Christine Elmo

She draws, she writes, she moves, and now---at the Chocolate Factory---she's pointing her toes.

Photographer: Troye Owens

You just need to glance at the title of Christine Elmo's new work—Empress, Empress fall down your skirt is too short—to realize that she has a way with words. (Her lively blog even includes the category "a collection of words that I like.") For Elmo's new production, which will be performed at the Chocolate Factory beginning Wednesday 1, she was inspired by colors; this led her to create more than 50 drawings, which then led to a dance. She's keeping much of the nitty-gritty under wraps—she won't reveal, for instance, how many dancers are in it—but there are clues that this will be a stretch: "I wanted to point my feet, and this was foreign, strange and strangely enjoyable." Elmo spoke about Empress in Chelsea.

When did you start dancing?
I was three in Lexington, Kentucky. I was in a ballet, tap and jazz school for a year and then my mother was kind of—I don't know how she would say it, but I think she was turned off by the whole thing and put me into a ballet school. I started studying creative dance at first and then ballet nonstop. I went to Hartford Ballet for a two summers. I also went to Nutmeg [Conservatory for the Arts] and to Walnut Hill for a summer.

So you were on that ballet track?
Yeah. That was my intention in going to [Purchase College] SUNY. I didn't know a lot heading up to SUNY.

Had you studied much modern dance?
Just the little bit that I had gotten from the electives at Hartford Ballet and kind of at Walnut Hill. I went to a performing-arts school from fourth [grade] through high school and started the program as a ballet major; after school, I would go to ballet class. In middle school [sixth and seventh grade] I changed my major to creative writing and then I went back to dance, but into contemporary. So I was studying Horton [technique].

So, SUNY. What was that like? Did you meet Neil Greenberg there?
Yeah. [Laughs] You first said, what was that like? It was horrible. Did you meet Neil? [Smiles] I met Neil my sophomore year. Everyone was telling me to take his class, and I took it for a semester, and I was like, What the hell is this? I don't get this, I don't like this. I was falling asleep in class, but then I just ended up signing up again. I also ended up with these crazy injuries in my legs, so I spent two weeks sitting in all my classes. I sat in Neil's stretch class, which I think he thought was hilarious—that I was going to sit while they sat on the floor and stretched—but that was a big moment for me. I was suddenly hearing what he was saying without having to put it into my body at the same time. I was a bit of an outcast at SUNY and started taking his composition class, and he was supportive of what I was making. We had to make a solo. He does these exercises where you improvise for a long time with a viewer and then a viewer picks three movements and then you take those three movements and make something. I ended up making a solo where I was running back and forth in the space. I kept going to the studio late at night trying to put this together, and this was the only thing that was happening. I showed it to a friend and I don't know if she was angry, but she said, "You're crazy. I can't believe you're going to show this." I did it, and Neil was supportive, so that was cool. And then I just started going to the city on the weekends to see things. I was hanging out at the library.

Were you watching dances on tape at the Performing Arts Library?
I don't remember watching stuff on tape. I went and listened to Neil's interview. It's like nine hours long.

Is that part of the Oral History Project?
Yeah. People didn't take Neil seriously. I don't think I took Neil seriously until hearing that interview. But things started connecting. Freshmen year, I could come in with other women and see things at City Center, but then I started coming by myself. The first thing I saw was Reggie Wilson. That was neato. I slept a lot during those shows. At first, I couldn't figure out what was going on; then I think it was some sort of overload. Between junior and senior years, I stayed in the city for the summer and ended up volunteering 40 hours a week at the performing arts library. I was helping to organize the collection of Richard Bull. That winter before I had just discovered who Trisha Brown was because I went to a P.A.R.T.S. audition. I kind of stumbled into it and Vicky Shick was there. I was like, Who's this woman? That led to Trisha Brown, and I took a workshop and ended up doing work study [at the Trisha Brown Dance Company] for a couple of years. I was studio manager, so I would sit in the office, which I kind of loved because [then-director of education] Laura Hymers would let me watch videos. I was just around that information: seeing the people and the faces. It was a nice time.

