In Conversation

LIZ GERRING with Nancy Dalva

glacier | Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair, NJ
September 19 – 22, 2013

Nancy Dalva (Rail): Why do you do this, make dances?

Liz Gerring: I’m completely absorbed with investigating movement for itself as well as movement as a means of personal expression—creating beauty perhaps.

Photo: Miguel Anaya

Rail: How do you begin?

Gerring: The piece usually begins with an idea that originates from a particular dancer—or dancers—inhabiting a movement sequence that becomes the beginning of a “story.”

Rail: And the ideas?

Gerring: Ideas come from a few sources. Music tends to stimulate my mind to conceptualize movement—either my body responding to the melody or rhythm, which sometimes combines with the words (of a pop song, for example)—which manifests itself in an imagined action, gesture, shape. I tend to personalize, so I may see myself as the subject of a state of mind or emotion, which then transforms onto a dancer executing a step. Sometimes a dancer can inspire ideas—once again, I either personalize them (I see them a certain way and attach movement to them) or, on a purely functional level, their particular attributes suggest movement combinations or possibilities. In this way, the dancer is critical for the process of inspiration. I’m much better at people than patterns, I think, so floor plans of motion are tricky for me, although almost always the movement I have conjured in my mind exists in a particular point in space. In this way the dancer is always present in the three-dimensional world.

Rail: In the theater there is music and occasional silence.

Gerring: There is definitely music—I consider music to be the most important element other than the movement. I have primarily collaborated with one composer for the past 15 years: Michael Schumacher. During that time we have developed a relationship with the music and dance that is specific to my choreography. The music initially played in the studio during the improvisation process has nothing to do with what exists at the end. This may consist of pop songs, classical, a wide range of contemporary composers, and I draw from this both imagery and rhythmic content. The process of creating music for the dance happens usually after the section or phrase is finished, and happens in conjunction with the musical idea for the whole piece, so it often becomes a stabilizing element for the dance.

Rail: Do the dancers get their cues from it? It feels more like atmosphere than metric instruction.

Gerring: There are synch points for the dancers—sounds that are meant to go along with specific movements. The dancers either listen for the cues or, more often, Michael or the stage manager will cue the music so the dancers are free to inhabit their own dynamic without having to worry about “following” a score.

Rail: Are there stories in your work?

Gerring: Always a story—sometimes it is my own story and sometimes it is the dancers’. Throughout the creation of a work, which can take up to two years, the dancers become characters in the piece in some way: what sections they appear in, what movements they are doing, and who they are doing it with.

Rail: Is there then a subliminal narrative? Something about showing but not telling?

Gerring: Absolutely. Perhaps this is the dialogue the audience member is having with himself as he watches the piece unfold.

Rail: You made a dance called she dreams in code (2011). Do you dream in dance?

Gerring: Only bad dreams (rehearsals gone awry, etc.). I do, however, often go to sleep at night thinking about a particular dancer or dancers doing specific movement—sometimes this becomes an initiating factor in rehearsal. It actually relaxes me to think about movement while I am going to sleep—I’m not sure why. Sometimes when I am working on a piece, I will use this time to try to solve a choreographic problem I am experiencing at the time. I think the nighttime lends itself to a type of imaginative state, but this is all in that conscious time before actually falling asleep when I can let my mind wander—

Rail: Can dance ever be “abstract”?

Gerring: I don’t think anything involving humanity/performance can be completely abstract. So much is brought to the movement by the mere fact that humans are doing it. And the fact that there are people onstage brings it into the realm of society, but I think for me this is all the narrative required: witnessing dancers. More would draw attention away from the visual picture.

Rail: Why call your new dance glacier? There aren’t polar bears, or artic explorers, or ice metaphors. Are we to read anything into it about Trisha Brown, whose choreography you love, and who made a beautiful dance called Glacial Decoy (1979)?

Gerring: The title came from Michael, the composer. It was the title he gave to the piece of music that became the initial inspiration for the work. The reference to Trisha is accidental, but considering the huge influence she had on me, not an illogical one. Of course Glacial Decoy as a title implies something completely different from glacier. This title refers to the scale of the work (as opposed to temperature or location) and to time: a slow moving land mass—this being the largest work I have done to date in terms of theater, dancers, and I think length of time creating. I do wonder what Trisha would say and am curious also how she got that title.

Rail: I think perhaps it comes from her own appearance in the work—a quartet with a fifth person mysteriously appearing (but not with all four of the others visible)—hence “decoy.” And as for glaciers—those white Robert Rauschenberg costumes! As if cut from ice floes. So, since we are talking about non-narrative dance and Trisha, let’s consider what I think of as “the arc of inevitability.” Something about structure, rhythm, pacing, that lets us have a sense in a work without a story that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Gerring: This is a tricky one and something we spend a lot of time thinking about during the creation of a work—especially of interest in the current “one-hour” format in which most modern dance is placed. Obviously something must happen over this time, but what? I agree that this is where the structural elements come into play (rhythm, etc.) and that perhaps this corresponds to an intuitive sense of conflict resolution, which is essential to “the arc.”

Rail: Sometimes I ask myself about a given choreographer, “How would I know this work was hers if I didn’t already know it?” Or I ask it about a given dance. So, Liz, how do I know a dance is yours?

Gerring: Hmm. Well, I often think that I am making the same piece over and over again—that my life is one long dance piece with only the scenery (visual collaborations) changing, like the weather. I have been working for many years within my own personal body language—so this is specific to me—and developed certain techniques of executing movement that I impart to the dancers. And then there is always a type of music that can be categorized as contemporary electronic, I suppose. It’s really sound that creates an environment in which the dance occurs. I think I am setting a scene—a landscape of nature—and these landscapes are very similar in how they are constructed and what activity occurs within them.

Rail: Do you ever wish you could just go into a theater, clear the stage, turn on the work lights, have the dancers come out in their own practice clothes, and let the curtain go up?

Gerring: Yes, usually my preferred way to look at work is in the studio with daylight as lighting. Again it is that absence of pretense, in that nothing is forced or created to add to what exists movement-wise. It is dance in its simplest, most pared-down form. The lack of pretense is a huge cornerstone of my value system.

Rail: You seem to be both modern and contemporary at the same time, a kind of, shall we say, formalist for the 21st century. I love this a lot about you.

Gerring: Thank you.

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Nancy Dalva

NANCY DALVA writes from Manhattan. Her website is