Director Brian Rogers and dancer Madeline Best talk about Hot Box

Director Brian Rogers and dancer Madeline Best discuss Hot Box, a new piece for the Chocolate Factory

Brian Rogers

Brian Rogers Photograph: Madeline Best

Director Brian Rogers and dancer Madeline Best join forces in Hot Box, a new work to open at the Chocolate Factory that is driven by authenticy, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and exhaustion. In the work, a companion piece to Selective Memory, Brian Rogers and Madeline Best get drunk, perform exercises and sweat copiously. Hot Box is part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s excellent Crossing the Line festival. 

In Hot Box, director Brian Rogers is so intent on being authentic that he’s created a backstage task that sounds sort of fun: getting drunk. Of course, such a duty isn’t about pleasure; it serves a purpose. In Hot Box, which unfolds in the basement space of his Chocolate Factory theater, Rogers and dancer Madeline Best, also the production’s director of photography, are inspired by physical and emotional exhaustion—similar to what actors experienced in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. It will be loud, it will be dark, and it will be boozy. Following a strict exercise routine, Rogers and Best plan on working up a sweat. Part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, Hot Box is a companion piece to Rogers’s Selective Memory; using live performance and video, the pair attempt to locate stillness within chaos.

Time Out New York: How did this project begin?
Brian Rogers:
It’s really related to Selective Memory. I felt like we were starting to find something in the technical aspect of the video. And then when I was hunting around for some way into it, I remembered Apocalypse Now, which I’ve watched 100 times probably. I was watching the Werner Herzog documentary about Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend, and it struck me—the really ridiculous idea that if you want to make a film about going into the jungle and going crazy, the only way to do that is to actually go into the jungle and go crazy. It stuck with me: We need to play with this idea of authenticity; obviously, we’re not going to go to the jungle or actually go crazy. The pieces that I make don’t have that narrative thing going on in them, but I wanted to set up a circumstance where we would have to respond to this idea of authenticity, partially because I’m performing in this piece, and I’m not really a performer. We spent a lot of time watching those films over and over again, developing a visual palette.
Madeline Best: It has been really interesting for me trying to deal with it, because those are all very male, masculine images, and if you put me in a similar aesthetic environment, I look hysterical or like a victim. That’s not what we’re interested in, so the thing is much more heavily weighted toward Brian.
Brian Rogers: In the last show, there was a response to it that I didn’t expect. I should have because it seems sort of obvious, but so many people brought up that clichéd male-gaze thing, because I stare at Madeline’s face.
Madeline Best: Which is funny though, because I crafted all of the visual images of myself in that piece. I fabricated a male gaze on myself.
Brian Rogers: But because I was in that piece watching… we wanted to neuter that. There’s a thing that happens when you put an image and cut to another and another: The audience is going to create a narrative on their own. Even if we don’t give the audience any information or any real visual content, people will fill in all of these gaps and invent stories for themselves. I’m really interested in staying with an image long enough so that stuff kind of falls away, and you just see the image for what it is. It still has the visual signifiers of narrative, but the viewer hopefully stops being concerned about what the image means or how it relates to another image.

Time Out New York: So do you linger on the images for a longer period of time? 
Brian Rogers:
Madeline Best: Or we use a lot of repetition. The last piece was very much linger longer, and this one is—
Brian Rogers: …sort of more subliminally fast.

Time Out New York: So fast that you don’t have time to process it in that narrative way?
Brian Rogers:
Yeah. And the image keeps coming back. Even though there’s a lot of really meticulous planning in the images and a lot of motion in the way the cameras work, it just becomes slight variations on the same images over and over and over again. It’s not that we’re really looking at too many different kinds of things—just faces. But it’s about wanting people to watch it. I was surprised when people had that response [to Selective Memory] because it felt like a 1980s way of looking and the feminist politics of a man to be doing that…
Madeline Best: I think part of what we had done with the visuals was setting that up in a way. It was very much an extended study.
Brian Rogers: That’s why [the reaction] shouldn’t have surprised me. It relates to the films of that period, which were really about an almost chauvinistic looking at the female almost as a classical subject. In making this one, it became clear that we had to figure out some way to not emphasize the maleness.
Madeline Best: Or to let it be.
Brian Rogers: It’s neutralizing it or being more conscious of how people look at that.
Madeline Best: I think the relationship is different. It’s much more something that we’re both in; you aren’t separated. There’s not that visual inside-outside eye that everybody is seeing.
Brian Rogers: In this piece, everybody—even the spectators—are more in it.
Madeline Best: And my role is yelling at you about what happens next.
Brian Rogers: Yeah, which means we’re going to get a lot of comments about why is the female yelling at Brian all the time?