It was as if you were experiencing a dual education.
Yes. It was like a relief to what was happening at SUNY.

Was it hard to stick with SUNY?
Yes and no. If I were more rebellious than I am, I wouldn't have. I went to ACA [Atlanta Center for the Arts] senior year because I commissioned Douglas Dunn to make my thesis solo for my senior project. I went down there to hang out with him, and he worked on the piece. I loved it down there. The people at ACA were really supportive about me staying there and finishing up the program, and SUNY was like, there's no way. If you stay, we won't give you your degree basically. I guess I see the point. So, SUNY. Yeah.

What year did you graduate?
'05. I lived here for two weeks and then I went to Europe for five months. It's kind of funny. I was living with my ballet teacher from Lexington; she now lives in this small village near Gatwick with her husband, and they have nine acres of land, and I stayed there for six weeks. I took classes a little bit with Siobhan Davies's company and then I went to this amazing workshop on the west coast of England and studied with Helen Poynor. It was me and nine other women. I was 20; the other younger woman was 30 and she ended up dropping out, and the other women were much older. I remember it being for nine hours a day, but maybe it was only six. We were outside on the bluffs, roaming around this land. Helen had worked with Anna Halprin. We didn't work with RSVP cycles [a structure, created by Anna and Lawrence Halprin, used for designing and scoring movement themes] at first. We were working with other scores basically, spending an hour in a nook that we found on a bluff doing whatever we wanted—just to get familiar with the space. They were long days. We were all very isolated and unknown to each other and eating lentils and cheese, getting naked and rolling around in the dirt. It was kind of like that sort of situation. And then she started introducing the RSVP cycle. That was neat. And then I left England.

Because Danny Lepkoff was teaching a workshop in Cologne, Germany. I flew there and took a workshop for a week. That was really difficult. The first couple of nights I slept in the studio, but that was getting too hard so I ended up staying on a commune where Danny was staying with other people taking the workshop and [I experienced] more isolation...I got really angry at Danny at the end of the workshop. We were rolling around. We pushed a chair for two hours one day and I was like, What the hell is this? [Laughs] Then I went to Vienna, crashed on a friend's couch—she was doing ImPulsTanz [the Vienna International Dance Festival]. I went to see Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Desh and I hated it. I was so angry. I was disappointed because when I'd seen Rain at BAM, it was just like [Makes a happy, choking sound]. And then I was [in Vienna] in this audience and people were screaming with glee and the woman sitting next to me was I decided I was going to stop dancing. I had a fantasy that I would become a fat farmer and have kids.

That's really funny.
There are so many museums in Vienna that I spent every day in a museum. I had an amazing two weeks. I would wake up and go into town and go to a museum for a couple of hours and then buy a bunch of cheese and chocolate and meat and eat. Take a nap in the park and then go back to the museum. Eat ice cream. That was just great, being in those museums. Then I went to Hungary and hung out with Vicky Shick. She was teaching; before I left New York, she told me she was going to be teaching there and I said, "I'll come." I don't think she knew I was going to actually show up. Then I went to Prague.

What were you doing there?
My boyfriend at the time had joined me for Hungary and Prague and we just were hanging out. I went back to Austria, to Salzburg and to Graz. Then I headed to Italy and was in Venice running around. Went to Florence and Greece and then to Sicily, which was neat because my family is from Sicily. I went to a tiny village where my great-grandmother was born. The houses are almost built into the ground and they're all uneven and a lot of the village is emptied out—there's not anything to do there. There were fig trees everywhere. I was just walking around eating figs off the tree. Went to Berlin for a few days and then headed back to New York and I've pretty much been here. I did travel again two summers ago—I went to Ukraine and Turkey.

Were you making dances during that period?
Not during those five months. I was writing. I think I realized at that time that dance was something that was taking me through places, but I wasn't making anything. When I when to Ukraine and Turkey, I suddenly decided that I was going to video record myself dancing. I danced in a museum in Kiev. And in the hostel. I wasn't really making; I was just collecting. I would just show those tapes as products. This happens: I'll do things for the process of making a big product but then there are all these little products—they're process for the big product, but they're also products on their own.

