This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.

Finding Balance in an Unstable Universe

On one of the longest days of sunlight, the innovative, multi-disciplinary performance outpost in New York’s Hudson Valley, PS21, is presenting a “sneak preview” of a work under development in an onsite, four-week residency. The venue, with its 100 acres of unspoiled landscape, is dedicated to hosting residencies for the incubation of adventurous and oftentimes unclassifiable work. Surrounded by green slopes and leaf-laden trees, the open-air Pavilion Theater has been transformed with a black Marley floor in place of the usual seating area. Occupying the vertical space overhead, are two giant net sculptures by Janet Echelman. Suspended one above the other, they stretch across almost the entire length of the performance area. The audience is seated around this great centerpiece for a special preview of Rebecca Lazier’s “Noli Timere,” which means in Latin “Be Not Afraid.”

In an interview during the last week of the residency, I spoke with Lazier about the development of the production and the social practice it inspires. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

“Noli Timere” by Rebecca Lazier. Photograph by Marie-Andrée Lemire

subscribe to the latest in dance


“Uncommonly intelligent, substantial coverage.”

Your weekly source for world-class dance reviews, interviews, articles, and more.

Already a paid subscriber? Login

Fjord Review: Let’s start with the origin story of this production.

Rebecca Lazier: It’s a fun one. This is the sixth year of the project, so our origins go back to Janet [Echelman] and I meeting at a conference held at Princeton University called “Living at the Intersection of Art and Engineering.” I had been invited to show a choreographic work on which I had collaborated with an engineer who specializes in the collective motion of various species such as flocks of birds and schools of fish. Janet was the keynote speaker because her work really does live at that intersection; you can’t fly her work without incredible engineering and support. Some of her designs withstand hurricane winds like “Bending Arc” in Florida. As a result of our presentations, we connected—both of us excited and inspired by each other’s work. So we decided to collaborate.

The question I was most interested in asking was how to bring humans into her sculptural environment. What changes does that make in this tensile system? But we didn’t know if it would look interesting.

We had the great fortune to join forces with engineer Sigrid Adriaenssens, who works in tension-based sculpture at Princeton. She invited us to co-teach a program on designing net sculptures for performance. We worked with four professional dancers interacting with the students’ sculptures that were suspended up high in a six-story atrium. As we started improvising with dancers and tension-based sculptural designs, we understood that the moment you change one knot—one pull on the whole system—everything changes. That made the emotional resonance, the environmental resonance feel so tangible. Align that with the variable of adding another person or multiple people; you have seesaw, ricochet—cause and effect. There is all of this making visible what we don’t usually see.

Then in 2020, we were invited to Princeton’s Atelier Program that brings students together with professional artists from different disciplines to collaborate on new work. With 30 students from various disciplines—engineering, visual art, dance, and music, we started asking the question, “What does it mean to bring humans into the net?” By then we had started bringing in riggers from Broadway—people who specialize in safely elevating aerial performers—and an aerial dance artist, who had worked with Martha Clark, to understand what it takes to make an aerial world.

Then came March 2020 . . . everything shut down. I moved back to Nova Scotia, where I’m from and created a “Covid Bubble” so I could start work. I had collaborators there. Janet would frequently Zoom into our rehearsals and work with us on different design ideas. We were building vocabulary, building design ideas. And we were supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canada Art Center’s National Creation Fund, which gave us the seed money enabling us to explore.  

How portable are these nets?

Last summer Janet finalized the design, which is quite simple. It is made up of two nets that are like bubbles or volumes, and they are each suspended at their four corners. Each net fits in a box and weighs about 125 pounds. We also have ropes and a pulley system for raising and lowering the nets. So we have 5 boxes of about 120-150 pounds each. At times, we got very elaborate—building big things. But as we got funding and support, we realized that we really did want to tour this and be able to go anywhere. So we started thinking about efficiency—not about having 12 nets and everything in the kitchen sink—but about making it just what it needs to be.

“Noli Timere” by Rebecca Lazier. Photograph by Marie-Andrée Lemire

And what has this residency at PS21 been used for?

This residency has really been the gift of four weeks. I had time over the last year to reflect on what we needed to build new material and to think through what constitutes an evening performance. What does time mean over that cycle.

A lot of questions have driven the prompt of how you start this piece. It’s easy to get lost in making stuff up high [on the net]. But how do you get there? So we decided to make the arrival part of the dramaturgy of the piece, and we start by moving under the net. You know the quote, “Who are these people? What is this world?” What does this environment mean to us? How are we connected to it?

Structurally, the piece threads together using dancers and the net as a metaphor for different types of relationships. These relationships form and dissolve. A duet will come, emerge, and disappear. We develop these physical encounters building to a swing section and eventually a catapulting episode.

And this was the first time we were able to collaborate with our composer, Jorane, which adds a layer to what will become a one-hour piece. She came here for a week and improvised with us live and that produced new ideas and material. For both the music and the choreographic scores, this is very much our first draft. Here at PS21, we will present a special preview. The premiere is next February 2025 at the McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton University.

