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Social Dance 1–8: Index, choreographed by Moriah Evans
Photograph: Bradley BuehringSocial Dance 1–8: Index, choreographed by Moriah Evans

Moriah Evans interview: 'Choreography is very rarely natural'

The choreographer talks about Social Dance

Written by
Gia Kourlas

In her 1959 book, The Art of Making Dances, Doris Humphrey wrote, “Sometimes the whole weight of the dance was on the shoulders of the group.” Moriah Evans can relate. Social Dance 1–8: Index, her new intricately choreographed ensemble dance, is so dependent on the relationships among its five dancers that if one makes a misstep, they all go down. In Social Dance, Evans explores a system of movement patterns that show, through time, how people dance together. “I believe in dance,” she says. “I think it’s inherently a social form. If you dance with someone, you know them.”

What is the last piece you made? 
It was the Kitchen piece from Dance and Process: Variable Dimensions. 

I really liked that one. 
I think it might be the best dance I’ve made so far. Not that many people like it—meaning, you either really like that dance, or you just don’t. It’s long and slow and boring and nothing happens. Of course things happen, but I think you get it or you don’t get it. 

How did you land on your new work? 
The root of the dance comes from several places. In the summer of 2013, I had a residency at LMCC [Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space residency program] on one of the piers in an abandoned Express clothing store. It was a massive store on the waterfront; it was very bizarre, because it had these strange remnants of consumer architecture and design. There were changing rooms. There was a tiny sprung dance floor. That was after the year I made the Danspace piece and the Kitchen piece, and I did a bunch of stuff with the Bureau [for the Future of Choreography]. It was an incredibly jam-packed year, and I had crazy timelines to produce things. I think I didn’t have so many ideas going into that residency, to be perfectly honest. I had emptied myself. I was working with Maggie Cloud playing with some gesture-based movement; we started doing pattern stuff. I wasn’t working toward anything. I didn’t have a show. I made a solo on her in that time. In it, there was spatial pattern, almost like a dance exercise. It was a dégagé pattern. Basically, it has 14 actions or trajectories. It’s something like what you would practice in a technique class. I got obsessed with that pattern—the coordinations—and its relationship to right side, left side, and front and back diagonals. It’s describing the space with your feet. I liked what I made on Maggie, but I threw it out. I went into my Issue Project Room residency. 

When did that begin? 
It started in the fall of 2013. Issue is awesome. The way they run that place institutionally has been very helpful, and it’s something that doesn’t exist in our dance community. The flexibility of Issue’s institutional structure is great for artists. Some institutions in the dance community are doing so many different things for so many different artists; there are a lot of rules and regulations. Most residencies don’t give you more than 100 hours of space. That’s no time to make a dance. It’s some time, but it’s only three weeks of work. Do computer scientists that figure out programs that rule our lives on our cell phones do that in three weeks? No! It takes an army of thinkers to make social change. It takes tons of time to make a good dance. I don’t think we have very many structures that honor that. 

How did you approach the space? 
I had this fortunate situation of being an artist in residence and being able to work somewhere consistently for a year. It’s so particular. It has so much information. It’s full of semiotics and signification. There’s the Beaux Arts architecture. It’s not the most friendly floor. It’s marble, so I had to make a dance that could be done healthily and responsibly with the dancers’ bodies on a marble floor. That throws out a lot of possibilities for movement vocabulary. 

