Fitzgerald & Stapleton

The Irish choreographers are back in town with The Smell of Want.

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Fitzgerald & Stapleton

Fitzgerald & Stapleton Photograph: Joan Alexander

The Smell of Want is the second piece Emma Fitzgerald and ine Stapleton have choreographed in New York, which is unusual and revealing given that their home is Dublin. Certainly, they have been embraced. This follow-up to last year's The Work The Work, shown at the Chocolate Factory, is a darkly comic exploration of the cycle of life and death, time travel, dreams, songs, consumerism and more. The Smell of Want, which will be performed at Abrons Arts Center beginning October 3, is really a journey, and for it, audience members can choose seats based on how they wish to travel: Steerage ($10), Plebeian ($15) or Winner's Enclosure ($20). The artists spoke about their new work at Abrons; for a sneak preview—or outtakes, at the very least—the vivacious pair will appear at Movement Research at the Judson Church on Monday 26.

How did this piece develop?
ine Stapleton:
We've been writing about it for a couple of years, haven't we? We've been talking about it for ages.
Emma Fitzgerald: Two years.
Stapleton:
And for different reasons—whatever way the universe was working—we didn't get around to applying for funding for it or it didn't come together at points that we originally wanted. And then when we were here for APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters] in January, we met up Jay Wegman, [Abrons's] artistic director, and he offered us the commission. Then we went back to Ireland and received funding there as well.

What are your ideas for this project?
Fitzgerald: It's about a lot of different things. Originally, it was going to be more about relationships, romantic love and platonic love, the individual and society, and how being in a relationship changes how you think about yourself and how you think about the world. Since then, it became more about life and death cycles—and just energy in different constellations. You know how you can see different patterns from different perspectives? It's kind of more about that now. But it's still a little bit about relationships because we have lots of ideas that we wanted to play around with, like the different genres of love songs in popular culture, like rap and traditional Irish songs about love and really old poems about love. There are a few that stuck with us. It's kind of a collection of our favorite things—again. [Laughs]
Stapleton: I was thinking about the whole time travel thing as well. I love space! And I was thinking about the stage space as an area to time travel, but with our bodies—so there's this space-and-time playground thing where there are loads of different portals. It's kind of flicking into different areas and going back into our past as well. We have short speeches and stories acknowledging what's brought us to this point. So it's about trying to refresh our way of seeing the world that's around us all the time. Even going back—even if we wanted to perceive past lives or whatever. Going to the deepest depths and the highest future points as we can.

How do you do that?
Stapleton:
Well, we try to do it through meditation rather than trying to build a time machine.
Fitzgerald:
We are trying to do it perceptively: working with the body and the energy of the body. Because there's so much mystery and energy in it anyway—the body is such a great resource.
Stapleton:
And there are dreams as well. Even working when you're sleeping—writing down what you dreamt about and trying to work out what that's trying to tell you.

Can you give me an example?
Fitzgerald: [Laughs] I had this dream—it's kind of on the life-and-death theme as well—where I was arrested by two guys in lilac-gray suits. It was at a time where I caught myself...you know that feeling when you've done something wrong? You're like, Ahhhhh. That sinking feeling in your stomach where you're like, There's no point to even try to cover it up. [Laughs] So I was dealing with that feeling, and I was arrested by these two guys and I knew I had to go with them. They said, "You can go with your body or you can go without." I shrugged and said, "I'll go without." They were kind of rough. They were taking me away, and I asked them, "What's the difference between being taken with the body and without?" And they said, "Without your body it hurts less," and the other one started laughing and said, "But it takes forever."

Weird!
Fitzgerald:
Yes. So I was like, "I'm going back to my body." I woke up, but my body was a little bit dead. You know those dreams where you wake up and you're just like [Tries to take a deep breath]...
Stapleton:
Yeah, big time! Like your spirit's left, and it takes a moment to come back.
Fitzgerald:
I was so grateful for my body. That was a weird one. It was interesting to look at the way things hurt less without your body: You can cut [yourself] off from physically processing things or physically being aware of what you're going through, and it's nice to bring consciousness back into it. I wonder if there is anything else in life. It's kind of one of those. It could be pointless to be emotional, but then it could be the only point as well.
Stapleton:
And within your body you have the whole mental state of things. This is a little bit of a healing piece as well in terms of the audience and trying to shift the energy in the space as we perform in different ways. It's about being present enough so we can acknowledge what's going on—acknowledging the dark to see the light kind of thing.

