Susan Rethorst

Danspace Project's latest Platform: Retro(intro)spective

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Photograph: Susan Rethorst

Choreographer Susan Rethorst is fond of three words to describe what she does: quiddity (what makes a movement what it is), qualia (what is ineffable in an experience) and inwit (from Old English, it means "in from interior, wit from knowledge"). Susan Rethorst: Retro(intro)spective, Danspace Project's latest Platform, is dedicated to the choreographer and promises a fanciful trip. Running Monday 9 to June 18, the series takes a look at the mind—specifically, the complexity that evolves from an artist at work over time. Melinda Ring is its curator; events include movie nights, a wrecking series (in which artists are brought in to "wreck," or reshape, Rethorst's choreography), and performances of 1989's Beau Regard, as well as the final two installments of her 208 East Broadway series, Part 3: Over and Out and Part 4: SOLD. The Platform is a layering of two spaces—Rethorst's apartment, which she has sold (to her horror), and Danspace Project, where she first showed work in 1982. It is a rarity in dance—a midcareer retrospective—though as Ring stresses, "It's not that Susan is the only person that should have this situation—she's just the first person." The curator and choreographer fleshed out the programming at Danspace Project.

On this Platform's beginnings
Melinda Ring:
This was a really long time in the making. I had ideas for about three Platforms I could do.
Susan Rethorst:
And I won!
Ring:
Susan had always been on my list. There were a couple things that happened in my life: One was that I did a project at the Box in Los Angeles with a visual artist, Jennifer Nelson. It was called for the birds, and we lived in a gallery space with 21 pigeons for 21 days. [Director] Mara McCarthy didn't say anything to us like, "What? You want to bring pigeons into my space?" [Laughs] It was a super-generous situation. Then I was involved with a friend's midcareer retrospective, and I was trying to figure out, with the limitations of Danspace, what could happen in this space. I also heard this from Judy [Hussie-Taylor, executive director of Danspace Project], that when she came here, she felt like the dance community was very concerned after [former executive director] Laurie [Uprichard] left—that this was a very vital space. They show a lot of work, and the dance community didn't want that to change. I knew that Susan had had a long history with this space. I've seen Susan's work, really, three times: When I lived in Los Angeles, when I was a student at Bennington and in the Nothing Festival. This is going to sound a little weird, but there's work that scratches at me—there's something unsettled about my feeling toward it, and her work did that the first two times I saw it. When I see something like that, it's when I'm most interested in it. I realized that a retrospective was something that really didn't happen in dance. I was excited by the idea of going in deeply to one thing rather than just programming a lot of different people.
Rethorst: And I wanted to do a collaboration between two spaces. The initial idea of putting my furniture in the space [in 208 East Broadway, for the Nothing Festival in 2007] just brought me to so many different realizations. One of them was how I love furniture. I seem to have furniture that comes apart and lends itself to being moved. There was a week [in the early 2000s] when Laurie let me work at [Danspace]; I began to feel like I had lots of little things that belonged to particular spaces and places and times, and that I wanted to collect them together.
Ring:
Part of my excitement about this Platform is that it's the opportunity to collaborate with somebody rather than just organizing people and sending out a bunch of e-mails. And this is connected to the for the birds situation; it's about being able to give somebody something that I would like, which is a more generous situation than usual.

Movie Nights: All of Me (May 9) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (June 6)
Ring:
Jeanne Dielman is one of my favorite movies. I had an intuitive connection to Susan's work and I was really nervous to say to her: "I wanted to show Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," but when I mentioned it to her she had a really positive reaction and said that she sat through it twice when it was in the movie theater. I was like, Yay! [Laughs]
Rethorst: Not that I ever related the movie to myself. But now I can. The dailiness thing.
Ring:
The quiet, the way that it's shot—that the shots are really static—and that it really highlights gestures. There is a similar feeling to Susan's work. It's a three-hour movie and basically the character lives through two days of her life, and on the second day things are a little bit off from her routine, and then something very bad happens. It's a movie that has to do with women's situations. It's very domestic because it's mostly all in her apartment, and there's a long scene of her making meat loaf and doing chores and cleaning, dressing. But there's the quiet side—you feel the tension and the possibility of something darker. Then there are other things, like All of Me, which [Rethorst] brought forward. When I watch Steve Martin, in his physicality, it's as if he has two people in him at once. There's a similarity.
Rethorst:
Steve Martin is funny. He's so smart. And the physical genius of what he does in that movie just blows my mind, and he reminds me of Jodi. Steve Martin and Jodi Melnick are two physical geniuses of very different sorts that have pursued it in very different ways. I didn't bring it up like, "Let's show this movie because it's related to my work." I said it almost as a joke. Because Jeanne Dielman is not funny, it's not light.
Ring:
No. They couldn't be more opposite, but also the thing that I noticed as we were working on the Platform and I was watching more tapes is that when Susan was dancing, there was this humor in the movement. Some people get it in their interpretation of the work and some people don't; or they're not quite capable of it.
Rethorst: There's a lot of humor in my work. The myth of dance is not that it's necessarily going to be serious, but it's going to be precious. It's going to be reverent. I just did a piece in California with some young students, and it took them weeks to get that I was being irreverent. I was having them do things that they thought were ridiculous, and that that was intended, I think, really threw them for a while. Once I titled a piece Dance: Sacred Cow, because I wanted to clue people in: You can laugh at this. There are plenty of movies that I love that are arty movies and much more dark, and I just like the idea of this.
Ring: I'm feeling that this is a place of appreciating the high and the low.
Rethorst:
It relates to what you said about not wanting to show videotapes of my work, but wanting to have things that shed light on it. It's a very different approach to a retrospective.