You can’t jump. 
You can jump a bit, but it has to be at a minimum, you have to dance in shoes. I was working with these constraints. The floor has a pattern too, so you have this Beaux Arts architecture announcing itself all the time; then, there’s the history of the building, which was built in 1926 as the headquarters for the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. It’s a massive McKim, Mead & White building. They did Penn Station and the Metropolitan Museum—all of these major institutions in the late 19th-century and early 20th century. This was a ballroom space. When I got in there, I started to work with a pattern that is super geometric. There are four quadrants. Front-right, front-left, back-right, back-left. The 14 actions translate themselves differently depending on what quadrant you’re in. I decided that I wanted to make a dance that was kind of like a partner dance. You can unify the pattern to make what we call “one body.” You can oppose the pattern to make it a mirror image. You can produce an opposition by having two people face each other and be on the right foot or left foot, and you can also do a one-body opposition. If you were stepping forward on your right foot, I would step back on my right. It’s one body, but in opposition. This is the basic organizing structure for the piece. I had to make a dance that has to do with moving inside of the confines of the space. I believe in dance. I think it’s inherently a social form. If you dance with someone, you know them. It’s a lot about sharing. I was thinking about that: When you dance, you see who someone is and you come to know the people that you dance with. 

Why do you think that’s so true? 
It’s the essential thing of doing something with your body with other people, either in coordinated or uncoordinated efforts. Generally when making a dance, you still have to be in dialogue—in choreography, especially. Choreography can be many things, but it’s also ultimately organizing principles. I wanted to make this utopian, Platonic idea of space and form and line and shape, and originally I was hoping to work with people that I had very specific histories with as friends and performers. Originally, it was supposed to be Elizabeth Ward, Ondrej Vidlar, Maggie Cloud and Sarah Beth Percival. They’ve all been in my work. I wanted the pairing relationships to have already existed among us in my artistic history. Because of scheduling and touring conflicts with two of the performers living in Europe, I brought in three new dancers. That’s when Lizzie Feidelson, Benny Olk and Jeremy Pheiffer came into the process. 

Why did you choose them? 
I chose Benny and Lizzie at the same time. Lizzie is incredibly precise and focused and I think it complements the work. I met her in a Jennifer Lacey workshop years ago, and I was attracted to her energy. Maggie actually suggested that Benny come to rehearsal—they’re friends from doing Cunningham workshops together—and the first time I saw him smile, I thought, I like this guy. He is tall and long and very elegant. Jeremy joined the process this fall. He has really powerful energy; he doesn’t have as much ballet-based training, but he’s explosive in a positive way. I’ve always respected him as a performer. 

And you went from four to five dancers. What did that do to the piece? 
It changed the nature of what I was after. I worked with Sarah and Maggie a lot in developing this system, which is basically moving through the pattern in different ways through the body. There are very simple actions that happen like tombés; a stepping and a placing of your heel. Very basic, simple actions.

Can you describe an aspect of your system? 
I feel it’s a ready-made choreography. They’re accessible to anybody, trained or untrained. As the system develops, it requires study and articulation, but technically it’s not spectacular. There’s a pedestrian thrust of different ways of moving through the body. The system starts stationary. There is displacement in space with the feet and different coordinations: straight leg versus plié versus straight leg then plié. There’s what’s called a “one-step,” and a more anal version of it that we call “anal ballerina.” It takes the pedestrian and makes it aestheticized and formalized. It’s with pointed, articulated feet—this body becomes formal in a very coded way. There are 30 different steps or ways of moving, and they all move through the pattern. There are some ruptures outside the pattern, but mostly everything is inside the pattern system. We also move toward something that I would say is obviously social dance. It’s playing with different ways of organizing your body, and we move through undulating, walking; there are inside turns, outside turns, swinging arms, head isolations and a small jumping section: glissade, assemblé, pas de chat. It could go on forever. We have to stop. 

When do you stop? 
I stop with jumps, for now. There are a few parts in the dance where steps get combined, so you have what I call a cross-hatched step. I bring two things together: lower- and upper-body strategies. Physically, it gets harder to do: How can you do a hip isolation and a shoulder move at the same time? 

So the coordinations become more difficult? 
Yeah. But that being said, I think it’s a found dance. I think it comes from the body, and structurally, I’m trying to overstate that principle. 