You're showing this in Abrons's smaller Experimental Theater and that limits the seating, right?
Stapleton:
Yes. And we're changing the space 'round a bit.
Fitzgerald:
It's related to the idea of time traveling and space and using performance as a time machine: We're making all the seating part of the set. With the ticketing, we were thinking about class differentiation and the structure is based on money. The tickets are divided up: We've got the Winner's Enclosure and Plebeians and Steerage. Depending on how much you want to pay, you get a different kind of seat. We're custom-designing them. For the Winner's Enclosure, we're building a platform for the seats. But they all have something kind of nice about them. The Steerage seats are great, too.

How so?
Fitzgerald:
They're really...
Stapleton:
[Laughs] Out there!
Fitzgerald:
At the moment, the Steerage seats are kind of earthy or kind of like meditation seats. A cross between a church bench and a...
Stapleton:
A log.
Fitzgerald: A log that you sit on in the park. Some of my nicest sitting experiences have been on boulders in forests! But they do have backrests. If you sit for an hour, you need to be able to recline.

What about the Plebeians, the middle category?
Fitzgerald:
The middle category is kind of funny. At first we were going to do different things like rocking horses and stuff like that. It's a little bit like a ghost train, the middle seats.
Stapleton:
They're kind of average.
Fitzgerald:
Yeah. It's a cross between a ghost train, being in school, regular theater chairs and office chairs. They're kind of a serviceable, utilitarian approach to viewing. With a little bit of ghost-train carnival on the side. [Laughs]

How are you reconfiguring the space?
Fitzgerald:
It's an L-shape.
Stapleton:
We wanted to keep a bit of wall space to do things with, and we have some props. We have more performers this time as well—it's not just the two of us. We have an English male performer who's wonderful and a group of women from New York. So we'll make it here and bring it back to Dublin and remake the female parts with the men in Dublin with the same score.
Fitzgerald:
Originally we were going to look for male performers, but the female performers here are amazing.
Stapleton:
It's amazing how things change in a karaoke bar overnight! Watching people sing—she's wonderful! [Cracks up] One English girl who's over here is not a trained dancer, but was wonderful—as a general person and performing at karaoke night. That flicked a switch. Another wonderful woman, who is actually [dancer and choreographer] Arturo Vidich's mother—she's agreed to be in it.
Fitzgerald:
She's really aware of changes in society. She's older, really interesting to talk to. She's thought a lot about how things have changed and has lived in New York since the '60s in the same area more or less—Soho. She told us a lot about how the scene has changed there. We loved her energy, and we were like, It would be lovely to have her as part of it, because stuff that we would talk about with her we'd probably be bringing in anyway.

Have you really been thinking about this piece for two years?
Stapleton:
Yeah. It's been building up.
Fitzgerald:
When we were making The Work The Work, I think that's when we started talking about this piece.
Stapleton:
You start one thing and your mind sort of wanders to the next. But even things that didn't [fit] The Work The Work, we're bringing back now. It feels like the right time. There's text that didn't work before. When we got into the Chocolate Factory, it just had a different energy to a lot of the things we'd prewritten before we came over, so we had to let them go. But it feels right now. We spent time in the theater space practicing and dancing around—just feeling the energy of it, and it feels like it's time for more spoken text, song and props. And even with the nudity, we don't really know what's going on this time. We always try to keep space just to let things keep flowing and changing. Trying to keep a current all the time.

What are you thinking about in terms of costumes?
Stapleton:
Haven't decided yet. This time we don't know.
Fitzgerald: I've seen some interesting clothes that stood out on the street, and then I'm kind of interested in why do we make clothes? We're still writing on T-shirts and wearing them around with messages on them like this one. [She twists around to show the back of her shirt, which reads: Wear your freedom love your body.]. I think nudity is important to me as well, though. I'm strongly pulled to do it, but then there's always that question: Is it right for the piece? Is there something we want to say that clothes will say?
Stapleton: It's still that battle of trying to explain why you dance naked or what it means.