Wreckings: Melinda Ring (May 13), John Jesurun (May 14) and Tere O'Connor (June 8)
Rethorst:
Dance wrecking is responsive to what feels like a problem: It's something about how strength can push you forward. One thing I always say in my teaching is that you don't have to search for relevance by being overtly political. 208 East Broadway was, just, I need to figure out how I can work with my psyche at this point in my life with the set of circumstances I have. It wasn't about the wide world. Immediately, it's about real estate and what real estate is doing to dance. It's not, My work must be this—I have to have only this and I can't do it otherwise. Makes me nuts.
Ring:
At first we only [planned to have] wreckings for the audience to come in and watch, and then we realized that we should also have an open rehearsal so that people could actually see her process. While I was planning this, I kept going to things that were advertised as open rehearsals and they really weren't. I went to the New Museum to see Ishmael Houston-Jones, and they ran through something and then it was just a talk back with the audience, so I didn't get to see him directing people. I know how I do that in the studio, but I'm very curious to see other people. When Susan mentioned having done this wrecking in the past with Tere O'Connor, I was like, Oh, that could be really fun to have as an open event. And there's not going to be a talk-back; people will just be allowed to sit and watch.
Rethorst:
In 1995, I made this piece called Little by Little, She Showed Up at P.S. 122, and I approached Tere with a more radical idea. I said, "Let's set up a situation where we both start working on a piece at the same time, and we get production dates at two different spaces on the same weekend and start work? Somewhere after the middle—so we're really invested—we trade. I get yours and you get mine—space setup, rehearsal schedule, dancers, everything. I just go in, we don't talk, and now it's mine. And then I finish up, and you do the same to mine." He was like, "Oh!" But he said he couldn't, that he was too much of a control freak. Chicken. I thought the next best thing is we get to the same point and then I give it to you, but I get it back. So he watched for two days and then he came back for another two days with stuff that he wanted to do. It's like culture shock, because culture shock is seeing that the things you never would have imagined were changeable are the things that are changed. The piece is not made, so wherever I am at that point, I show to that person and then I sit back and zip it.
Ring: But then she gets it back. She's under no obligation.
Rethorst: And then I treat the work that they did the way I asked them to treat the work that I've done: with no respect. [Wickedly] I love it.

Beau Regard (June 2--4)
Ring:
I left [the decision of what to revive] pretty much up to Susan.
Rethorst:
It was really, really hard. I have about five or six pieces I love. And I went round and round and back and forth, and I think I settled on Beau Regard because it is so very different than how I'm working now. It's another world. It's also from a time where I did have a luxurious situation. I had a studio, I had a lot of time, and there was still a little more money in the '80. So in that sense it's just the complete opposite to the idea of taking circumstances and saying, All right. That's a reason for it.
Ring:
You told me that it was always a dance that made you really happy to watch.
Rethorst:
When I made it, I loved it. And there are parts of it I still love. There are parts of it where I'm kind of like, Eh? That could go. [Meekly] I haven't decided what to do with those parts. It depends on practical circumstances and how much time I have. But it was also the start of a lot of things that still interest me, even though I work on them very differently now. I had a sense of something about dance in the third person, something about how female my work has always been and how I just have spent so many years just being looked at—which you do if you're a performer. A sense of creating a world that has some logic of its own, that isn't available, but you sense that it's there. It was also something that I feel very much in 208: There's an allowance of the ridiculous and trying to get the ridiculous to coexist with beauty, for lack of a better word. And it also has this teaspoon duet, which is one of my all-time favorite things. I just want to see that again. Vicky Shick and Jodi Melnick will do it this time. Originally, it was for me and Vicky and two silver teaspoons, and the music is Gustav Mahler. At some point I started carrying around a spoon, and I would just kind of do this. [She demonstrates by hitting the inside of her palm.] And if I was drinking a hot beverage I would dip the spoon in and put it on my face. It was something about wanting to find out, What is this? It's female. It's ridiculous. That sense of allowance really came back in 208 East Broadway because I was sort of back home. People put the cushions under their shirts and the chairs in their shirts and crawl with them. That kind of stuff comes from a kind of like, Here we are in my house—do this. You know? Which I felt I lost a little bit in the couple of years that I was working in rented studios and moving from one to the next and losing concentration and being like, Okay, now—we have three hours! Ready? One of the things that is so interesting about doing this is that I'm learning all these things about my work. A certain sense of domesticity has always been there. It didn't just come out with 208.

