Nomie Lafrance

The White Box Project gets the crowd moving.

The White Box Project

The White Box Project Photograph: Nomie Lafrance

Nomie Lafrance is a site-specific choreographer with a mission: to create a performance that weaves the audience into the same space as her dancers. Just like that, the audience is the show. In The White Box Project, performed in the courtyard of the Black & White Gallery beginning Friday 9 (incidentally, Lafrance also presented Melt here), she challenges the separation of object and viewer. No two shows will be alike. Be prepared to move.

Have you been thinking about this piece for a while?
Yes. I'm using this as a work-in-progress for a larger project called "Choreography for Audiences." In that, we're going to have the audience perform as a large group. This piece is a little bit the opposite in the sense that the audience and the dancers will be in the same space—dancers emerge from within the audience. There's space for the audience to participate even though they're not obligated to—we're not going to tell them they have to.

That's good.
I don't like to tell people things—especially not during. Sometimes I give some instructions before a performance to just help with context, but in this one it's more like there's not going to be a difference between audience and performer. Dancers are going to be dressed in their regular clothes. There's no music. There's no lighting. It's very minimal. That's partly what I like about it, but it also makes it challenging. I did a week of rehearsal last week, so I do have a better sense of how the piece is going to work, but it's the kind of work that you really don't know about until you actually have the audience there. I want to keep it as flexible as possible because I want to have talks after each performance where the audience can really affect the direction of the piece; we're going to take in a lot of the feedback and have more rehearsals for the following week. We'll change the piece based on the feedback. There are three [performances] on three Saturdays, and there's going to be a talk after each one. I'm also working on organizing a blog where we're going to transcribe what's being said so that the conversation can evolve and it's not just, "How long did it take you to make this dance?"

Or "How do you choose your dancers?"
[Laughs] Exactly. I want to have an interesting conversation about how they felt in the performance, how challenged they were to participate or not, and what was their impulse? How did they react? If they were making this piece, what would they do? What would they change, and if they were to come back next week, how would they want it to be? I want it to evolve. If there are people out there who read the blog before they come, maybe they can ask deeper questions. It gives it a chance to be... A lot of these talk things are so superficial. They don't really get off the ground. And there's not actually a conversation, and that's what I'm hoping for in this format. A lot of people do these talks so that they can raise educational funds or whatever. It's a formal way to access the audience, but I'm into getting a real integration going where we're really surrendering to the feedback they're bringing. [Laughs] Which is going to be another layer of challenge because maybe I won't like it.

That's right.
And that is a little scary. At the same time, I want to listen. I will share my goals with them so that they understand and that will be part of the blog, and I'm also reaching out to some people to write about the process because I'm interested in a little bit more of that. I feel like sometimes we're intelligent with our bodies, but we dwell too much in that realm, and then we're leaving out the intellect a little bit.

As far as the performers are concerned?
Everybody. I want the discourse also to be on the public side, that it's not just a dance, but that there are different layers of conceptual elements. The vocabulary is simple. It's not really about the [dance] vocabulary. I'm using voice as sound and the sound of the body as a score. All of these things are a challenge for dancers. If I was working with these dancers all year, we would be developing that stuff, but it's a challenge to just start working in these different areas. I think they're doing pretty well; I'm giving them license to express themselves.

In what way?
I'm trying to stay away from words, so it's mostly syllables, and it has to do with expressing the movement rhythmically. It's basically like you're at a gallery opening, and there are people everywhere. There will be some volume changes in the crowd, but you, as an audience member, won't know where they're coming from because there are 20 dancers and maybe 50 [people] in the audience. The ratio is pretty interesting. With 20 people, you can take over the room, which is important. Performers, all of a sudden, start to talk louder, and then it goes down, down, down, down, down, so there's a sound environment as well. It's all vocal; nothing is recorded, and cues are happening from within the dancers. We're not using any technical anything. Choreographically, I always analyze space. I am looking at the white box in contrast to the black box; the white box, for me, is the gallery or the museum space, and it's meant to be a neutral canvas. And in the theater, the black box is the abstraction of space. I'm making a comment about how the white box is not a neutral space at all, but a very charged space that is kind of intimidating. That's where the public has an interaction with the art. A lot of times you are not necessarily aware of your body while you're watching an art piece. You're observing and on the outside of it. I'm basically creating a piece for that space that has no work on the wall. I want it to be something that emerges from inside the people who are there. I'm basically creating a piece for a space that has no work on the wall. The canvas is carved through where you are in space.

