In my memory of RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something, I am gazing up at four towering women. They are fearless and fearful, shattered and whole, naked and clothed, exhausted and inexhaustible. They stomp and sprint and smirk and shriek, hoist each other aloft and balance in devilishly difficult poses. They are glamorous, ominous, and very real.
That performance in 2011, at the Chocolate Factory Theater, was the first I had seen of Spradlin’s work, though she has been choreographing in New York since 1987. Her latest piece, g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title), has gone through many versions and cast changes over the past three years, on the way to its upcoming premiere at New York Live Arts, October 8 – 11. Its final (for now) incarnation features the dancers Natalie Green, Rebecca Warner, devynn emory, Athena Malloy, Saúl Ulerio, and, more briefly, Asli Bulbul, with original music by Jeffrey Young and visual design by Glen Fogel.
I was part of an earlier cast, and I was surprised to learn that as brash as Spradlin’s work can be, it arises through a kind of slow, intuitive vigil: watching and waiting, waiting and watching. What comes next? What stays? What goes? And why? I spoke with Spradlin in September about the process behind g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n.
Siobhan Burke (Rail): Your last piece, beginning of something, was so powerful. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you could just pack up and put away. Do you see the new piece as an extension of that?
Roseanne Spradlin: I want to say no, one didn’t evolve out of the other. But of course I’m the same person, and sometimes I think you just have basic concerns, and you keep addressing those over and over in different ways or with different people, from different starting points. A big difference is that in beginning of something, I really started with the music, that strong modernist music, whereas in the new piece, Jeffrey Young has composed the score from scratch. Also with beginning of something, I still had my little studio on West Broadway; that was the last piece I made there. It’s really different to make a piece in a studio where you can be all the time, as opposed to roaming around. The generative time for this new piece has been really long, almost three years. It kept morphing. With every new residency situation and group of people it would start to change, find a different tone, a different center of interest.
Rail: There’s a section that you call “the kickline,” this militant series of kicks where the dancers advance and retreat—and sometimes shout—over and over. It was part of an early version at Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and it’s still in there. What is it about that section that continues to interest you?
Spradlin: Yeah, what is it? It’s just always worked for me. I was interested in the repetition of it, and the sound quality of the body weight falling over and over again. It’s double the length that it used to be, 18 minutes now, and we’ve worked more on really projecting those shouts, so they reach out. It’s a little bit of a protest.
It was interesting when our lighting designer, Stan Pressner, saw the material for the whole piece. I showed him most of it all at once, and he was kind of scratching his head. And then he goes, “Well, the main thing I get from each section, in a different way, is a sense of vulnerability. When they’re aggressive, it’s because they feel vulnerable.” And that felt true to me. I think that the kickline is both offensive and defensive.
Rail: It does feel like a fight of some sort—against being tired, maybe. It reminds me of the endurance aspect of beginning of something. The dancers in that piece worked so hard, for so long. Do you intentionally create exhausting situations for your dancers, or does it just happen?
Spradlin: I think it’s one of those things that’s borderline conscious for me. I don’t remember ever setting out to make a piece that was about endurance, and yet several of them, maybe even most of them, turn into that. I guess I ask people to try to go further than they think they can, because it releases something. And I’m not sure what that is—if it’s just purely endorphins or if there’s some other kind of mental state, some altered state, that you get into, where things you might be concerned about as a dancer just drop away. I like that. I’m not always so aware that I’m asking other people to do something challenging. But I get the feedback from the dancers that I am. And a lot of people enjoy the challenge. They want to go there, too, and see what it’s about.
Rail: Earlier in the process, you were working with ideas of class and sexual violence, especially violence against women, and also with stories from the book Lost Girls, about the Craigslist escorts who were found murdered on Long Island. Are those ideas still present for you in the piece?
Spradlin: I think they’re still present, but they’ve receded into the background, into the deeper layers of the work. I couldn’t really figure out a way to keep going with those stories, unless I made a kind of dance that is not really the kind of dance I make: a more narrative kind. I liked what we developed based on that material, and at the same time, I felt a little bit—I’m not sure, like a bit of a scavenger. Like, is it really okay to use someone else’s experience—especially an experience that turned out so horribly for the people involved—is it really okay to use that for a dance? I felt bothered by that question, and I couldn’t answer it in a way that would let me continue honestly. So I gradually veered away from it. I think there’s still an undercurrent of some kind of disturbance in the piece, some kind of wariness, but those specific stories aren’t there anymore.