208 East Broadway Part 3: Over and Out (June 14, 16 and 17)This work continues Rethorst's no-money, no-space series of pieces made in and for her living room and revisits the issues of 208 East Broadway, which explored "limitations, home and un/uprootedness," as well as the influence of real estate in the dance world.
Rethorst:
I was kind of like, Okay: 208, Part 3, what else can I do? Is this getting old? I had this idea to set up the room differently. Table, couch, big window here—wouldn't it be great if I could take the window with me? I am making a video of the view. Originally I was going to put the dancers outside, but then I realized it's just so great as it is—I don't need to make something; I'm just going to capture it. In the meantime, on another side of the room, [the view is of] a public library with a little inset, alcovey thing where a woman comes out and takes her breaks. She brings out a chair, sits and chain-smokes and drinks a cup of coffee and sings along to her iPod. I started videotaping her surreptitiously.

Ring: Tell me if this is true: In my mind, she dresses well.
Rethorst:
Oh, she's a snappy dresser. So I have days and days of the library lady, and then there was a building being built beyond that, and we taped [workers] carrying Sheetrock around. There's also another apartment; I asked if I could videotape their dog sleeping inside their apartment and they said yes. And I have one more: There's an escalator at the East Broadway subway where your hand goes up faster than the ride, so everybody puts their hand back, and I don't know if it's conscious. I think it's unconscious. So I want to videotape those hands coming back and coming back. This involves four TVs and four DVD players, which I just got today. Yes! All I see is dollar signs when I talk about this. And then there is a duet that I started when I was in residence at Sarah Lawrence; I did a showing of it at the Movement Research Festival, so I don't feel like I've ever premiered that piece. The idea is that the videos remain when the lights come up and this duet takes place in the space. [Drums her fingers nervously] But these things aren't made, and who knows how that will shift? I'm not going to leave everything until I get in the space.
Ring:
Well, some of it is already developed, and these video things: You've been talking to me about this for a year now.
Rethorst:
All of this stuff is just like, Oh, this would be good—I want to do that. No idea. I've jumped off a cliff. I have so jumped off a cliff. But we don't need to dwell on that. [Moving the furniture from my apartment to Danspace Project] is unpleasant. Actually, when I first thought of the idea, I forgot to think: This is going to leave me with an empty apartment. When I first-first [used my furniture in a piece] in 2006; I said, "Whose idea was this?" This is also so reflective of how my life has been in boxes and moving... [Sighs and cries] I don't know: It's to push something, to make it worse, in a way? It has a certain kind of perverted appeal to me.
Ring:
One time you were talking about bringing in six big shelf units and giving away your books. [Laughs]
Rethorst:
It would be great, but honey. You know?
Ring:
It's about pushing. Like, let's even push this further.
Rethorst:
Yeah. When I was in my twenties, people used to say that my work was really austere. I forget what I replied, but in my response was, like, "You ain't seen nothing yet. You're bored? You'll get bored-er." There's just some part of me that's like that.

208 East Broadway Part 4: SOLD (June 18) SOLD is an installation performance; audience members are welcome to come and go.
Rethorst:
I thought, I don't have to re-create or make something; maybe I'll juxtapose things like you juxtapose the stuff you bring back from your trip to Italy and your trip to the beach. They're in your living room, and they just take on relationships to each other. I had very particular, already-made things that I wanted to place in the space. [In SOLD] the objects in the room have been dispersed all over the place. Which is also like my life. I've got stuff in one country and stuff in another country and stuff in storage and stuff that I haven't seen in years. I will use my dining-room table as a projection surface, just because it's wood and it makes everything nostalgic, like sepia.
Ring:
The titles are mutated too; it's also the idea that the first time, 208 East Broadway was, here's my room. And it's starting to change, and the second time [in Part 2] you start to bring the layer of the church in, and now the furniture's continuing to move [in the church]. That was also something Susan talked about: how this is a collaboration with the space of the church, and that the next layer is to go into other areas of the church. The next address will be in Pennsylvania [where Rethorst is moving].
Rethorst:
I'm waking up with panic attacks. I was going to—if I cry, just ignore it—sell the place and then buy a multifamily in Brooklyn to get myself a rental income, but I would have to spend every single cent I have and borrow, so there's no cushion for even moving costs. What if anything goes wrong? I'm just freaked out. Today I said, I'm going to move to Philadelphia—no. I'll hate living there. It's complex. I don't hate it altogether, because it's an adventure, but I'm a very homebody person. I was down there teaching and I liked the community. The students who took my class and the people who came to my presentation were really interesting. It's smaller. [Smiles] But I can't have everything I want.

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