In real time?
Yes. At one point, we're going to open a channel or a space by some action, and that will become the performance space, and then all of a sudden, it will turn into the opposite. You never know where you're supposed to be or where you're going to end up. It plays with that idea of what is the performance space. I challenge it all the time. I tell the dancers to dress as if they were going to a gallery opening.

But what does that mean?
It could be anything! It doesn't matter. I don't really care. I tried it with all black, and I didn't like it. It was ridiculous. I feel like we have to be able to reach the unison some other way visually than with the clothes. And clothes work; colors are really strong, but I feel like we have to go to the next level and do it with our bodies and with our choreography. We're going to do a bag check for everyone; you'll have to move fast sometimes. It might get a little tight, but I think crowded is okay because you'll feel the carving that I'm talking about. You need to feel it. You need to feel like the space is really changing and affecting you, and what I hope for is that the audience has to start to make some decisions about how they're going to deal. You can't completely avoid it because you're being moved. You have to react. But it's not about being aggressive.

On the part of the performers to the audience?
Yeah. We're not going at you.

I know. I hate that. And we're also not going, "Come...." [Imploringly]. I told the dancers, "If I say to you, 'Hi, do you want to have sex with me?' You're going to say, 'Uh, no.' If you want to have sex with somebody, you have to be subtle about it. So if we're negotiating the audience's participation, and we want them to start jiving with us, then we can't go, 'Hi, come and do that with us!'

I don't know what you think about this, but I get really distracted by the people in the audience who really want to be in the show.
You know, there are people out there who are artists or whatever, and they always want to participate. There are a few nutcases that always see an opportunity to participate. There are also the people on the other side who are like, "I don't want to do anything." And then there are the somewhat more open and naive in between. I guess that's our [ideal] consumer. [Laughs]

So the audience participates in terms of moving. Do people actually dance?
Well, they can. There are moments where it's obvious—just like walking back and forth, for example. Anyone can do that as long as they walk in the path that everybody else is walking in. Nobody will know that you aren't a performer. But it needs to stay that way; it's not like they're making the choreography. There's a part where we walk backward and say: "Right...left, right. Right...left, right." We walk on those particular rhythms and then add another layer with another group that will do right, left, right on a different beat. It gets difficult. This is the more actively participating, as opposed to reacting to what's going on. With that, you have no choice because you get displaced. But there are moments when we're really working on who is watching: In that case, all of a sudden, the group of dancers are now the "audience" and they're watching. In that moment you might not want to be looked at, so there are decisions that you have to make. Maybe you don't want to cooperate or to move out of the way. You stay in the middle and people are just passing, and all of those things will affect how the piece gets carved. I guess what I'm hoping for is a feeling of cooperation and unison. A feeling of oneness in the room. It's very subtle. Let's say someone was on the balcony looking down: They may think that the motion was choreographed for everyone there. That's the possibility; crowds are different, and at one point you're going to get a good combination of people that will make a really interesting effect, and even if they don't start doing the moves with us, it's more about the feeling of circulation that becomes smooth. Then everything becomes seamless. So the audience is choreographed in that sense.

How long is it?
It's about 30 minutes. I like to keep it short. Certain things are time based; you need time to let it happen and the longer you stick with it, the more it'll be impactful. You can go in the direction of quantity and change, change, change, change, and the surprise is always like new, new, new, and that's one rhythm, but then there's also the other rhythm, which is the longer you sit in this, the deeper you get. So I'm trying to combine the two. I think the audience needs to not just be in a fast-paced situation, but also be in real time—you need to feel, at one point, annoyed that this is slow. Not annoyed maybe, but aware or uncomfortable or challenged by it.

The piece is being performed in the courtyard, so it's not that you're in the gallery space, right?
Exactly. The walls are painted cinder blocks, and I'm actually debating whether I'm going to paint them white, but it's not about literal white walls, it's more about the contained space. I was going to do this at the New Museum at first. We have our way of operating, and we sell tickets; the economics of doing it at the New Museum are not good. They can't afford the fee that I would charge, and they can't give us box office. I have to pay dancers. I'm a choreographer, and dancers are my priority, and you can't do these things for a small fee. I've developed a system that works for us economically, and sometimes people, like at Black & White, are more flexible. When I'm over there, I do feel like I'm in an enclosed space, and it's kind of cool that there's no ceiling. There is a back wall, but it has a sliding door. You feel like you're in a box.