Time Out New York: After he stared at her.
Brian Rogers:
[Laughs] After he stared at her! And my default, if you see me on camera, is that I do look very menacing. There is work that happens in me becoming more conscious about how my face looks. The drinking has a lot to do with me being less …

Time Out New York: You’re more relaxed?
Brian Rogers:
Yeah. But I still look like a rapist, basically. Do you know what I mean? [Laughs] Brian’s about to do something really bad to somebody.
Madeline Best: There’s a lot of work in trying to figure out how to balance our images.
Brian Rogers: Madeline defaults to somebody who’s running away from the alien in the closet.

Time Out New York: What was the setting for Selective Memory?
Brian Rogers:
There was a huge screen in front of the audience and behind it was Madeline. To the side of it was me. I was also making the sound and watching her. So I was never part of the video image; it was me watching and everyone thought of me as the director, because I was, watching his…

Time Out New York: Muse?
Brian Rogers:
Yeah. It got taken to a ridiculous place. Like we wound up in that MR [Movement Research Performance Journal] centerfold—they just fell in love with that idea that you were my muse.
Madeline Best: And I would get frustrated with that, because I was like, I made these images! I felt like it was taking away a level of control that I actually had in that situation. And that the assumption that I was the receiver felt a little bit disempowering.

Time Out New York: Did you know as you were making it that it would lead to Hot Box?
Brian Rogers:
No, that came after. I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next while I’m doing the current thing, but I didn’t have a master plan that I was going to make two or three pieces that were all about the same thing. The last piece was a huge departure—in a good way—from the things I had been doing before. It was the first piece where I felt I really was doing what I wanted to do.
Madeline Best: In Selective Memory, we shed so many of the things that had been hindering us.

Time Out New York: What exactly?
Brian Rogers:
Anything related to theater.
Madeline Best: A clear performer-director relationship.
Brian Rogers: That was the biggest leap about the last piece: I made this decision that I didn’t want to work with performers. I have a really difficult time with personalities and politics and having to massage people’s egos. There are many artists who do that really well. I don’t. I felt like it would weigh on me and make it really hard for me to make clear decisions, and that I would go down the wrong road to please people. We never even thought of Madeline as a performer in the piece.
Madeline Best: With the previous piece, I was the one behind the video, and I was used to sitting behind computers and working structurally. It was easier because we were struggling with technology and with that, you never know—in the developmental stages, some days it’s going to work great and other days the computers are not talking. So it makes for a stop-and-start frustrating rehearsal process if you’re just a performer. In having the people in it also being the ones dealing with the technology, you don’t have anybody sitting around waiting for their turn, so that was kind of how I ended up pointing the cameras at myself. It just made sense. It made our work flow so much better.
Brian Rogers: And that’s probably the reason that I decided I should be in this piece, too. I knew I needed a male face, and I didn’t want to find a performer. It seemed like a logical extension to put myself in there.

Time Out New York: You really haven’t performed in your own work?
Brian Rogers:
No. I’m always there watching. And two pieces ago, I sang a little song in the end. I’ve done little performing things for people who have asked me, but I’m just not a performer. In college, I studied acting and I actually studied in London for a year, but it’s not something I’ve wanted to be.
Madeline Best: We’ve talked a lot about the performative aspects of it being a little more bandlike than actor-y. And I think that’s a part of where your drinking comes in too: It’s more akin to musicians drinking than a particular end in and of itself.
Brian Rogers: Right. It’s like a group of people locking into a kind of rhythm with each other and then putting a certain energetic focus into this thing in the center.
Madeline Best: It’s just half of our rhythm is robotic.
Brian Rogers: Which is the “choreography” with quotation marks.
Madeline Best: There’s a really important time-and-dimensional relationship between the cameras and video projections and people.
Brian Rogers: It’s mechanical and run by computers, but we spend a lot of time trying to think about how to make it feel human in some way.