How? You’re saying that the movement is natural, right? 
Well that’s a big question: What is natural and what is unnatural? In my opinion, choreography is very rarely natural. I think choreography can be horribly oppressive. It’s telling a human being, a person, to do something in a certain way and that can be very violent. It also can be a tool. It can be many things, but it is a structure that organizes actions, and it’s very elemental in that way. 

How can choreography be violent? 
In making a group dance where people are in constant relation to each other, the structure has to be determined from some point of view and that is the choreographic point of view. There can be tension in that. This dance, in some ways, is very simple, but it’s also hard. It’s not an easy dance to learn, first of all, because the patterns are so similar yet so different and because the relations are specifically coordinated. If you misstep left foot instead of right foot, it actually throws off the whole thing, and there’s a domino effect. So there is a kind of precision required to make this system go; we have to remember that we’re dealing with a person and each one is asked to do the same thing in the same way, and in part I think I’m staging that. Yes, that’s coordination, yes, that can be utopic, yes, that can be precision choreography, yes, that can be a militarized group or a representation of democracy or the triumph of the group and the collective body. But it also can be dystopic. Unison dance has its limits and making everybody into the same thing is not possible. Taking flesh—people’s bodies!—which are shaped differently, appear differently and move differently, and making them coordinate into abstract, formal places and positions with a specific state, this act of producing form and structure can be quite violent. I think it can be beautiful and many other things, but there is a heaviness that comes with the task of asking a human to do something in a certain way. It’s like social structure, it’s like gender, it’s like social doctrines that tell us how to be and who we are. This is an abstract dance, but there’s a lot of information coming out because of the people who are doing it. 

And how they’re doing it? 
Yes. And their differences as well as their similarities. And that floor does not lie. There’s a section called “marbles” and they’re marching around as a military battalion, but it’s playful and fun, and some of them scatter and return. But if they’re not all where they’re supposed to be, you can see it, because of the grid marks in the architecture of the floor. I think that’s an example of how you can witness the question of the pursuit of precision in the act of choreography and dancing; people will want to judge it and say, “Oh, they’re wrong. They’re not together.” And they will judge it. People will compare people. “This one is wild, and that one is very timid.” Can you make a dance that, in the act of doing the dance, you are aware of the process of its construction? For example, we do our lexicon in the dance as the lexicon. It’s almost a lecture-demonstration. I hope it doesn’t look like that, but that’s why I have the word index in the title. It’s showing that we built a system; it’s like Cunningham said: There are infinite ways that the human body can move and relate and coordinate itself. There’s also a practice of relating that we do. 

What is that? 
It is through the sternum or the solar plexus, so it’s referencing Isadora Duncan: how the solar plexus is the seat of your soul and through the space you can align your sensor with another person. That might sound metaphysical and froufrou, but how do you share yourself with another person you’re dancing with or talking to or in the powerful yet also vulnerable place of performing in front of people? How do you show who you are, how do you share who you are? When do you do that unwittingly, and when do you do that with control and finesse? When structure of steps and form are very clear, you can witness that tension between the free spirit of a person and how they are liberated or constrained by ways that their body is asked to be organized and coordinated with others in time and space in the confines of this room.  

And I’m sure that aspect for them shifts the whole time. 
Yes! We’re working on performativity more—trying to figure out how they move through their individual experience of the piece and how that is very different when they do the dance by themselves, versus when they have to do it in relation with each other. 

Is it important to preserve the dancers’ individuality?
Yes. Frankly, I’m not interested in them all being the same. I want them to be themselves but negotiating the choreography. Does a structure liberate a person? Does it confine them? It’s profound to ask a person to do something in a particular way. I’m staging that for people to be in on. 

Does that have to do with how you think of this performance as a “community gathering”?
Yes. The energy that the public gives in watching has power. We’re all in a room together.

How does the dance begin? 
Each dancer does an individual solo. They’re doing the same thing, but they do it slightly differently. I’m trying to show a portrait of them inside of this structure that they’ve submitted themselves to for this process and that we’re going to watch unfold for the next hour and a half. 

