a talking to about it actually, from with David [Dorfman, who directs the Dance Department at Connecticut College]. He was like, “maybe you want to alter the music the second time?” And I was like, “No, that’s not the plan.” Exactly the same song, every time.
Kinebago: And why is that the plan?
Heidi: Well, structurally, I’m very rigid. When I come up with a structural idea… I mean, my joy is in finding a really stupid structural idea that can’t possibly work, and then trying to make it work. Like using the same music three times, but not repeating anything. At one point we blink through the music for a whole verse. And there’s a really slow motion section, and a really wild flying, sort of dance-y section like I taught today. And I love really pure minimalism—like I love Donald Judd’s work. But I’m such a mess of a person emotionally, and I also want the joy of a dance-y dance. But my aesthetic is a really minimalist, mathematical structural one.
Kinebago: But there can be a lot of humor and emotion in minimalism too. Like Sol Lewitt is hilarious, right?
Heidi: Yeah! And the Bowie piece is funny. And I print the lyrics in the program and ask people to sing along. So by the third time most people are singing, hopefully loudly. And we sing along too, we have a lip syncing section. And we have on spray-painted silver outfits. So we look really bad, but we think we look really good, I mean, we’re in silver!
Heidi: So I think I had made the big dance-y phrase for the David Bowie piece without music, and then I had started this little slow thing that sort of fell into the dance-y dance and I got really intrigued with the slow thing, and then somewhere in the middle of that I found the David Bowie to go with the slow thing. And that was just so compelling that I had to keep doing it for the whole song. And then it was like, well, what do you do after David Bowie? More David Bowie! We tried other songs, but we just got really hooked on the idea of using it again.
Kinebago: That’s great. And then it also feels like you’re presenting a direct translation of your process in the performance. You went through this thing where you thought, well, David Bowie seems right, so what’s after David Bowie? David Bowie. So then you just present it like that: after David Bowie is more David Bowie. Here it is.
Heidi: Yeah, it’s very obvious! I don’t like magic.