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From left: Owen Prum, Neil Greenberg, Paul Hamilton, Opal Ingle in rehearsal for “Betsy” by Greenberg. Photograph by Frank Mullaney

Making Meaning with Neil Greenberg

Neil Greenberg on his new work “Betsy”

In 1994, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, Neil Greenberg premiered what has become his best- known work, “Not-About-AIDS-Dance.” Over the heads of the five dancers, surtitles narrated—in sans serif type and the most laconic terms—what had been happening in the dancers’ lives outside rehearsal as well as what was happening right before us on the stage: the wide lunges, wheeling legs, windmilling arms, supplicant kneels, reckless penchés, and bouts of stillness more rash than anything you’d see in Cunningham, with whom Greenberg had danced for seven years, beginning in 1979.

“Ellen is dancing that same material again,” offered one surtitle, as if exasperated. Then several beats later, as Ellen continued dancing, this bit of background info: “Ellen was a big pothead in high school.” Later: “On Labor Day, Richard Wolcott died.” Later still: “When I came back from Richard’s funeral, I learned David Hagen had died.” During the making of this dance, the surtitles report, several more of Greenberg’s friends died, plus his brother. But in an interview about “Betsy,” his first work since this other plague began, Greenberg says, “I really meant the ‘not about.’”

Whether or not he uses surtitles, his dances regularly engender an exhilarating, exhaustive curiosity about the scope of the steps’ resonance beyond their place and time; they also invariably confound that quest. At a rehearsal of “Betsy” a few weeks ago, I oscillated between fishing for allusions and giving in to the pleasure the movement at hand afforded me—what in “Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag calls the “erotics of art.” (“In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”) Greenberg loves that essay.

The choreographer used to videotape himself improvising, then have the group memorize specific riffs frame by frame, preserving not just the basic moves but every eye blink and faltering step. He would later assign certain dancers to certain passages, or sometimes all of them to a given swatch of steps but arranged so that no one is exactly doing the same thing at the same time, or facing the same direction, or on the same latitude or longitude of the stage. The effect for the viewer was déjà vu: everything almost familiar, almost synced up, almost adhering to choreographic conventions. For the last fifteen years, the dancers have come up with their own improvisations, but because they still memorize this spontaneous play from video, the movement still looks like it might belong to someone else. It still courts alienation.

For each section in “Betsy,” you sense that a single prompt has motivated all four dancers’ discrete sequences. The simultaneous or staggered solos share a kinship; they remain on their own little island of invention yet together form an archipelago.

At La MaMa’s small downstairs theater, from November 12 through November 20, the audience will sit on all four sides. The four dancers (Paul Hamilton, Opal Ingle, Oren Prum, and Greenberg) will confront the fourth wall or pass through it to us. As for the text, there is a short surtitle prelude. At one point, it reads: “What is inescapably a context of this work? Covid? The structural apartheid of the dance world?” We are left for the next hour to look for clues—or not.

I interviewed Greenberg at the StuyTown apartment that he shares with his husband. Among the one-bedroom’s lovingly appointed objects were two framed photographs by his late friend, the photographer Peter Hujar. One is of Hujar’s dog, a Shar-Pei with folds of extra skin that match the undulations of fabric on which he sits, upright and stoical. The dog was dying, though not, like Hujar, of AIDS. The other is of the bottom of Greenberg’s feet, soles modern-dance black except for islands of white for the high Cunningham arches.  A dancer by way of his feet, a dying man as his dying dog. Both portraits are incongruously dignified.

Neil himself is ebullient on this Friday afternoon in late October, as he seems often to be. He is game for a robust exchange. He uses a lot of italics when he speaks, not ironically but as if planting recognizable expressions in a field of ineffable thoughts. What follows are excerpts from our two-hour conversation.

I thought we’d start with the title. Why Betsy?  Who Betsy?

“Betsy” is the dance. It’s not a person. There’s no “who Betsy?” I nod to convention, and you gotta name a dance! I named it Betsy because it’s a name. I mean, honestly, it could have been any name. It’s sort of like saying, This is a name. This is what the dance is.

Do you start with the name, before you make a dance?

Yeah.

Before I make one of my dances I have ideas floating around in my head, which are usually the same ideas that are floating around in my life and sometimes way bigger than me, but they’re touching me. And I have some ideas about my next dance, based partly on my last dance. So I have these ideas, and I’m trying to see if I can get these ideas into the dance. Like, I want “Betsy” to learn not to throw sand—or to throw sand, if that’s what I want. Then the whole thing is: “Betsy” is gonna throw sand or not. But I am trying to exert some control over the materials.

