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Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith
Photograph: Ilan Bachrach

Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith unveil Rude World

As part of Coil 2015, Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith premiere the third duet of their intimate triptych


Have you ever wanted to know what it looks like when two bodies become one? In Rude World, the third duet in a triptych by Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith set to be shown at the Chocolate Factory, the collaborators mastermind another intimate, sculptural work based on improvisational scores. They begin where they left off in Tulip, their last piece, an exploration of modern femininity. “We found a score that we wanted to keep working on; it looks like we’re rolling around on the floor,” Lieber says. They’re actually becoming a single being—right before your eyes. It’s trippy. And there’s a reason they perform naked: Just as they need to feel everything, we need to see it.

Can you describe the score from Tulip that inspired you to create Rude World?
Molly Lieber: It’s like our bodies are their own thing. What we were practicing a lot was being made of the same stuff or rolling around in the same stuff and not even thinking about our bodies as separate. Then we worked on it over and over again with different amounts of tension. When we started this piece, we had a RAMP residency with P.S. 122. We wanted to keep working on the score, so we started practicing it over a long period of time.
Eleanor Smith: It became very durational. We just started using it. To talk a little more about the scores, we find ideas first through feeling, and this is definitely a manifestation of that. We feel that doing the score and becoming these imaginative bodies in an imaginative space that’s all the same creates a very specific feeling; that is what is repeated each time as opposed to each movement or even the textures and the tensions of our bodies.
Lieber: And it started to become this thing that we could sustain. A lot of times the way we set something that we’re going to use in a work is by seeing if we can get it to always feel the same way—like achieving a certain feeling between the two of us.

Do you have different feelings as individuals, or do you try to go to the same place? Does that make sense?
: Yeah. I think that is one reason why we work collaboratively. There are many different feelings in there. We talk about how we’re both feeling, but at all times I’m coming at it from myself and Molly’s coming at it from herself, and if we’re both trying to get to that same feeling, it gives what the audience is looking at something pretty interesting and multifaceted and multidimensional.
Lieber: There’s also a double filter, especially because a lot of what we’re doing starts with improvisation. The things that make it through go through a double consensus. Because we feel so comfortable with each other, we can be pretty wild. A lot of the things we’re doing in rehearsal depend on that kind of close relationship, so the wild things then have to be sorted through this specific filter, because we are two different minds, and that seems to work with doing improvisational stuff and taking it from improvisation into a performance.

Did you have a set of scores for this piece, and could you tell me what some of them were?
Smith: Sure. That was the main one—both of our bodies becoming one body or becoming the space around us. Imagining that there’s this almost viscous material all around us.
Lieber: Also being awake and present at the same time, and to be wherever we are with our eyes open and seeing everything.
Smith: And we’re touching the entire time. We’re on the floor and we’re touching. It’s like contact improvisation in some ways. [Laughs]
Lieber: It’s not contact improvisation, but it is. It’s improvisation where we’re in contact with each other.
Smith: That was the main score. A lot of what we have done over the years has been to improvise for one another for long and short periods of time. Often we’ll have a big open score where both of us can have the freedom to dance or move at the same time. Or we’ll do scores where Molly will sit and watch and I will move for a designated amount of time, 10 or 15 minutes, and then we’ll switch, so there is a lot of watching one another in a room. That over the years has cultivated not only a specific performance presence, but an interest in performing something that is very intimate and raw and not necessarily done in a way that would make it [suitable] for a huge group of people. Or if it was going to be done in front of a huge group, we would hopefully still be able to keep that feeling of intimacy.
Lieber: That’s the hope, the goal. There are scores within the longer, main score. There’s stillness—finding places to stop. We have to make that decision together and then there are parts where one of us goes passive and the other one is trying to carry out what was happening before. The other two scores shook into these long-form improvisational solos where we are still onstage watching each another. A lot of times we’re working with putting clothes on or taking clothes off to get at the other score; in the main score, we’re not wearing clothes. A lot of what Eleanor did in the studio I now do; that’s how our practice works.