Can you talk about this piece?
I can try. There are things I don't want to reveal.

What was your initial idea?
I don't know if I knew. It was more that I was seeing colors I was really attracted to and then I was questioning the scenarios where these colors were showing up. It started with a timeline. I have never been in the position of having to make something happen because there is a due date. I had a lot of anxiety of doing a collaboration with a place that institutionalizes what I'm making. For me, It makes for an immediate battle. How do I create something in my space and then put it into their space with it continuing to be what I had originally created? It's not possible with dance. The dance has to go through so many conversations and by the time I put it into the theater, it has been manipulated to fit the criteria of the institution. It's not like a painting where you paint the canvas and put it on the wall. [At first] I didn't rent studio space, but I needed to be dancing, so every day for up to an hour I would put on pop music, really loud, and dance. Though my apartment is larger than four by four, I only used about that much space to move. The limitation made the movement really spastic. I never warmed up or stretched, which meant that I was sore the next day or had whiplash, but I would just re-enter the dance with that as a limitation until a couple of days passed and the cycle of soreness did or did not repeat itself.

What were the scenarios where colors were showing up?
Movies. The colors in the film Happiness. The colors in Do the Right Thing. The colors in Barbara Loden's Wanda. They either got brighter or more subdued. The contrasting colors in the film Splendor in the Grass. I was just curious about the source of dynamics that were playing between men and women in those films. Why those colors with those dynamics and with that type of dialogue? [Dancer] Paige Martin told me to watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She said she thought I would like it. I found it very slow and frustrating and fascinating. I was interested in Mary Hartman. In a way, I thought she was kind of horrible. Who was she? Why did she respond to people like that? And then I stuck myself into the question: Why am I attracted to the colors that this woman is surrounded by? I started wondering about the colors I was attracted to in the films; they were bright colors that were contrasted by subdued colors and I was noticing them in situations where men and women, even if they were physically together, were never able to meet each other. Without being direct, the men in these situations felt a hatred toward women. I hated that the women in these films were so pathetic and surrendering to men. Do the Right Thing is something else. I don't know what it means to be African-American, but I was attracted to the saturation and brilliance of certain colors—most specifically, the red brick wall that the three men sit in front of under the sun. I think I'm trying to embody the colors so that the dance gives the same energy.

Why did you start making drawings as part of your process?
At first I called them color studies. They just happened because I had to start this piece. I don't like to go into dance studios. I don't like to be near or feel Marley. I don't like to see the mirror. It was feeling like, Can I afford space? No, I can't right now. What am I doing? What do I want to do? I had a little table set up in the corner of my bedroom. I had all these supplies. In addition to coming into the city and seeing things over time, I discovered Pearl Paint and I fell in love immediately. I would buy pencils or charcoal and stuff accumulated. I just needed to draw something, so I just started. Then for some reason I started tearing the paper and gluing it back together. There was an explosion of color—for me. I was trying to get the colors I was attracted to out onto the paper. Late-night experiments led to me ripping the paper and then putting it back together. There was a marriage between color and structure that was impulsive. Then I went to see early drawings by Hannah Wilke, and that led to even more color. Something about her drawings freed me and made me not be so abstract with what I was creating. Like drawing a picture that maybe told a story, or hinted at one at least. The drawings got bigger. I spent more time looking at the structures I drew before coloring in. I decided it was some sort of collaboration between my inside and outside. And counter to all of the drawing, I wanted to make a dance and to get the energy I was feeling in the colors into the dance so that the viewer felt the energy of those colors. I don't know if this worked. This could be a huge mess, honestly. There were a lot of ideas coming from a lot of different angles and when I took on this show, I thought I was going to be at the place I was last June right now—mentally. I'm not. That was a two-year process. I'm definitely showing a product, but this is fresh.

