Juliette Mapp

The choreographer talks about The Making of Americans.

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Photograph: Alex Escalante

For her latest work, Juliette Mapp started out thinking she would create a dance in celebration of her mother's side of the family—Albanian immigrants who settled in Gary, Indiana—but ended up with a piece that explores the act of remembering. Mapp mines Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of Americans in her production of the same name, in which three distinct societies emerge: the Americans (Mapp, Levi Gonzalez and Kayvon Pourazar), the Immigrants (Vicky Shick and Anna Sperber) and the Babysitters (Vanessa Anspaugh, Aretha Aoki and Molly Lieber). As it happens, Mapp is the last DTW-commissioned artist to premiere a work in the theater before the space is rechristened New York Live Arts. Let's have a moment of silence.

You started off thinking you were going to make a more personal piece. What changed?
I haven't been making work for that long, but I do realize that when I set out to say something, I really feel like I want people to understand it. For this piece, I wanted to blur up the arrows and not have them all point in the same direction. I wanted to take a detour; the Stein text gave me huge permission to not have to tell personal stories.

How did you discover the book?
I was teaching in Brussels at [the dance school] P.A.R.T.S., and there was a used-books store. I found a first edition of The Making of Americans, and I opened it up and I was like, Ahhh. Without it being an emotional text, the way that she dealt with language had a huge resonance. [Video designer] John Jesurun pointed this out: She uses words as points in space. The layer of that compositional craft reveals something really powerful, and it's funny—I felt like the book matched my own [choreographic] progression. She starts out with more of a narrative and by the end, it's purely experimental composition. Now I'm also reading The Gradual Making of 'The Making of Americans,' which is a lecture that she gave.

But The Making of Americans mirrored your own creative path?
Yes. With this piece. I can't say exactly what it is yet—I don't know the final shape. There are still things moving around [Laughs]. We'll figure the video component out when we're in DTW; we have a residency for a week before the show.

How did you end up working with Jesurun?
When I shifted away from having a personal narrative, I still felt it was important that there was some place that located it—that the piece wasn't just floating. I asked John because he's a master of offering a place, but not saying where that place is. I wanted some sort of visual anchor: Here there are people, here there is text and, maybe, here's a place.

What did he shoot?
He shot Gary, Indiana. My mom's family is from there.

Isn't that where Michael Jackson is from too?
Yeah. That is another little thread. I will mention him in the piece. To understand that he's from this incredibly intense, unique place [that] informs who he is. When the Jackson 5 came out, they came out swinging so hard. They were almost like, [Forcefully] "We are getting out of here!" But people think they're some showbiz family. Gary is a hard place. My aunts and uncles all live together there—none of them got married or had children. It's sort of an old-world sensibility, but also so beautiful. And that's why the Stein text is so great: She writes about how, in any family, there's every kind of person, so rather than me talking about my family, I'm using these beautiful words. She goes into a thing about remembering family—if anyone is living for your family, that's family living. It goes on and on. I feel like this piece speaks to that experience, and it's interesting, too, in light of DTW coming to an end.

How do you mean?
It feels like DTW is an ending that's not being acknowledged. They're trying to [make it seem] like it's going to be the smallest transition, but DTW was something actually quite specific and [New York Live Arts] is obviously going to be something else quite specific. Maybe the history of DTW is something that everybody needs to think about for a second. I feel like there's a little bit of a loss that's happening right now that's not being—

Acknowledged?
I think it's true, right? I feel like that's being erased.

Yes. It's so true. But you never thought about any of this, meaning your history with DTW, when you were making this piece?
No. And it's not in the piece, it's just a feeling of being in the space and listening to the Stein text, which is about a kind of reflection and the importance of remembering. And also in the cast, there's a slight degree of different generations present. There's Vicky and myself and Levi and Kayvon, and then there are these three women who have been taking care of Luca, my son. There are three groups of dancers: the Americans, the Immigrants and the Babysitters—who are beginning their relationship to the community; they've been in Fresh Tracks and Studio Series. DTW has served as a platform for them. And then I was talking to Vic about how many times she's performed at DTW, and it goes on and on. We've all gotta move on, and I'm not expressing any anger or bitterness, I'm just saying DTW is different than New York Live Arts is going to be. And DTW has actually been a really important place. You know the old DTW. It's funny because Aretha, Molly and Vanessa don't even know it. And, for me, I still think about it: That is DTW to me. This is DTW too, but I have that history.

For me, that's another thing—DTW has always felt like two places. Before the renovation and after it. I think it still feels like one place to me. I performed there with John [Jasperse]: We did Waving to you from here and Madison as I imagine it. And also as a college student at Sarah Lawrence and seeing tons of shows there and thinking, Oh my God, they're such amazing dancers! [Laughs]

Did you only dance with John Jasperse at the old DTW?
Yeah. [At the new DTW], I had a hilarious experience. The first season [in 2003], they had this thing called Carnival. I'm sure you remember it? It was such a mess. Three weeks you're performing, but one week on Tuesday, Wednesday and the other on Thursday, Friday. A curiously curated series. [Laughs] That first season opened with a piece that Vicky did that I was in; it closed with Just Two Dancers [a duet for Jasperse and Mapp]. It was a weird season! I remember empty houses for Carnival. Where is everybody?