How are you costuming them? 
Oh my God, the costumes [by Alan Calpe and Christopher Crawford] are yet to be finished. It’s important that their bodies are seen. They’re in mesh. It’s athletic gear meets dance ornamentation: There’s a little bit of fringe, of shiny stuff. So something that’s super utilitarian and just there to let the body be free to move and breathe mixed with some style elements. The work throws out all these symbols of social dance: different ways of producing a group. 

Can you elaborate? 
After these solo portraits of them—within the limits of the pattern—there’s a circle dance, almost a folk kind of reference that they do before they ever address the public. The formations are architectural, and they’re about changing the space of the room and describing the space of the room, but as a group. There are some ensemble moments where I’m using clear and obvious moments of ensemble: In one section, they hold hands in a line, and they might look really cheesy, but it’s also about referencing that history. In another, they look like a boat—it’s not really true, it’s what I think—but they’re moving in an orchestrated way that feels like a coordinated dynamic system. There are partnerships and trios and a series of duets. It moves through ways of relating. Things happen. Sometimes I worry, God, is this dance going to be conventional? I don’t want it to be and I don’t think it is. 

In a modern-dance way?
Yes. But it’s on purpose. There’s an institutional critique going on that has to do with the relationship to dance, dance practice, the history of modern dance, why we dance. I was thinking a lot about The Art of Making Dances by Doris Humphrey, and I think she says a lot of fun stuff in it. One, she says that dance doesn’t lie; you can see who someone is the moment you watch them move. Also a section that I really like is when she talks about the role of the group in the history of modern dance, and the power and importance of the collective ensemble being central to the history of modern dance. This dance is about pattern and variation in space and time. I don’t think I’m trying to be intensely original. I was thinking about this book that was written at the time Judson was emerging and it’s at a moment in American history where everything changes. She’s kind of conservative, right? This book is used as a teaching tool, ultimately, and I’m reading it because I’m interested in this question of can you make a dance that is structured—super structured—in a way that the public watching it becomes aware of the process of its construction? And, thereby, in their witnessing of that, they become part of the process in the making of the dance in a way that isn’t the same kind of expected relationship between the stage as a site of display and the audience as observers. There’s no audience participation. We flirt with it at one moment, but it’s not audience participation. I’m trying to create a dance in which the audience is part of the making of the dance, and that the dance, because it repeats itself through this pattern and the audience can start to recognize the pattern and the way it’s accessed differently, that they can start to participate in the action of it. 

Why did you want to work this out at this point in your artistic life?  
I’m invested in mining dance history all the time in my work: my own dance history, the dance history I read in books, the dance history I witness in other people’s practices. I genuinely don’t want to have a default relationship to dance history. I want to have a very critical relationship to it and a meta-relationship to it because dancing is, in many ways, coordinating our bodies and ourselves in time and space; it is something that we inherit and we are given. We get it from society, we get it from dance class. It’s something that is learned. So there’s a constant process of passing down information, sharing information, producing social relations. What are those histories? What are our histories to them? Those are things I’m always busy with in a bigger sense. How can you make a social choreography in an abstract-dance choreography? I think people are beautiful when they dance if they’re actually being open as they move. I guess I’m interested to create a space where I can see those things. Previously, I was trying to prove things. In Another Performance, I was proving something to myself. In the duet I made, Out of and Into (8/8): STUFF, I was refusing to use any movement I had been taught to do. I was trying to produce original movement, and I didn’t want to show the simplicity of the self. I wanted to show a tortured self or an abject self or, again, a self that was in relationship with another person because Sarah [Beth Percival] and I were mirroring entities, like struggling in a pursuit of connection. But I had a lot more that I wanted to say. This dance doesn’t feel so invested in semiotics and signification in the way that my other pieces had. 

