Q&A: Liz Santoro talks about Relative Collider

The choreographer puts her science background to the test in her new Relative Collider

Liz Santoro

Liz Santoro Photo: Ryutaro Mishima

When Liz Santoro was a student at Boston Ballet School—before she switched to study neuroscience at Harvard University—she looked down on modern dancers. As she put it: "Oh modern dance—that’s for lazy, untalented people," and and felt, respectively, confused and in awe when choreographers Ralph Lemon and Twyla Tharp came to stage ballets. Now, part of the contemporary world, but still of the analytical mindset that attacted her to ballet and neuroscience in the first place, Santoro brings her new Relative Collider to the Chocolate Factory.

Liz Santoro, a meticulous choreographer who explores the art of paying attention, is fixated on the nervous system in her new Relative Collider. What happens to performers and audience members during the intimate experience of a dance? For Santoro, who trained extensively at the Boston Ballet School before trading in her pointe shoes for a neuroscience degree at Harvard University, the braiding of movement and sound is enhanced by another force. “I don’t need to sit in front of each audience member for five minutes and check in,” she says in an interview from Paris, where she lives with collaborator and partner Pierre Godard. “It’s about the collective energy.”

When did you move to Paris?
Actually I still live between New York and Paris. The main reason is my partner, who’s French. We met in 2006 when I was performing in Paris. About three years ago, I applied for a work visa, which is mainly so I wouldn’t get kicked out every 90 days and could work and not have to leave for a certain period of time and come back. We work together on all my projects. He was pretty much a co-curator in the piece Watch It, which I made at the Museum of Arts & Design, and he also shared much of the conception for this current creation.

How did you begin Relative Collider?
There’s a lot of stuff in there. The easy thing to say first is that it came from the piece before, which at the time was We Do Our Best. I had already started this piece before I made Watch It. I wanted to understand this idea of what’s possible to exchange in a dance performance. I had this written, very clear pattern that we started with the feet early on, maybe a year and a half ago. Also, there was a portion of We Do Our Best with footwork. It’s a long sequence of steps that never repeats. It’s impressive and it’s hard to do, but—this is going to sound really bad—I never really cared about it. It was always just a means to an end. The work in We Do Our Best has this hyper nervous-system awareness that gets installed from the beginning and is a fundamental part of the work. What ends up happening in that section of that piece is that your nervous system has already started to vibrate. It’s not just, Oh I’m onstage, so I’m a little shaky or nervous, but it puts you in a different place of executing something that would probably be much easier if it had been done in the straight, more traditional way that we tend to perform-dance. I was wondering, what if that was an entry point for making something?

Could you describe the footwork?
The foot pattern was made with [dancer] Cynthia [Koppe] very early on, and it’s just eight sets of eight. It’s extremely simple: right, left, right, left, right, left, right left; and the second set of eight is right, left, right, right, left, right, left, left. And the third is right, right, left, left, right, right, left, left. The rest of them are slightly less obvious, but they’re pretty simple. For example, the seventh one is just four rights and four lefts. It was stationary, just heels moving. You’re standing and you pick up your heel and put it back down. So super basic, super simple: something that anyone could do, anyone could learn. On top of that, also coming out of We Do Our Best is that the photographs from that piece are a lot more efficient as an artifact than as a video.

They’re so striking.
Yeah. Especially the photographs of the section we call “The Triangle.” It’s the longest section: You’re onstage and in this performative situation and you’re checking in with yourself to be present; you have the people in front of you, the audience; and you have the people onstage with you. It’s a triangulation of presence, energy and feedback. When you’ve been performing your whole life, you really know how to put on the show and give something to the audience. I was wondering if I could not use that. And that doesn’t mean getting in front of people and being a big mess, but what if I interact with people in a different way? And actually receive them? We did a lot in research and physical work with the nervous system and being in front of people. I’m endlessly fascinated by how things change when you’re watched by someone. It’s pretty remarkable just to be home alone in your apartment or house and the way you behave, and then as soon as there’s just one other person there what that changes—it’s so huge. And then when you think about being on a stage, you’re actually choosing and organizing and setting that thing up to invite people to come. People buy tickets; it’s a certain length of time that they’re giving to you and you’re giving to them and what that produces for both sides. What ends up happening in the triangle section of We Do Our Best is there’s no actual choreography or improvisation going on. It’s really just letting your body and nervous system respond to the situation that you’re in.

What does it look like?
You’re standing. You’re not really moving around, but over time your arm will touch your leg or your head will move. You’re not choosing for these things to happen, but you’re letting yourself be in the situation, so those photographs from We Do Our Best are very gestural. They look chosen. But to my eye, they’re not chosen; they’re coming out of something that I can’t quite put my finger on if I were to just see them, not knowing what they were. So I was looking at those photographs, and I put those—for lack of a better way to say it—those positions of the upper body on top of the feet pattern.

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