Not just another Vienna waltz

Melanie Maar prepares for a journey into wilderness.

DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS Melanie Maar explores Spaces and Bones.

DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS Melanie Maar explores Spaces and Bones. Photograph: Verena Kurz

It's fitting that Melanie Maar's Spaces and Bones will be unveiled at a time when, traditionally, a chill hits the air. The production, a collaboration with artist-musician Kenta Nagai, explores certain mystical sides of Japanese and Austrian cultures, while evoking a strong sense of wilderness. (In it, Nagai plays the samisen, a traditional Japanese instrument, and Maar performs her version of a deer dance.) Spaces and Bones marks the continuation of their ongoing partnership; in this case, the pair explore their training in dance and music, framing the body as an instrument. Maar, who hails from Vienna, where she studied ballet and flamenco at her mother's dance studio, spoke about the new work in her Bedford-Stuyvesant loft.

Why were you attracted to the Chocolate Factory?
It's a smaller organization. It's artist-oriented. After [my last piece at] Dance Theater Workshop, it was an instant feeling that the Chocolate Factory was where the next piece needed to happen. DTW showed me what it means to put on a bigger production and my next instinct was, I want to go back to something more essential, I want to find out something about what it is that I've cultivated. And that was the collaboration I had with Kenta. Instead of, "I've made it a medium production, now I want to make a bigger production," I thought, It needs to be in a smaller space. I have to say, the Chocolate Factory deserves any airtime they can get about how they're for artists—it's really true. I have rarely ever gotten a no to any suggestion or question I've asked.

What is an example?
Without giving too much away, I wanted to hang a light coming from the outside of the space onto the stage. The piece is, in some ways, wilderness-oriented, so I wanted to have some moonlight, but to get behind the building is a huge deal. Either you climb out through the basement window or you have to ask the neighbors, and [artistic director Brian Rogers and executive director Sheila Lewandowski] were like, "Sure, let's try it." We expect blocks. Most artists would expect a block from an organization.

What were your ideas for the piece?
Strangely, Kenta and I have had similar developments. I'm from Austria, and he's from Japan. When I asked him to do this collaboration, he said yes, and then we didn't speak for a while, but independently went into directions of opening ourselves to our cultural backgrounds. For me, that included my training and this feeling of Viennese-ness.

In what way?
Thinking about the turn of the [last] century, I considered a stark, dark time that I've never experienced, but that's also somewhat glamorous and that also includes nature. I was finished with rejecting anything: not the training that I had in ballet, not the training that I had in flamenco, not the training I had as a contemporary dancer. I taught hip-hop when I was a teenager. My first job was in an African-Brazilian dance company, and I was always feeling like I was suffering a little bit from doing so many things and not being an expert in anything, but all of a sudden—so much later—I realized how all this creates a space. It was a feeling of opening myself up to my own potential of movement and realizing that, as esoteric as it sounds, there is a collective movement potential. Part of the dance has the spirit of a deer. It just came to me: I had a vision of me and a deer, and it became a guiding spirit of the piece.

What do you mean by a vision?
My work usually starts with an image, so the deer was the vision. Part of the actual dance is that I'm dancing, I'm naked, and I have deer horns in my hands. The antlers came from a fake deer but they look very real. I got it from [choreographer] Jonah Bokaer, who threw it out—you plug it in and it starts to sing country songs. [Her eyes widen in disbelief.] It's the weirdest thing. This is what I mean about Viennese. There's an oddness. Here's this nonthreatening animal, and you plug it in and it starts to move and sing country songs. There is a dichotomy. So I sawed the antlers off, and I hold them in my hands. I knew in rehearsal that my clothes had to come off. I had the antlers in my hands and started a deer dance. I'm not becoming a deer; it's evoking something rather than representing something. But to hold antlers is strong. It's essential. It's about spaces and bones. It's my own bones or animal bones or collective bones—it's something that we always carry with us, and the space always puts it into cultural context.

Does your deer dance refer to anything?
When I was doing the deer dance at Judson as a preparation for the piece, a Mexican choreographer named Isabel Nares came up to me and asked, "Did you study the Danza de Venado?" I said, "What is that?" and she said, "It's the deer dance—they do it in the north of Mexico, only men, for religious purposes." I looked it up on YouTube, and it made me feel so emotional because there are many similarities to my deer dance. I'm glad I didn't see it before I made it and that only men perform it because a lot of the piece is about playing around with male and femaleness. I think Kenta and I are transforming a lot between male and female energy and that our roles are not so set. So to know that the deer dance is done by men in the north of Mexico gave me a big boost, and it also made me feel like there is something—an access to a movement potential that is not just what I have learned and what I've been exposed to. There is something recognizable and a tendency that maybe we all have as dancers, no matter what kind of dance you are trained in.

Kenta usually plays the electric guitar, but in Spaces and Bones, he plays a samisen. How does that shift things?
Electric guitar is so much about Kenta moving; it was all about our kinetic connection and my feeling that he is a dancer. I'm attracted to our collaboration because he is so special in his kinetic awareness. That's why I'm making this piece with him; it doesn't come from that dancer-musician place, it comes from, This is an amazing performer. I want to find the connection in performance that is beyond our crafts. We are meeting as a dancer and a musician, but we're changing and playing with these assumptions or preset roles that we come in with. I am not thinking of myself as a dancer necessarily—I'm thinking of myself as a performer who's moving and my body is an instrument. Kenta has similar ideas about his performance.