And that is intentional?
: Yeah. Maybe one of the reasons why we’re so interested in improvisation is because for us it’s a way to actually present conceptual ideas to one another through movement instead of through a dialogue. We also have a spoken dialogue about it, but we have found that improvisation is powerful to us because it lets us figure out what we’re interested in conceptually. That’s what she means when she takes material that she sees on my body: Now it’s ours. It’s a concept in the piece, or it can be if we want it to be.

You mentioned stillness. How do you make the decision together to be still?
: I think the way we work is trying to do it from the inside and the outside at the same time. Like I was saying before: trying to be feeling each other and moving around together and feeling everything that’s happening and also knowing what’s happening around us. It’s sort of like being the choreographer and the dancer at the same time. We are picturing it from the outside. We video everything so we’ve seen it a lot of times. But we can feel when there’s a tension and balance, and we try to stop in those moments.
Smith: And we do. I think there’s a great amount of listening to one another in those moments and saying yes to one another: I will stop and then you stop. Because so much of the surface areas of our bodies are in contact, we can feel minute muscular shifts and even energetic shifts without sounding too hoo-hoo about it. [Laughs] I do think I can feel that from Molly and she can feel it from me.
Lieber: That was the reason for the nudity in the first place. A lot of what we’re doing is very subtle and not only can we feel or sense it more, but also the audience can see what’s happening more…
Smith: With our bodies showing. And because we’ve been doing that particular score for more than two years, the internal clock is pretty set and that feels like another thing that we’re listening to.

You said there is contact: So you’re really on top of each other?
: Yes. We worked for a long time to make it so we could actually release the weight of our pelvises. It’s hard to trust someone enough to let your whole body fall on the other person, especially when one of us goes completely passive; not only are you trusting the other person to completely move you around, but you’re also giving your whole weight to them. That felt like something we could do. It took us a while to get there.

But you could do it, based on how long you’ve worked together. How did you meet?
: We met dancing together in 2006.
Lieber: I really liked watching Eleanor improvise. I think we had a feeling that we were in the same space with that. We wanted to have the opportunity outside of the process we were in to try it out together.
Smith: I liked watching Molly improvise, and I was excited to feel there was another body in the world with great power.

What were your early scores?
: They were all within a very imaginative realm, and at that point we were interested in physical exertion—pushing our bodies to a very heightened place of physical challenges.
Lieber: But we were into that passivity thing too. We were still doing stuff where one of us would say, “Go dead.”

Why is your new piece called Rude World? It’s funny—it’s so different from Tulip.
: [Laughs] First of all, we are building a set in the Chocolate Factory.
Lieber: When we started our RAMP residency, it was at the Chain Theatre, and it was a really dark space that had a florescent light on one side.
Smith: It felt dirty. And it was all black.
Lieber: We got into the fact that we were doing that score in there and a lot of times with the things we’re working on, it feels like we have a little world.

What is behind your Rude World?
: It’s just our two bodies; it’s not necessarily about us in the space or us. It’s about the world.
Smith: A very internal world.
Lieber: And that’s part of why we are nude. This is on a minute scale. We also connect with ideas of shame and feeling embarrassed.
Smith: With that comes this riskiness, an interest in bravery, as well as shame and fear. The only way we’ve decided we can experience or show that onstage is to feel like we’re taking risks, whether that’s dancing nude or improvisational work, which can be scary or freeing.

What are you talking about in terms of fear and shame?
: It’s an interest in performing that somehow has to do with that, I think we come at that from different angles, and when it meets up it feels rich and that has to do with that feeling of performing when you’re really anxious or connecting it to something embarrassing. Or desiring to be embarrassed for some reason.
Smith: Right. The perversion of wanting to show that to people.

That sounds freeing.
: I hope so. [Laughs] I think the set will make a dark world.