Time Out New York: Choreography is all about rhythm to me, and not necessarily about bodies. So the drinking…
Brian Rogers:
[Laughs] It’s a response to the films and the notion that for me to appear fucked up, I need to be fucked up. But then again, when I told the marketing people at Crossing the Line about this, they were like, “Oh my God, it’s so great—we’re going to really hype the fact that you’re shit-faced!” And I was like, “No, no, no.” Because there are pieces like that; I’ve seen so many where the performers abuse themselves in a cathartic exchange between the spectator and artist. This is not about that. The audience won’t see me drinking.
Madeline Best: They might not even know.
Brian Rogers: And honestly, when you look at my face after I’ve had a lot to drink and my face when I haven’t had anything to drink, I don’t know that you can really tell.
Madeline Best: We’re also exercising a lot.
Brian Rogers: I started doing this as a test in February. In the film of the making of Apocalypse Now, there’s a scene where Martin Sheen is in a hotel room and he’s had like four bottles of wine or something. Off camera Francis Ford Coppola is yelling at him and tells him how terrible he is and makes him have a breakdown. Martin Sheen punches a mirror. So I drank four bottles of wine and filmed myself—but it’s just me slightly wobblier. [Laughs]
Madeline Best: No one was screaming at you.
Brian Rogers: I drank four bottles of wine and filmed myself—but it’s just me slightly wobblier. [Laughs] I don’t want it to be about me drinking and then achieving some altered state where I’m unhinged.
Madeline Best: We’re not interested in a narrative story; if we watch you become unhinged, that’s almost too much narrative happening. It’s more like trying to prolong a moment in the path to becoming unhinged. There would be too much drama if you broke shit. I don’t know how I feel about drinking. I’m a little bit on the fence about it. It makes me feel like puking, for one. It also doesn’t feel so necessary for me. I have other ways to get myself freaked out. Part of my job in this piece is keeping the show together—it’s my responsibility to know where the cameras are. For me, it’s trying to control chaos.
Brian Rogers: It’s a really simple idea, but how it works is really complicated. How we handle it the right way, because it can veer into a self-indulgent place or a shock-meister place, which I’m not interested in. That’s a different kind of movie. I’ve thought the next piece should be a torture porn. Like The Human Centipede. [Best recoils.] We’ll talk about that later. [Laughs] This is not that.
Madeline Best: This is an intense, uncomfortable boredom.
Brian Rogers: There’s something beautiful and pretentious, and that’s the place.