Rail: Do you think of your work as feminist?
Spradlin: I usually don’t think of it that way when I’m making it, but when other people put those labels on it, I pretty much agree with them. Feminist? Sure. I don’t really know what to say about gender in the piece, other than that I do think that my work is female somehow. Though in this cast I have devynn emory and Saúl Ulerio, and neither identifies as female. But I think they both have a strong connection to the approach and sensibility of the work. beginning of something was definitely somehow about female experience. But I don’t know. Should I say female? What does that even mean? I think there is a feeling of vulnerability in my work, like our lighting designer said, together with a sense of resisting. And that must just have to do with me, my personal traits.
Rail: What about “minimalist”?
Spradlin: Recently I was trying to write about my work, and I was thinking about minimalism. A couple of sections in the piece do have that feeling, like the kickline and another section that has just one lateral movement phrase repeating in different ways. But minimalism didn’t feel like quite the right word. So I landed on reduction, reductionism: the idea of taking something and compressing it, like a flower essence, where the bouquet is still in there, it’s just compressed. And then in performance, hopefully, you release the bouquet, so that people watching get this bigger sense of something of the world. They only see this little part of it, but somehow they get the whole experience.
Rail: I’m interested in the structure of the piece, how specific it is. There are eight sections of nine minutes each, roughly, and each section is based on a different hexagram. Can you explain what the hexagrams are?
Spradlin: The hexagrams are 64 situations, or you could call them diagrams, that come from the I Ching, the ancient forecasting book from Chinese philosophy. Every situation has six lines, which are either broken (a Yin line), or straight (a Yang line). You can have a situation of six Yin lines or six Yang lines, or you can have every combination in between, which makes 64 total.
Each one describes a different way that events can flow. So one might be talking about a blockage of some sort, and another might be about a great rush of new energy. I picked eight that I had some familiarity with, because I would get them myself when I would cast the pennies [a way of consulting the I Ching]. One of them is called “the marrying maiden,” and it describes a concubine situation, where you’re taken care of but you don’t have full benefits, so to speak; you’re not the real wife. There’s also one that’s called “the army” or “collective force,” which I used for the kickline.
John Cage used the hexagrams all the time to create the randomness of his methods. I was more interested in the narrative aspects of them. I think underneath the whole philosophy, there’s this idea that life is unpredictable but not exactly random, that the unpredictability has some sort of deeper pattern to it.
Rail: You’ve studied and taught Body-Mind Centering for many years. How has that influenced your work in the studio, specifically with g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n?
Spradlin: I’m interested in helping the performers to figure out what moving really is. What is your internal impulse for moving onstage, other than just doing choreographed movement that somebody might give you to do? When I would bring in new people as the cast kept changing, I started looking for that impulse more and more. Can this person access a really personal approach to keeping movement flowing up and out of their body?
Those questions partly come out of my work with Body-Mind Centering, which taught me about reflexes and how they help initiate movement. You don’t always want to be moving in a reflexive way, but the reflexes, as they’re encoded in your nervous system, give you the possibility for moving. If you don’t have them, then you don’t have access to certain kinds of movement. Like if you don’t have an automatic withdrawal—or an automatic protective extension, as they call it—if you don’t have that embedded really deep inside, you can still do a battement, you can still reach out in space, but it’s not quite the same as when you can let the reflex power it or initiate it.
So I’ve been really spending time with the dancers to help them get back in touch with those deeper encodings of movement in the body. And that takes so much time. It’s really interesting for me, and I don’t think the dancers would still be here if they weren’t also interested. I don’t really talk about it in rehearsal like I’m talking about it now, but I do keep working on some of the same material over and over, trying to get more movement out of it somehow. Even small movements; there are a lot of undulations and small, rapid repetitions. I’m trying to get the dancers to let it be as free as possible, so that it just jumps out and keeps going and doesn’t get slowed down by thinking, “Am I doing this right?”
Rail: I think repetition in rehearsal can go both ways. The same thing done over and over can get less inhibited, more impulsive, or it can totally die.
Spradlin: That’s so true. I’m really interested in how the person in charge, the director or choreographer, can steer it away from becoming dead and being more alive. Because yes, not every moment can be this ecstatic golden moment. There are some days in rehearsal where the best you can do is just keep working.