How many dancers are in your company?

Eight. A large portion of the cast are trained aerial artists from the National Circus School in Canada and other places. They have a sophisticated understanding of working with something that’s moving and unstable. There is a lot of new technique created to find stability and the ability to consistently reattain that stability.

So if the environment is totally unstable, how does that affect the consistency of the choreography? Is there always a different outcome?

Not necessarily, I think if you saw two shows, you would know they are the same show. It’s not so open that the dancers are determining order or changing things. In fact, working in the nets, calls for even greater precision to be consistent and to find what being consistent means. It requires sensitivity to each other and negotiation with this changing surface and system. The dancers have developed such an intelligence. If we decide to try a particular action—like moving from the top net to the bottom net while someone else does the opposite—they know exactly what minute adjustments everyone must make to allow that to happen. So there is predictability that has grown because of experience and clear dialogue. It’s like partnering, but your partner is a moving net.  

“Noli Timere” by Rebecca Lazier. Photograph by Marie-Andrée Lemire

Had you worked with this composer [Jorane] before?

No. I’m always seeking collaboration as the genesis of a project. I’m interested in changing my creative process with each new collaborator. Historically, I have mostly done that through collaborations with music—bands, composers, new iterations of a classical score. But here, the visual art component was the primary partner, so I couldn’t even think about music until we really knew what we were doing. Last summer we were in Montreal, and I was sourcing all this music. Then someone came to our showing in Montreal and connected us with Jorane, who has composed for dance and film. I listened to her entire oeuvre. She works with electronically mixed cello and voice and has a broad range. Here at PS21, she will perform with us live. But eventually, our goal is to have both options for a presenter—either with a live performer or a recording.

So is she composing around your work?

It’s been both. We met in January to design our working process. At first, she watched our performance video. Then I sent her videos of individual sections, and she mapped music to those choreographed sections. So it has been a back and forth process.

Let’s talk about another aspect of what you are doing at PS21—the Pathways Workshop. Are you doing this kind of community-based programming elsewhere? Can you tell us more about it?

Developing the pedagogy and structures around this workshop are a key part of the process and progress of this piece. Because of the many open workshops we’ve had with university students, we are aware that when you feel the environment of the net, it changes how you feel about the world. It makes tangible the physicality and emotional entwinement with everything around us.

It is very important to have a clear pedagogy about bringing people into the net safely. The Pathways Program was the first time we codified a progression of how to take people onto the net alone, how to introduce a partner to the equation so that they can move across this environment together with all its implications. First, we started under the net—to feel the forces, the rebound, and the understanding that this is not just an apparatus, but a conversation with an artwork. You are dancing with a sculpture—not just a rope. This sculpture is an embodiment of its own thing. We take the time for people to have a felt experience of their impact on something larger.

This fall, we will be in residence at MIT, where we will be working with disability consultants and organizations to create specific workshops for disabled people as well as able-bodied people. When we were working in Nova Scotia, an artist who uses a wheelchair came to one of our workshops and shared, “Being in the net is what I experience daily life to be.” She hopes that we can offer this experience more broadly.

What kinds of tasks or challenges do you give to participants in your public workshops?

We start with a roll. Then we try to make the net still. We do a sit-to-stand. Next, we work on balancing variations taking two limbs off the net. Then we do a partnered walk and, finally, a swing.

The comments were incredible. What people said confirmed our hopes. Some said that everyone should have to move through the net before seeing the piece. The dancers always say, “Walking in the net is the hardest thing.” It may be the most basic, but it is also the hardest. We task participants with a solo walk through the net. Afterwards, the company members demonstrate how doing it with a partner multiplies the challenge. The big thing that resonates with the dancers is that you must connect with yourself first. You can’t help someone else until you have achieved stability. Only then can you work together to find that shared effort to fulfill the task. Even when you are just walking in a shared weight situation, with every micro-movement in taking a step forward, everything changes. You have to keep connecting with yourself to balance through those changes.

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

comments

Featured

Taylor Made
REVIEWS | Karen Hildebrand

Taylor Made

It’s a treat to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform within the close range of the Joyce Theater. (The company typically holds court at the much larger Lincoln Center.) 

Continue Reading
American Legacies
REVIEWS | Eva S. Chou

American Legacies

In late April at New York City Center, the Martha Graham Dance Company began a three-year celebration of its 100th anniversary. The four City Center performances were collectively entitled “American Legacies.”

Continue Reading
Dancing for Peace
FEATURES | Leila Lois

Dancing for Peace

Love will always win, absolutely, over war and everything else” says dancer Marta Kaliandruk keenly, her pure blue eyes sparkling as she speaks to me in the wings of the theatre, during dress rehearsal for the Grand Kyiv Ballet’s Australian and New Zealand tour.

FREE ARTICLE
Good Subscription Agency