Time Out New York: Almost a melodrama?
Brian Rogers:
Yeah. It’s melodrama, and it’s that famous quote of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, where Dustin Hoffman is doing intense Method acting and Laurence Olivier is saying, “Son, have you tried acting?” [Laughs] I feel in all of the films that I’m watching for this piece that they are so much about: No, no, no you can’t act—the audience can tell that you’re a phony. You have to just do it. It makes me think a lot about the performance-art stuff that you see in RoseLee’s [Goldberg] books from the 1980s that you don’t see so much of when you go to see performance art at PS1 now. It’s like it’s aping something already; maybe it was then, but I wasn’t there. It’s this idea of the presence of a performer and a kind of energy that they bring that is just real is interesting. I guess it is about trying to be actually present. And not have it be about a display of a skill or my ability to make you feel as if a really good actor could play this role without drinking.
Madeline Best: People would ask me a lot in Selective Memory, what was my preparation? I stretched my back, because standing still for 45 minutes kills. I didn’t have an elaborate acting method. I don’t have those tools. I just know how to stand, and in that situation you had to be hyperly exactly where you were, because as soon as you start thinking about anything else it shows on your face. I look at pictures of myself in Selective Memory that don’t look like me to me. Technology is transformative even when it’s not transforming anything. It still has all of these heightening abilities.
Brian Rogers: At the same time, I can’t look at my face. I can’t stand it. The process of me trying to look at what I’m doing and how it reads on the camera, I find to be an awful process to go through. I can’t stand it. I kind of don’t want to do it.
Madeline Best: In Selective Memory, I just stared at my own face for a year until we made a show, and for me and for that piece, it worked. For you, it makes it way worse and you should have no idea what you look like. I was totally removed from it. I was manipulating something else, which happened to be my face. I felt technical about it. I also think that I’m very accustomed to looking at myself. I grew up dancing. I have an entire childhood of looking at myself in a mirror of watching myself on video camera in dance rehearsal in college. I’m desensitized. Also, we wanted different ends. There was a hyper-control that was in Selective Memory that’s a hyper noncontrol in Hot Box.
Brian Rogers: And to return to the band idea, I felt like this one wanted to have the sense of being a thing that’s only barely on the rails. It could veer in a wildly bad direction or just explode.
Madeline Best: The last piece felt like an object in its precision. Everything happened the same way every single time.
Brian Rogers: This will not. There’s a fair amount of randomness built into the technology and the sound that I’m making will be really different every night based on what happens. I want it to be a kind of thing where we’re lucky if we hit our marks in the shots. I want it to feel like we’re rushing to get it done. I don’t want it to be an experience where we feel really confident. We’re premiering this sooner than I wanted to. I knew I wouldn’t be ready but I thought we should just do it. Deadlines are good for my work and for the way we work together. Procrastination is a huge part of my thing.
Madeline Best: It’s a huge part of how we develop the palette, too. That time of tangential coworking, where we just sit around on the Internet is really productive.
Brian Rogers: I cannot overstate the importance of boredom in what I’m trying to do. I really need to go in that room—and this is why not having a bunch of dancers around is really helpful to me. I need to be able to sit there and maybe not do anything for eight hours. And not feel this gnawing pressure from people.
Madeline Best: We don’t talk to each other for days sometimes. We’ll be chugging along. I have my list of tasks, and I have no idea what Brian’s doing with his headphones on and at some point one of us will say, “So what’s going on? Where are we?”
Brian Rogers: It’s definitely not an efficient way to make a performance.

Time Out New York: It doesn’t seem so much like “boredom” to me, but that you’re creating an empty space for something to come through, because you’re relaxed.
Brian Rogers:
No, exactly. That’s what I think of when I think of the word boredom.
Madeline Best: It’s almost idle time.
Brian Rogers: You have to really create it. For grown-ups, especially in New York City, we don’t get bored unless we force ourselves. It’s so easy to be entertained or distracted or occupied with something in this town.
Madeline Best: In college, I had so much time. You didn’t have to pay for studio space, and you could spend seven hours lying on the floor staring at the ceiling if you wanted to. That space just doesn’t exist in New York practice.
Brian Rogers: That’s something I read Ishmael [Houston-Jones] talk about in an interview. When he came to New York in the late ’70s it was cheap enough to get studio space; that you could just lay around. Honestly, that’s one of the real gifts of running my own space: I actually have that. I see the impact of that on a lot of the work that I see and even present, where artists sometimes get too organized and learn how to make a piece in a set period of time and they don’t necessarily get to the place where they question. They don’t let themselves get messy and throw [material] out and start all over again.

Time Out New York: Do you have ways to signal each other during Hot Box, if you’re really going off track?
Madeline Best:
We talk to each other. I’m very vocal about who needs to do what during the piece. You might not hear it over the general din of what’s happening.
Brian Rogers: At the same time, we’re in this fairly small basement space and we’re surrounding the audience more or less—we’re circulating around the audience.
Madeline Best: The image development happens in two ends of the space, and things are somewhat blocked, but you can see what’s happening, and usually the screen that’s right in front of you is probably way more interesting than trying to figure out what’s happening in camera land. But we balance both of those things, so if you turn your head you can always see us generating the images that are happening. [At the Chocolate Factory] the downstairs space is like a ready-made set for us in the way that upstairs was the perfect environment for Selective Memory in its open whiteness. And it’s great to be in your environment while you’re making things. Well, yes and no—that downstairs space is not really the best place to spend most of your summer. I walk outside and am like, “There’s daytime? But there’s something in that: You get to wallow in not your favorite location.
Brian Rogers: But because of the proximity—even though the sound will be really loud—I think that all the things we’ll be doing will be really present. The exercises. What you are telling me.
Madeline Best: I suspect I will be yelling on occasion. Our struggle to sync with the technology is not a secret; it’s not seamless.