How so?
He is really conscious of his performance and of the context. Something that I'm really aware of as I'm dancing, performing and choreographing is that I really like the challenge of being in the piece—being a performer and having to look at the work from the outside as a choreographer. I feel that the context is also something that Kenta is very aware of. It's a little bit like a meditation or Buddhist practice where you're asked to observe yourself and experience at the same time until there is no separation. It's crazy, frustrating and so interesting, and the more aware I am that they are separate roles, the clearer it's becoming to me.

Do you and Kenta work together or separately?
Kenta and his wife and son live in Princeton, so it's kind of expensive to have regular rehearsals in the city. This piece came about through residencies. And other than that it's a collaboration over years—I consider all the time we've rehearsed together as part of the cultivation of this piece. But the actual ideas we're working with now started at a residency at ImPulsTanz last summer.

So you were in Vienna for the festival?
It was great. This is my home but it's also the center of the dance world for a couple of weeks. There were two places we could choose to rehearse in; one was the opera building with fancy ballet studios and the other was part of the music university—it was the old building of anatomy where they used to dissect animals. It had a concrete floor like the Chocolate Factory and this oddness—there were animal spirits. The whole piece came together in certain ways. Kenta played the shamisen. It's a very difficult practice because you sit on your knees the whole time. He is so embodied in the practice of playing that instrument because it's so painful. After 30 minutes of practicing, he has to crawl out of it. The shamisen is an instrument that kind of works against the body and the body has to be beat into submission to play it. Hello—I know this idea of making the body fit from my whole life as a dancer! This kind of physicality that he is aware of as he plays is very special—it's a suffering, maybe?

What is your studio process?
We come into the same room and practice separately for about three hours; we hear each other and see each other but we work separately and then we come together and have a performative run. Then we talk about it. That has remained the process the whole time; I explain stuff to him but we don't talk about it in depth. We bring it to the studio and it seems to magically find its way to fit, instead of sitting there from a more conceptual place of, How do cultural influences fit together? It's not like that. It's, You practice yours, I practice mine; they seem to be completely different, and then we do it together and there is a real connection. And the deer! He has been thinking of samurai culture. All the samurai hats have horns on their head, and that's way before he knew what I was doing with my horns. [Laughs]

So there are connections that you didn't plan?
Yes. I can control the making of a piece only so far and I'm learning to trust it and to see what happens, because performance is like a practice of sustained attention, right? That's what we can give to the audience in the best-case scenario.

The piece is not really improvised, but isn't there an aspect of that?
Yes. If you would come again, you would see the same dance, but it changes within its possibilities, structure, atmosphere and timing. It's very set in the structure of it, but Kenta and I want to be able to listen and respond, and in order to communicate onstage, I need space. I have a lot of freedom to respond in the way that maybe a flamenco dancer would respond to a musician. Kenta and I are having an active conversation—even a challenging, sometimes feisty conversation. There has to be a space for an emotional and open ear in order to bring out the feeling in the moment. It's thrilling to have that space because it's completely unknown in a way. That is that moment when I am really the performer and not, at the same time, aware of the context. It makes me completely present, because I have to listen.

Is that a departure for you?
Well, it feels so familiar to me because I grew up with it. This idea of conversing with a musician feels more like a return than a departure. Maybe this whole piece is a return: I'm returning to things that have meaning to me and not caring how it feels in the bigger scheme of dance context. I don't care anymore if it fits into now or the scene that I'm springing out of. I'm just listening to what has meaning to me. And so many things that have meaning to me are more about a recognition; recognizing something about my cultural background, recognizing something about how I do really want to move and how I do have a trained body and that I want to bring craft with me onto the stage. I do care about this line between entertaining and having an internal experience. How I can stay truthful to have both? We want to give our all. But I don't want to lose the meaning that it has for myself, and that's hugely challenging, but that's totally a return something that I have in my everyday life. Did I mention my mama? I always have to mention my mama. Especially because of the idea of returning—my mother is a dancer and she teaches flamenco, and when I'm returning to things that have meaning, the influence I had growing up as a child of a dancer has a huge meaning in my life. That's important.

How do you conjure old Vienna?
Old Vienna is vast. There's my own personal history with the city as a young person, and then there's Vienna as a historical idea in my mind. There's a part of the piece where I'm using text from a TV series that I grew up with. Very slang. I love to speak in Viennese slang; it's not about the meaning of the words. It's the meaning in the physicality that hopefully translates into meaning as you watch it. I've had such resistance to Vienna in a lot of ways. I'm not, Oh, Vienna! The Sound of Music! I've never seen it. Vienna is the speaking deer. Now I have to pull it out. When I plugged it in and it started speaking, that's what it meant to me—eerie, underneath, deep and connected to humanity and the animalness.

You mentioned that you had to perform naked while dancing with the antlers. Why?
Thank God you asked me, because it's the only time in my career that I'm not second-questioning whether I should be naked or not. It's so freeing. The moment I took off my clothes, it was clear that that's where the power was in the body. I strip myself of as much cultural context as possible, and it can be from any time. Only our naked bodies are from no time. The antlers in my hands give me meaning that goes beyond my flesh. Without the antlers, I wouldn't be naked. I'm only naked because the antlers transform me.

Melanie Maar is at the Chocolate Factory Theater Wed 1--Dec 4.

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