Will you be speaking in The Making of Americans?
I will be talking, but it's just going to be factual stuff.

About your life?
About Michael Jackson and also some stuff about Gary—I think. That's my plan now. And there will be Stein text in there. It feels like it can bounce off of each other. Vicky and Levi will be reading some Stein. Vicky is an incredible actress. I came into rehearsal having found the Stein text and I opened up this page about different kinds of men and I asked Vicky to read it and she started reading and it was like, My God! Her voice is so gentle and neutral but there's a softness. I can't describe it, but her reading also feels really clear to me. And then [we've incorporated] an incredible recording of Stein reading. The thing I love about Stein's voice is that there's a lightness to it. It's very sing-song: "Family living is family remembering and anyone remembering is family living...."

What does Babysitter mean to you?
[Laughs] That is a good question! The thing about the Babysitters is that they take care of Luca so that I can go and teach dance and go to rehearsal. So they're doing this job so I can dance and then I give them money from teaching so that they can then go and dance. It's this weird exchange; we satisfy something so we can dance.

And then you're also making a dance for them?
It was funny. Molly was a really consistent student of mine and Vanessa and Aretha had both taken my class, but I didn't know them well; it felt so weird to be coming in and out of my house going to rehearsal, knowing very well that these women's lives really are dedicated to dance, so I decided to bring them into the studio. It felt like, Why not include all of this? Not in a cheesy way, but in a way of, Well, you're here and you're a dancer, and so why not come to the studio with me? Of course, it was a scheduling nightmare because there was nobody taking care of Luca, which was the whole point [Laughs]. But I think that the babysitters allow me to do what I do, and there's a reverberation of that in the Stein text with my own family: Somebody does some things so that somebody can do something else. The supportive nature of that and also the sacrifice. And Stein talks about these different kinds of women who play different roles: different roles of loving, of giving—so to me those ideas really bounce around in terms of someone taking care of Luca when I'm not there and that person also being an artist. But it's not [my goal] to point all the arrows—that this is what babysitter means. And they're beautiful dancers.

Did you know that before?
I brought them each in the studio individually and improvised with them and then I was like, Okay, this is going to work. But it wasn't like an audition or anything; it was just one of those funny things where I just decided to work with what's there.

Who are the Immigrants?
Vicky and Anna Sperber. As it stands now, Vicky does most of the reading and Anna does a lot of the setting up of stuff—mikes and moving books around. She had a baby; she's not in the piece that much, and Vicky had her own show going on, so again it's working with people in the way that they are actually appearing in my life. The babysitters have taken on a larger role because they're more present. And then the material that I do with Levi and Kayvon is a little different from the rest in the piece. Frankly, after I had Luca, I just didn't feel like I wanted to be doing really articulate dance movement [Laughs]. I had this crazy, over two-day-long labor, and I feel like I'm still recovering from it. I wanted to be doing more masculine stuff—after having a baby and nursing, which is a real delight, when I was in the studio, I just wanted to be...

Bolder?
Yeah. And less precise. Just a little bit more fuzzy. Kayvon said, "I feel like this is kind of cartoony." I find it to be really satisfying, and hopefully it will be satisfying to the audience, too. I feel like because the arrows are less directed for me this time, there's more going on under the surface.

Was there something that happened that made you want to get away from the arrows?
It was just me wanting to do something different. I felt like it was time. And I had this idea that I wanted to do a dance-dance. I have casting in my mind and ideas about it; I think that's my next thing. And maybe even an old-school two 20-minute dances and a solo or something. [Laughs] I just want to return to the body in a way that's dealing with composition in space as opposed to other stuff. Oh! I want to tell you something funny! At any rate, with this piece I'm just getting some stuff out of my system. Not in the text necessarily, but just with Levi and Kayvon, I do some stuff that I just want to do, that feels good. I didn't want to go up there and talk [like Mapp did in her previous work Anna, Ikea and I], so I sort of fobbed it off on Vicky and Levi. I do say stuff.

But you aren't the center?
Not so much. For me, the center of the piece was elsewhere, and that's why the text is so great, but it was not by design. I just found the book. I had already started the piece. And then I wanted to have a process that was enjoyable, too, because my life is so complicated with having a baby—it's got to feel good even though, of course, it's been hard and at great [Laughs] expense. I always look forward to rehearsal. Being a choreographer and dancer comes at too big of a sacrifice to not be enjoyable. Not that everyone should be out there doing feel-good stuff, and my stuff is inherently heavy—there's always that underneath. But I hope there's some humor.

What did you want to tell me?
In December, I went to a caf close to the studio, and they had Time Out, and I read your interview with Mark Morris. He talks about the criticism of The Hard Nut—that it's underchoreographed—and then he makes a funny comment about, How many times do you need to see a woman tied up in a new kind of knot? I thought that was a genius comment. [Laughs] I probably saw The Hard Nut when I was 13 or something, so there was no direct association with the choreography but it let me be like, I wonder what underchoreographed means? I decided to work with that idea. And it's true. I completely agree with him. The movement material with the Stein—you don't want to see a bunch of craziness happening. It would erase everything. I did take a Mark Morris workshop when I was 16. And I learned some of his incredible early dances—so it meant something to me. Do you know that great piece he did to the ballet-class music? It's Canonic 3/4 Studies. Oh my God. It's sooo great. I actually feel it's a weird early influence.

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