Size is relative in Big Girls Do Big Things.
Mon Jan 9 2012
Photograph: Ian Douglas
Eleanor Bauer is all over the American Realness festival: The choreographer, based in Belgium, arrives in New York with Big Girls Do Big Things, her acclaimed solo, and The Heather Lang Show by Eleanor Bauer and Vice Versa. In Europe, Bauer has exploded; she is an artist in residence at Kaaitheater in Brussels, with her next premiere scheduled for May, while as a dancer, she's graced the works of choreographers like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Xavier Le Roy and Boris Charmatz. The Realness festival, presented at Abrons Arts Center, affords the opportunity to see two sides of her artistic personality. In Big Girls, she explores ideas of size and scale with a dead-on intensity and surprising subtlety—part of the time, mind you, dressed as a bear—and in Heather Lang, a raucous production that its creators call a "double one-woman show," Bauer collaborates with her former NYU classmate.
I watched a YouTube interview in which you told a story about a man who told you that you were "an ice bear that dances like a swan." Did Big Girls stem from that encounter?
That was a thorn in my side forever that became a joke. But there are other little things that people have said to me that have stuck. I wanted to go on pointe, and my high-school ballet teacher, who worked with me on this piece, said that I have an Egyptian foot, which means the big toe is longer than the pinky toe. He said, "There's no point. Eleanor, you'll never be a ballerina. You'll be taller than any partner. The work it would take to even learn pointe—you'd get more injuries than it's worth." He was being very pragmatic, but just that one line in his Alsatian French accent: "You will never be a ballerina." Everybody would just repeat it to me all the time. When someone else tells you what you are or aren't with such...
Yeah. It's not even a mirror. It's just this crazy picture of yourself that you didn't ever confront. When I would encounter limitations based on other people's perceptions of me, it would create little snapshots, not even of self-image, but of a weird alien image of myself. So a couple of those things are in the piece: whatever people would assume from a large personality or a "big girl," in all senses. I'm meeting those challenges, but also addressing the failure of not meeting them. I was recovering from a really big injury making that solo.
I was in The Song with [De Keersmaeker's company] Rosas, and I tore my calf. I had to face not being on tour for three months—three of the best months of the tour. The premiere date of that solo was originally the premiere of The Heather Lang Show, which is funny that we're doing both in the same festival now. It was a very strange period. Heather got a job doing Spider-Man on Broadway, which was too good to give up—it's so funny because that ended up being the biggest disaster. At the same time, I was thinking about my desire to entertain. What is the use of self onstage? And also the question of expectation—I tend to take on too much, as an interest in being challenged. [Laughs] I just have a certain hunger for doing big things. So in terms of ambitious ideas and in being a big personality and, again, when someone shows you a picture of who they think you are...
Did that come up again?
When I was working on At Large, the technician—when we were performing at the Chocolate Factory—came to me with a snapshot that he took or found on the Internet: It was photograph of a brick wall, and it had graffiti on it: "Big girls do big things." I was like, Is that what you think of me? Suddenly, I realized people see me as a big personality going for big things, and I never saw myself that way. I was just somebody with a lot of energy and interest in doing a lot of stuff. More manic than a big girl doing big things, you know? Suddenly, my curiosity was translated in other people's eyes as ambition or something. I was really confronted, time after time; that's what I was dealing with. When I lost Heather and I had this premiere date, I almost canceled it. And they told me, "It's too bad, because it's selling faster than any other show on the bill—even Wim Vandekeybus isn't selling this fast! You really have a following in Ghent." This piece was driven by a lot of external input. The piece is a lot about surface and about scale. I'm trying to deal with very personal and literal material that can be experienced on a level of affect or intensity. After At Large, I realized that I had a lot of feedback about the parallel presence of a very strong entertainer—very direct ways of being with the audience, up against a very kind of dry, physical, task-oriented interest in movement research and what the body can do and say. In Europe, having those two things next to each other made people question if I was being ironic. I decided I should separate the two for myself and said, Okay, you're going to make a piece where you just exorcise the entertainer interest—all of that stuff that is about you standing in front of people and your desire to deliver them a good show. [Laughs] What does a performer do in front of an audience? What are you making visible? How are you using yourself completely? So it's that border between abstract and expression in the question of the use of self and how you use your body, your entire person in a literal way, but also in a way of textures or intensities. Scale became really important to me.
Start with the costume, which creates a real surface.