What is your biggest reason for nudity?
Fitzgerald:
I think getting to perform is a really rare and special opportunity to say something with your body and by choosing to perform naked, we're saying, "This is how we look, this is the truth of our existence." And that we think it's okay to be here in it and dancing in this way. To not have anything between the subtlety and physicality of what's going on and the audience being able to see it.

Is the text made up of speeches and stories?
Stapleton:
One [topic] is local judgment and the different judges in your life. It can be yourself or maybe someone you work with or a family figure, so that's a constant in-and-out in the piece through voice-over text. And then I suppose with the short stories, for me, I'm thinking autobiographical snippets—honest stories, things I wouldn't generally talk about. And we've written songs.
Fitzgerald:
We're ready for a Christmas album at this stage.

You usually don't work with other dancers, but you are this time. What are your roles within this world?
Stapleton:
Originally, it started off with a section, "The Tide of Men," which was a male group that was going to be this tide. We had a song about it, but now we're thinking the dancers might be onstage the whole time, almost interacting throughout the piece.
Fitzgerald: We're working with the idea of natural forces, so we have a wave of energy—or the way the tide comes in and changes the scene and then goes out again. We're interacting with these bigger forces all the time.
Stapleton:
Humbled by nature.
Fitzgerald:
Yeah! The way fire comes in and changes things—it changes the chemistry of the ground so you can have new growth afterward. So it's kind of that we're like an ecosystem interacting with each other. And there's another bit I was writing as well, where we all form a massive spaceship or a petri dish of bacteria: We're part of the one body processing the information.
Stapleton:
And the audience is included as well.
Fitzgerald:
Yeah. We're kind of all an extension of each other's bodies. That's the vision of the piece.
Stapleton: [Laughs] And there's no getting out till the end!

The audience doesn't really participate, does it?
Stapleton:
No. We'll try our damndest to energetically include them all the time. We might, through text, also guide them through the piece—to give them things to follow. It's almost like trying to bring them into different states of consciousness. Trying to get them into a meditative state.
Fitzgerald:
It's playing around with language and visuals as well. If we say, "That helicopter is too loud," it brings an image to mind and that frames what you're seeing.
Stapleton:
Consumerism is another topic that comes back in. The whole smell of want: the need and the desire for things is a time travel issue as well because it's like striving for something. You're living in your body in the future, wanting things that aren't present and really necessary. Like me flipping out the other day because my shoes were freaking me out. Wanting new runners because I felt weird. And with the music, too: We've been really conscious for ages about music lyrics and what's feeding into the different generations—the younger generation, being molded by these crazy lyrics about what kind of roles they should play in their lives, like women being dumbed-down and dressed like Barbie dolls. Hearing young kids singing Rihanna lyrics feels weird.
Fitzgerald:
It's worrying.
Stapleton:
Yeah. And then putting women in their place, like putting them back in their box and then telling men they should have authority over women. It's not creating a balance at all. Music is such a big thing. It's everything.

It's the poetry of our time, and it really seeps in.
Fitzgerald:
Yeah. And then as dancers, I get really angry: I can't watch too many music videos. To see dance just used as representing female sexuality in one really narrow way, I get angry—as a dancer and as a woman because here is dance, this amazing field to investigate the mystery and energy and intelligence and the human body is potentially such a healing and liberating thing and potentially a vehicle for change or reassurance. Or a way to find peace. A way to combat having to need things. It's sad that the music industry reinforces the other image. The visual tools or the dance tools that you're given from the music industry as a woman to investigate your sexuality is very much like, Be available to men or be pleasing to men. Whereas it should be, What's this energy that I have inside me? What do I do with my desire? What do I do when I'm attracted? How do I move? How do these two things interact? Can I change how I feel? Can I balance the energy? Use it?

Can you talk about the title?
Stapleton:
It's kind of a saying in Ireland. If you're in a room and two people fancy each other...
Fitzgerald: You say, "The smell of want in that room is something else!" [Laughs] I had two guinea pigs, a boy and a girl and they were in separate cages until the boy's neuter operation was successful and my sister was like, "The smell of want in that room is unbelievable!"

Fitzgerald & Stapleton perform at Judson Memorial Church Mon 26 and at Abrons Arts Center Oct 3--8.

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