Time Out New York: Do you know when you will have to start drinking in order to be drunk enough to perform?
Brian Rogers:
When we showed it [as a work] in progress in February, I started an hour before and I drank a bottle of wine and then I would keep drinking between every shot. We’ve upped our exercise routine a lot so that’s something I have to start doing this week: figuring out the rhythm of it. Also, we’re doing nine shows in ten days, and we’re probably going to add second shows if these sell out. When we did it in February, it was two nights and I wrecked my body. So I have to do a better job of maintaining so I can get up the next day and do it again.
Madeline Best: We’re also doing 45 to 90 minutes of standing cardio—body weight exercises every day. That will happen preshow and during the show; It’s almost two hours of sustained cardio-strength building. I have scoured the Internet and learned all of this stuff about exercises. It works and it’s something I’d had very little exposure to in my dance training.

Time Out New York: I know, it’s what I do now. It makes you so strong.
Madeline Best:
It does. And my knees and ankles are operating in ways that I didn’t know was possible.

Time Out New York: Lunges.
Brian Rogers:
Yeah, a lot of lunges.
Madeline Best: I always had worried that it would affect my flexibility, and it’s not a problem.
Brian Rogers: It’s made a huge difference in my flexibility. Almost instantaneously actually. I’m a guy who’s not a dancer, so I’m not very flexible but it’s pretty interesting how quickly that’s improved.
Madeline Best: My back pain? Gone. My abs have not looked this good in ten years. And it’s basically me finding exercises on Pinterest. Print out the seven moves you didn’t know would reshape your abs without doing crunches in a month! The shit works.
Brian Rogers: And because we do it together, we sync into this weird kind of shared rhythm. Even though we’re not doing the same exact regimen in the same order, it does start to feel a little bit like dancing because we’re really conscious of what the other person is doing and in what rhythm.
Madeline Best: And that’s a way of pushing it too: I’m going to do this really hard thing until Brian stops doing curls. Ten more seconds in a forearm plank—I can do it. [Laughs]
Brian Rogers: Also, we work out in sauna suits. It’s horrible. But, it’s also kind of great.
Madeline Best: You can lose seven pounds in four days. You’re like, what happened?
Brian Rogers: And my body sweats a lot more. My body has decided that it’s going to sweat a lot all the time. It’s unleashed something and it’s just flowing out of me.
Madeline Best: Literally, you’ll pull the elastic away from your ankle and sweat will run into my tennis shoe. I’ve bought the ballet warm-ups, because we were tearing our $15 vinyl sauna suits. The ballet dancer warm-up pants aren’t quite as hard-core as wearing the sauna suits because they actually breathe a little bit, but they’re much more comfortable to wear. You can move in them and not tear the crotch out.

Time Out New York: Will you wear them during the show?
Madeline Best:
I don’t know. I think maybe just beforehand. [Pauses thoughtfully] I don’t sweat quite like Brian does.
Brian Rogers: It’s pretty gross. [Laughs] I want to be honest with you. It’s not pretty.
Madeline Best: Also, because I’m not sure that I’m going to have the opportunity to be working out as much during the show because of my more organizational responsibilities, I have a feeling I’ll be wearing the pants when not on camera.

Time Out New York: Does the choreography relate to the exercises?
Madeline Best:
The exercise isn’t seen on the film. You might see it happening. We talked about making interesting exercises and then we were like really when it comes down to it what we’re doing is just trying to exercise.
Brian Rogers: At the same time, I do think of it as choreography in a way, but the moves are just stock exercises. The rhythm and when and how those things happen and fit into the framework of everything else, they lock into this really intentional musical-rhythmic thing that feels like choreography to me. But we’re not inventing movement.