The costume is a fur; it's a material, which is sensual and abstract in the beginning, but it's also a very cute and endearing bear, and it's not me: It's the thing I'm hiding behind. Or it's a suit that's too large for me to fill. With performing, the surface is the interface between you and the audience. What do you bring to the surface? So there's a lot of play with me being a fox in a bunny suit. How much are you filling the skin of the persona that you're being, or falling over the limits? I was also thinking about each form or figure in each section of the piece as a surface that I would match or push over. There's one part of the piece where I quote an Ice Cube rap: "I was born not to give a fuck." I was listening to a lot of hip-hop at that time, and I was thinking about this take-it-for-granted arrogance that is a texture in a lot of commercial hip-hop. It's about how many cars you have and how much money you make, and I'm the best rapper alive—it's as if people listen to this overconfidence and this total arrogance with some kind of vicarious pleasure. It's something they would never, or could never, say. I know this also has a lot to do with the history of the African-American identity in America and overcompensation for having been marginalized—it has its own context, but I was thinking about it as an art form where being totally egotistical is a prerequisite. I'm all over the place, but hitting on the points, and that's also how it is when you work alone. [Laughs] This is the piece that I made before I wrote a grant application. It was just me in the studio.
How did the piece develop?
It was a collection of very intuitive, image-based things that I knew I wanted to do. The costume I knew should be like a bear rug that could be wrapped around the body. Because so many of my plans about what kind of a piece I wanted to make or what kind of thing I wanted to be doing or who I wanted to work with were falling apart, it was an opportunity to go to the studio and just be a little bit blind and intuitive. And to be doing the work that I was happy to be busy with instead of the work I thought I'd want to make. It was something about getting back in touch with where do I stand as an artist in terms of basic desire and impulse. And getting back in touch with my curiosity. So with the frame of letting myself do the entertainer thing, I was also dealing with a hundred other things at the same time. [Laughs] Just trying to be really immediate and then watch the meanings emerge and assemble and coordinate. The analysis is easy for me. I can usually justify any choice compositionally or structurally. When I'm working with other people, this process of justification becomes so important that the piece becomes a product of more of a rhetorical process than something a little more mysterious and messy, because I work with others and I want them to be on the same page with me. Since I was alone, I wanted to go from the opposite direction and just try all the stupid ideas—I had to find out what was in them. There was no plan, but it was very step-by-step. I realize now there's a very strong narrative quality of the piece that I didn't even know. It was the "dumbest" piece I ever made, in the sense of not trying to be clever about it. But I don't think it's dumb. [Laughs] Trajal [Harrell], when he came to the studio, was like, "It's a very clever piece, Eleanor. This is really a 'festival' piece; you've done all the things you have to do to make a very clever, sharp good piece." He didn't mean it in a condescending way. He meant it almost as "Watch out—this is almost too clever." And that's weird.
Where did this piece leave you?
It has changed over a couple of years of performing it—and performing it a lot. In the beginning, I was shocked that people thought it was funny. I thought it was super sad, and people were laughing the whole time. But then, there was a period where I started to play to the punch lines; I saw a video from a performance in Vienna almost a year after it was made, and I was so mad at myself. I was like, That is not the piece. That is B.S. Wrong. The piece is so much about fragility and subtlety and all these gray areas. When I speak about scale, I realize that I was always using my upper register. It's the kind of feedback I got in dance classes: "Try to explore the subtler ranges." I heard it, but I didn't get it. This piece is about scaling back and trying to show the other sides of the big girl. Right after I performed it, I was still discovering what it was and really shocked by it being received so well. To do something so personal and so vulnerable, and for it to go over well, gave me a lot of confidence to search more for how to reintegrate intuition in my process, even with other people in the room. This solo is the only thing that doesn't produce debt in my entire career, because it's not too big to manage! [Laughs] It's keeping my company alive, so that I can make other things. Now that I get what it is, I really enjoy performing it. There was a period where I wasn't performing it a lot, and when I had to do it again, I was like, I'm not in that place anymore. I'm not asking those questions. So I have to rediscover it, and I get to be a performer again. It's not like I'm the choreographer when I'm doing it.
What confused you about what it was? Or was it that you weren't dealing with those issues so much anymore?
When I was in it, it was so personal. Even Chrysa [Parkinson] said, "I can tell how important this is for you." And I was like, "Well, is it a good piece? What do you mean?" I think when I was inside of it, I wanted to reintegrate the use of self into my work and to deal with being able to have personal matters of concern that are shared and crafted in a way that is not just self-indulgent and vain and therapeutic. And I think I could navigate that in a certain way when I was still in those matters of concern. I wasn't feeling so fragile anymore. I wasn't feeling so bent out of shape about the question of ambition versus curiosity. I didn't have something to prove. I feel more confident about the use of self or intuition. I would even say I've developed methods of working on intuition with others; I'm fully in that. So I just had to reinvest: What are the questions? What is at stake in this piece even as a product outside of the questions you had? Is there other stuff you can find in it, or where do you have to place yourself? Like the overconfidence thing: When I was confident in what it was, and I was catering to the punch lines, I had to question, why is fragility important in this piece? And even if you're not feeling personally fragile at this moment, what does this piece need to say to the world despite who you are today? Because it's not just a self-portrait; it's using the self to get to some subjects that might be interesting.