"It is impossible to move forward without knowing one’s history."

Are you conscious of wanting to change the way the Chocolate Factory looks since you performed the first piece of this triptych there?
: Yes. But we want to also be accepting of referencing that we were there. We’re doing that in some of the content.

How so?
: There’s one specific pose in there. The idea of shedding clothing layers was in that piece as well.
Lieber: We’re doing a section toward the end that is all set material, and it’s in reference to that a little bit.

You’ve brought up the decision to perform without clothing a couple of times now. Where did that come from?
: The main reason is that a lot of what has been chosen to be in this piece is very subtle work, and we feel like we want the body to be seen because there are a lot of subtle shifts and muscular tensions.
Lieber: And a lot of the connections between the two of us are tactile, so to see them or to maybe connect to them even on a feeling level, it’s nice to see our skin actually touching. A lot of the movement we do is really deep. It’s close to the spine. Hopefully as you watch this piece, that becomes very clear. That’s something we’re trying within the piece to comment on. In the scores of undressing and redressing, we are trying to show: Look at how different it looks now when you see it with a sock on.

How do you connect with the space?
: If we’re the two planets, space is the galaxy.

How is the audience situated?
: As high as we can get you, so like an arena. Much of the piece happens on the floor so we just wanted to enhance that depth as much as we could in a nine-foot ceiling space.

How is this piece more conceptual than the other two?
: I think because we’re commenting on what we’re doing in the piece.
Smith: Also because we’re opening up our process in performance a bit, just by simply performing improvisation as part of the piece.
Lieber: What is set in the piece is that the improvisations have to feel a certain way. There’s some movement vocabulary that’s exactly set in the way that movement vocabulary is often set. But the improvisations are really set, and we’re trusting that we can do that in front of people.
Smith: I agree. It feels like a larger idea that we’re interested in showing. It feels more conceptual to us than the other two works. The idea is to perform these states and these feelings in ways that are just as intimate and true and honest as we do when it’s just the two of us together. To put that into a different context.

You said that you have to feel a certain way. Can you expand on that?
: In talking about the rolling around, for example…
Smith: We can literally see on the video when it didn’t work.
Lieber: But also there are so many varieties to how it didn’t work. We have to release the weight of our pelvis. If you don’t, it doesn’t happen. You also have to be imagining all of these different things.
Smith: We have to release the weight of our pelvis, but also have a tension in the body to take weight from the other person and to distribute within myself to be able to truly release one part. If I’m on Molly’s face, I can’t completely release into that.
Lieber: Our hands have to be a certain way. If you’re feeling too much with your hands, it’s not the same thing.
Smith: It looks very gestural.
Lieber: But also if you leave your hands soft, they look really limp. You have to give in to it, to being like, I really am imagining that my body’s with your body. It is so specific in the improvisation that it feels like a performance. If you don’t do it that way, then it isn’t a thing.

What is your history with improvisation?
Lieber: I did some of it at college, but I’m newer to it.
Smith: I didn’t have classical training in any way. [Laughs] I went to a really amazing dance studio where we did composition and improvisation. That’s all we did. And modern dance! It was in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had a lovely teacher; she was a big influence. I have been improvising since then. Ballet is a different story.

What does it feel like when everything is going right?
: It feels really hard! [Laughs]
Lieber: It feels completely enveloping. It feels like when it’s done, you’ve really been to a different place. And that we’ve been in connection with each other the whole time. It does feel hard. We feel stupid afterward.
Smith: We always feel embarrassed. It’s intense.

How do you get to as raw a state as possible?
: Because we improvise so much, there’s this desire to let yourself remember and be in that old feeling. You can summon any texture or smell that you’ve experienced enough times.
Smith: And before every show we clear the room and improvise for 20 minutes. Everybody goes away and we dance together.

Rude World is at the Chocolate Factory Jan 7–12. 

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