Why do you want feedback at this point in your career?
[Laughs] I want feedback because this is a collaborative process with the audience during and after the show. Sometimes you want people to participate but you don't give them a chance to express themselves and talk, and people like to have a say. It's like you participate, and then, "Okay, thank you—bye." And the piece is so open in that way, so it sort of leads to, "Oh, I had this experience...." Some of my audience is artists, but some of it is also people being introduced to dance for the first time; it's part of my thing of bringing more people into the modern-dance scene. My hope is that they see this and it opens them up to seeing other dance as well. The people who have seen a lot of interactive things will have a different take on it because they're more educated. So it's not feedback in terms of, is this good? I want to know what your experience is and I want to collaborate with you in making it, so there's a little bit of surrender. I think it's a show that has more value in that than in Rapture, which was a real show-off. This is not a show-off. It's different. It's more like a collaborative kind of process, and that's where its value is. This is challenging as I said. I admitted that to the dancers: I put these ideas forward before I started working on the piece, so to actually do it is different from thinking about it conceptually. I'm setting this up in a short time.

How much?
Two weeks of rehearsal. It's meant to be raw. We make it, then we change it. It's flexible. It's like anything with unison though: It has to be rehearsed to work well. I've been talking to the dancers about three principle points that are interesting to me in this work. One is a technique that I'm developing, which is an approach to walking and running that is still human. It's not stylized like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Paul Taylor. It's not a stage run, but a real run that looks like somebody racing where you use your body at the maximum efficiency. It's also trying to stay with the walk and the body that you have. Everybody's structured differently, but nobody walks like this. [She walks while moving the same arm with the same leg.] You're supposed to alternate arms and legs. And your arms should face your body. Heel first. It's also about having a certain presence as you walk and you're not... [She slumps over.] It's the idea that you use your technical knowledge, but you are producing something that looks extremely natural and strong. So the present body is the first thing. The second is looking: I'm interested in a very engaged gaze, not a general gaze. And I actually direct dancers to look at individuals—to have an experience when they look at people and to share something with them. The third is rhythm, which is a new one for me. It's natural, but I hadn't developed any techniques around that and I realize through this work that it's a very weak point. Dancers dance to music: Okay, fine, you count the music. But to have rhythm within your body and maintain that even against others, like a musician would do in a way—that's a little more challenging. So we are working on a rhythm and now we are musicians in that sense. To me, a strong dancer has a really strong rhythm. Even though you're dancing on the music a lot of times, you should control the music when you dance. You should almost be ahead of the music because then you can hit very subtle subcounts.

At the start, you said this is part of "Choreography for Audiences." Could you talk about that?
This project is something I've been working on for a long time, but I haven't made that much progress. I get caught up in the day-to-day of everything. It came out of the idea that I'm questioning the boundaries of dance. Someone said to me once that when you watch dance, you get really tired because you reproduce all the movement in time in order to see it. To understand movement, it's like your body kinetically sends messages from your brain to your body to reproduce these movements. My main question is: Is dance more interesting to do than it is to watch? I go back to all different kinds of dance that are really made to be done by the community or as a group, and there's a very important part of the dance process that is really community based, from folk dance to African dance and square dancing. And we learn dance in a dance class with a group of people—it's always a group thing. The process of making dance is very group oriented, and the dancers participate a lot in making the work. And then I look at other physical things like sports and I say, "Why are they filling up a stadium with people to go see sports, and they're not doing that with dance?" I believe that a big part of the interest in sports is physical activity and virtuosity. It's very exciting. The counterpoint to that is association to team. So this work borrows from all of these different areas and it also questions the place of dance in society, and so I wanted to make a work that was really of scale, so it would invite a lot of people to dance. It's going to be a big participatory event that has different teams, and the goal is for them to both compete and cooperate in creating certain affects together, and there are going to be rules, and it's very much based in improvisation. Nobody can come to the show unless they participate. I'm thinking of ideas that are more like systems, more like what maybe John Cage would have done: Systems of words that create certain results. By following rules, you achieve certain results, and then there are other things that can be added to that and there are different teams doing different things that interact. And that creates different levels of difficulty, and the teams work together until they achieve another thing. You could be eliminated or punished, and your team can win or lose, but eventually it's about cooperation versus competition: That's the philosophy around it. It's a reflection on our society and how we work together. It's a reflection on the altruistic or self-serving minds and how we fight that within ourselves, but it goes all the way back to the molecular level that we are made in such a way that we do both all the time in order to survive. We need to cooperate and we need to compete to stay alive.

The White Box Project is at the Black & White Gallery Fri 9—Sept 24.

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