It's not clear?
I'm hesitant to say that I know certain things. I'm working with the color, I'm working with the movement. The movement started to change for me—I got a studio for myself, and I suddenly started pointing my feet. It seems so trivial, but it was kind of huge that I was lying on the ground and actually extending my toes and wanting to do that and feeling like I could come back and do it the next day. Not dreading it or feeling any sort of rebellion toward it.

It just felt natural?
Yeah. I told this to a friend and she said, "You have all this space to yourself so you wanted to extend through it." There was the movement, the colors and then there were a couple of things lingering from the other piece—just scores that I used.

Like what?
I have this attraction to pop music: I both love it and can absolutely not stand it. Instead of censoring, I've just been using it. I use something with a heavy, invasive beat—pretty monotone—to dance to the beat and then off the beat of the music and then fluctuate between those scores when listening to the music. In regard to the quality of the movement, I spent a lot of time in the studio, alone, thinking about death. Where does this dance go? How will it be remembered? As an attempt to save it, I might have unconsciously started to make it more sculpture-esque because it allowed for a certain clarity. I was trying to imprint my movement into the air. I am hoping that that clarity remains in the minds of those who view it. The idea about making movement last in viewer's body came to me when I was reading some Flannery O'Connor. I love Flannery O'Connor and the sort of thickness her stories perpetuate. They give me similar feelings as the bright colors I am attracted to in the movies; one day after reading one of her stories I was at brunch. I got up to go to the bathroom and on the way back to the table, I had a memory surge itself through my body that stopped my walk. Inside my body, I felt the air, I saw the colors and architectures, I knew it was the early 20th century; I was left confused for 20 seconds. What the hell was that? For a minute, I was really feeling that I had physically experienced this place and that I was remembering, and then I realized it was my embodiment of O'Connor's story. I thought, Shit, can dance do that? I want my dance to do that. One other thing about the change in [my] movement is that in the fall I read Danielle Goldman's book, I Want to Be Ready. I took so much from that book, but the biggest thing was the awareness she brought around the fact that Judson was not the only thing going on. I know this. I hear people talk about this, but for whatever reason I have been fixated on Judson. Her book popped a sort of imaginary balloon I was holding in my head about how I was relating to dance. So I changed my mind and started pointing my feet and jumping.

How many dancers are you working with?
I'm not announcing it.

I know you were looking for dancers to go on pointe. Are you working with pointework?
No. It just didn't happen. I don't know if I wanted it. It wasn't so much that I wanted it—well, maybe in part—but there's a certain sort of way of holding the body with those shoes and I am interested in having that body, at least right now. Another reason is that I didn't find what I was looking for in the audition I held, and I needed to get going, so I just made a decision to not include pointe shoes, but maybe at another time I will. Something about making this piece just made me think about the New York State Theater [now, renamed David H. Koch Theater]. I like that place. I feel like it's bad to say that.

Why does that still happen?
I don't know. Because we categorize ourselves. Anyhow, there is something about having that theater in my mind—I like that theater. I like going up there and watching those people perform. I want to put something there. I just think it would be neat to figure out how to do that without compromising what I'm doing.

So you're thinking about this dance in terms of where it could be seen: a gallery, a museum, the New York State Theater.
Yeah. I'm thinking about those categories and my attraction to those places and not wanting to limit the work in where it can go. I make every piece specific to the place where it's put in, but I think that the structure is mobile enough to be put in any of these places.

Did you pursue the Chocolate Factory?
Not really, but I like that space. It's kind of limitless in a way; it can be turned into a theater, but it still has the essence of a gallery with its whiteness and rawness. I'm thinking about how narrative can be interwoven into structure. When you see a painting, you get the beginning, middle and end all at once; when I'm making a dance, I know I'm making [it] to an end and realizing that makes me wonder how narrative can not be in a dance—maybe not so conventionally or bluntly or once-upon-a-time, but you are seeing a story of some sort. I just wanted to be honest with myself about that. It exists. It's coming from my body. It cannot leave my body. It becomes very personal. In the way that I have made this piece—because of the way I'm using control—it's a self-help book.

Wed 1—June 4.

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