Is it strange to be touring a work for so long?
I don't know! It was basically done in December of 2009. Is that long?
Perhaps by American standards it is.
It's the longest I've performed anything I've made, I think. I did my last performance of the solo Eleanor! in autumn 2008; that was three years, but it didn't tour constantly. That was really a for-fun revival, and I even made a joke that it was the last ever performance and I was giving away the last ever Eleanor! shirt, so it was a historical moment. It doesn't feel long anymore. I got used to touring with Rosas or Xavier or Boris; I think I've managed to approach this piece with a sense of professionalism and distance toward the moment of creation that is actually good for it maybe.
I was wondering if those experiences performing with others influenced the way you could perform this over and over.
I can't get lazy about that. [Laughs]. It's been sloppy before. It's a piece for a performer; it's really a performer's show. You have to carry a show when you're a soloist, no matter what the piece is, but this piece is so about using all of my capacities or failing all of my capacities and gently navigating this level of success or margin of success and failure. It just has to be really measured. It can be very different from night to night, and there's a lot of play with who the audience is, but I can't get too carried away with how I'm feeling or how they're feeling. There is a very narrow margin where it has to be to be correct. It makes me not freak out as much and be so precious and crazy about buildup. It used to be such an event to perform anything—every detail would be colossal. So I think, somehow, being like, All right, the hotel sucks; all right, I'm tired; all right, I'm not in the best shape ever—you can't be in your best shape and perfect all the time. If you're onstage two or three weekends per month, you're going to perform on your period, you're going to perform with a hangover, you're going to perform with jet lag. Actually, I think the experience of performing a lot is a good practice of self-acceptance. You can't always be awesome, and that helps in this solo.
How is your leg?
It's fine. It actually got stronger because I had to do so many exercises. I invested a lot in figuring out why I always injure my feet, with that injury especially, so there's not even been—knock on wood—an ankle sprain. I'm famous for ankle sprains! That injury was so bad that it made me have to reorganize. I started taking Alexander lessons. It's great. I love that stuff. I should have figured it out sooner.
How did you and Heather Lang meet?
We went to school together at NYU. I was in Heather's pieces in college, and she was in mine. We had mutual admiration; I think she's brilliant and hilarious, and she thinks I am, too, but in very different ways. She has an amazing talent with slang; she basically invents words. She's so crazy with language, and her sense of humor is awesome. My sense of humor is more brainy and nerdy. But the combination of the two is really fun together. I asked her to do At Large in 2007; I wanted dancers from really different backgrounds and I was always fascinated with her experiences in the commercial dance world, from the Rockettes to Broadway. She's had such a different professional experience from me.
What are you doing at Abrons?
We're doing another episode of The Heather Lang Show. The first one was a work-in-progress that we did in [the Berlin festival] Tanz in August. I think we did the whole thing in two-and-a-half weeks, so it was fast and furious and crazy, but we were in a process of making hybrid characters, so mine was a sort of hybrid of Sarah Palin and Katt Williams. So on one hand, completely potty-mouth, racist, weird, bad sexist jokes, and then really ultraconservative ideology in a soccer-mom voice. Her character was, for the first episode, an ex-Mary Kay makeup salesperson, but she went down the wrong path and was in or out of rehab—we're not sure, but definitely involved with some serious drugs and selling old, broken makeup. She definitely lost her job with Mary Kay. She is a drag queen in a woman's body. Both of us have that experience when we put on heels. So we were interested in drag and travesty and this very gregarious use of self, but fictionalized. You source something that you identify with, but it's not your race or gender or culture. But why shouldn't you identify with it? It's Constructivist, postmodern la-la-la, but we never discussed those words. [Laughs] We just did it.
You are based in Brussels. For how much longer?
I think I'll be there for a while. I just got a residency in Kaaitheater. I've been living in the same apartment for seven years—like a college student wondering if maybe I'm going to move. I think I have to admit that I'm not going to move now—at least for four years. It's pretty good there, but I don't know how it's going to be in the next year financially. As much as I do miss New York culturally and socially, it was impossible for me to imagine moving back. I couldn't even get a waiting job; that's actually a competitive industry. I don't have that experience! Now I'm in so deep doing my profession for a living, that if I wouldn't have that work... Okay, I would work in an office—I could do whatever, it's fine. But the whole life practice of arranging yourself around making it happen is huge. It's just unfathomable. It's as much work on the other side of the ocean, but just in different ways. We all just put in our hours basically.
Big Girls Do Big Things is at Abrons Arts Center Jan 14 and 15; The Heather Lang Show is Jan 11 and 15.
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