To me, it feels like you have a great many things to say, but your approach is different. 
There are no tricks. There’s going to be some element of theater in the dance, right? But it’s very much movement for movement’s sake and trying to maximize what can be said about social relations or the social relations that exist in the culture and economies of our performance scene through minimal means. Through the means of action and organization of the body. I feel like I’m interested in sharing more than showing. I don’t want this dance to be spectacular. I hope it’s fun. I hope people enjoy watching it. I hope it’s meaningful and beautiful and all these things, but I’m not into overproduced scenarios that produce objects on display. 

What turned you off of that? 
I think sometimes performing can be vulgar. I feel like I’ve witnessed a lot of unconsidered uses of the device of vulgarity in performance. Like, “Look at me, look at me,” or a certain kind of narcissism that goes on in art practice. What is this stage, and why are we asking people to look at us do dance moves? Dance is hard to say something with. I really believe you can say so much with dance and it’s super powerful, but why are we demanding the attention? What is the purpose of doing actions in space and having people watch us do that? Obviously, there’s a history of ritual in performance. We can quote Richard Schechner and the importance of that in society and social structure. Or maybe we just want profound aesthetic experiences. There are so many reasons why we might dance and ask people to watch it. To show the results of your research doesn’t necessarily require a show or a spectacle. Also, do those elements keep dance as a form in the zone of entertainment and not in the zones of contemplation and the ambiguous and undefinable, ungraspable thing that we call capital-A art? And the whole system of how we reward the individual. It’s important—individuals matter, but I do have a love/hate relationship with our star culture. That’s why I struggle with questions of authorship. 

Why are you interested in partnering for this work?  I think it comes from this question: My object for my intention is not to exhibit myself entirely, it’s actually to have an experience with whom I’m dancing. It’s related to getting turned off from the stage as a site of display, but the room in which the dance happens as a place for dancing and sharing. The primary relationship in the dance is the dancers to each other and the public is lucky to get to watch it. [Laughs] Do you know what I mean? 

We’re the witnesses?
Yes. And I’m the witness too. I’m watching these people do these things, and that’s another thing: They’re people. They’re not objects. Like what is this freaking obsession with the dancer as this device? I think it’s great, there is the dancer, that is an identity, that is a social role, but P.S., it’s a human being! And this dance is in some ways exceptionally intricately pedestrian, in that a non-dancer would probably have to work pretty hard to get it, but I think they could learn it. The body gives us these possibilities and everybody has them. And dance history is part of what’s in this dance; it’s quoted, it’s referenced, but I also think we build a very basic system that has to do with organizing parts of the body in space in different ways. So why am I making this now? I’m sure it has to do with getting some other dances out of my way. I got my angry-feminist dance out of my way. And I think Another Performance is dealing with similar questions, but answered from drastically different points of view: rage in the female performing body, but expressed in a diametrically opposed way. Maggie’s solo versus Sarah and me running, screaming and throwing our bodies around. With the piece at the Kitchen, I feel I was starting to get to deeper questions in my work. Less aggressive. And emptier. It is full, but it’s empty; there’s no vomit. We’re going to be on the floor for 40 minutes, and yeah, Moriah is going to walk around the stage and be a weirdo. This is totally different. I wouldn’t have made this dance if I didn’t have Issue Project Room as the container that the dance got built in. 

Because of the space? 
Yes, because of the marble floor, because of the floor pattern—that pattern is a rubric for reading the actions of the performers. So much of the piece is about how they step and where they step and how they travel through space. Let’s just be totally honest: I had space to make the dance. I had a room to make a dance in, and you don’t have that hardly ever. It’s a luxury on one hand, but on the other it’s a total necessity. It’s like A Room of One’s Own. Let’s go back to Virginia Woolf, and thank you, Issue Project Room. There’s a shared calendar, but if I want to work past midnight, I can. If I want to show up at 6am, I can! It’s a cooperative. You share space, but that’s awesome. I feel lucky that this dance is the last thing that happens in that room as it is today.
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