Time Out New York: When did you start working together?
Brian Rogers:
Oh, man, Madeline was an intern! That was in 2006, so we’re going back a long time.
Madeline Best: I was undirected as an intern and I just sat there for a couple of days and was like, I don’t know what’s going on. There was a bunch of video in the show that was controlled by [the computer program] Isadora and the video was not really being taken care of, I taught myself how to use it.
Brian Rogers: Then you finished school and came back and helped on the video for the piece in 2009. I knew you were a dancer. It merged that way. It made a lot of sense to me on so many levels to work with Madeline because I think she understands what I’m trying to do in a way that I don’t have to explain all the time. And because she also works in a production management role at the Chocolate Factory, she’s is also around all the time. There’s something really helpful about that. The kind of thing I’m trying to make requires people to be around all the time. The Wooster Group manages to do this. They have a lot more resources, but they can keep a group of people around every day for many months at a time, just to work at a pace that Liz [Elizabeth LeCompte] wants to work at. This is a way of merging all those things together that enables me to have that kind of continuity.
Madeline Best: Brian’s not very, “Hi, intern, please do these things.” My job was to be useful. In that way, I had to make a role for myself.
Brian Rogers: I don’t like to direct people. I want people to come to understand, in whatever way that they can, what it is I want from them and then to do it, and we can discuss how that’s going. When I thought I was going to be a theater director, this whole notion that you’re the actor and I have to bring you to the place I want you to be through manipulation or whatever process I found to be so irritating and not fun for me or interesting. I was making pieces that were more like dance pieces, but I’m not ever going to be a Tere O’Connor who invents movement. I’m trying to do a totally different thing.
Madeline Best: But in the way that we work, it’s within a structure that you set up; you trust me, and I have a domain to shape in the way that I think best suits my understanding of what you want. And in that process it’s actually really rewarding to me.
Brian Rogers: That’s what it kind of boils down to: Here’s what I want to have happen and it can’t happen. I wanted the audience to be really hot. I wanted the audience to sweat, too.
Madeline Best: I have a feeling that it will be sufficiently uncomfortable.
Brian Rogers: We’ve settled on claustrophobia. When we showed it in progress people really did feel [that]…and it’s even more now. We’re going to have docents on hand. I just know for the one person who decides they can’t deal with it and wants to leave, they need someone to lead them out or they’re going to hurt themselves. It’s so dark and we’re filling the room with haze. You won’t know where you are.

Time Out New York: Are you desiring to achieve a stillness within the chaos?
Brian Rogers:
Yeah. Even if the signifiers of the images are chaotic or flashy, or there’s a lot of cutting through all of that, on the other side, the image is a really quiet, still thing. Even if the piece is really obnoxious and loud. One of the things about Apocalypse Now that I admire the most is that the images are really well composed and have this kind of painterly beauty where time stops. And that’s also true in the Werner Herzog films like Fitzcarraldo—there’s a studiousness to what the image is, and you know that they’re all fucking hating each other. It’s what Martin Sheen achieves by having a nervous breakdown and being exhausted and drunk—but he’s still somehow present. His eyes have that quality about them. It does feel very still to me.
Madeline Best: That has something to do with camera movement, too. Especially in that film. There’s always almost movement in the cinematography and something about that makes the movement feel more still. There’s something counterintuitive: The movement in the film has a way of taking it out of real time and altering that state. If it’s just a shot on a person, the camera is almost never still. What that does is it takes it out of the real.
Brian Rogers: And it establishes tension. Those filmmakers of that time got really into how cameras worked in a way that wasn’t as present in the same way in the ’60s.
Madeline Best: Apocalypse Now is so much about a waiting, or about being stuck. There’s no clear end in sight.

Time Out New York: Is that how Hot Box is for you too?
Brian Rogers: 
Absolutely. It’s 100 percent it. That’s what makes it really difficult for us to actually end these shows. [Laughs] I have no idea what the ending is.
Hot Box is at the Chocolate Factory Sept 13–22.

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