With “Not-About-AIDS-Dance,” I had conceived that this dance would include information about all the performers, and part of that came from thinking back to watching rehearsals at the Cunningham studio. I’ll never forget this particular rehearsal of “Sounddance.” It was so rich. So I started thinking that maybe part of why it was rich for me was that I knew the dancers—it was something to draw me in so that I could be left with the dancing.

Before I start making a dance, concerns are there but they’re ambiguous enough to be everything-all-at-once. Then, making something, it’s not everything-all-at-once. It’s this thing.

From left: Owen Prum, Paul Hamilton, Neil Greenberg, Opal Ingle rehearse “Betsy” by Greenberg. Photograph by Frank Mullaney

As a choreographer, are you more worried about “Betsy” turning wild or her going dead inside? Of the two ends, which do you tend to worry about more?

I want it to be something that I’m pleased with more than less at the end, and I’ve definitely had dances that got away from me. Like, a dance was too serious. Like, when I think back to that dance and when I watch it now, I feel weighted down by it, and that would not be my choice. I wasn’t able to—I didn’t know how to—I didn’t have time to….  And now it’s being performed.

The name Betsy. Like “Heavens to Betsy!” It’s such a square name.

Yeah, it’s a funny name. Another thing about a title: it can be a framing mechanism. I guess I think with “Betsy,” whatever expectations I would have as a viewer, given that title, I would have to let go of as I was watching the dance, because there is no Betsy.

It’s interesting, because a lot of your titles are somewhat explanatory: “Really Queer Dance with Harps,” or “Quartet with Three Gay Men,” or “Not-About-AIDS-Dance.” “Betsy” is more of a tease. 

One of the things “Betsy” does is flirt. Teases, for sure. And there are bodies—it’s not just minds flirting and teasing—and they are engaged in really specific stage actions, and different kinds of tones or overlapping textures—you know, moiré. Within that, some of the textures are about things [gestures, steps, etc.] that refer. It doesn’t matter what they refer to, but part of the texture is engaging with the referent but then almost pulling back and going, Oh, this is the thing that refers.

Part of my project has to do with meaning-making. And also a bias would be against interpretation, which is not saying that it’s possible to have no interpretation but, you know, trying to throw a branch into interpretation to some extent. And “Betsy”: how can you interpret it?

At rehearsal I was struck by how certain of the dancers’ movement felt more referential than others. I was doing a lot of “Does that look like something? No, it doesn’t look like anything to me,” or, “It is almost something.”  Meaning-making and “meaningfulness”—what fills with a feeling of meaning, if not any particular meaning—is a long obsession of yours.

Yes, it goes back to 1987. The first time was the dance that I talk about in the surtitles, “MacGuffin, or How Meanings Get Lost.” I’d made a couple of dances prior where I had tried to put meanings into them and I don’t think anybody got it. The meanings got lost. So the title was that. But then the Hitchcock term got really interesting to me. Hitchcock said the MacGuffin is a thing in the film that motivates the characters’ actions but about which the audience need understand little if anything at all. In a spy movie it’s always the papers, and in a caper movie it’s always the necklace. But we don’t even have to know what the papers are. I take it that the real thing that Hitchcock’s doing is putting people in relationship with each other. And to me it’s so much about trust. It’s around the papers or the necklace, but it’s also just, How can you be with other people? How can you trust them?

Paul Hamilton and Opal Ingle rehearse Neil Greenberg’s “Betsy.” Photograph by Frank Mullaney

The MacGuffin is the absent focal point—the papers, the necklace—toward which everything gravitates so we feel meaningfulness or, in this Hitchcock case this issue of trust?

Yeah, and we can actually make meaning out of it. This MacGuffin term has been working as an organizing thought for—what is it now?—35 years? The MacGuffin thing is: we think meaning resides here, but it actually ends up coming from all these other places. You know, people love to talk about movies and very often they end up citing the plot. So that’s the MacGuffin. But the meaningfulness is something else.

So, it’s almost like the plot—the MacGuffin—functions as a distraction to allow people to have these emotional experiences. If the plot weren’t there, as, in fact, in your dances the plot isn’t there, then they don’t get to be distracted. They have to be confronted rather directly with meaningfulness and its breakdown.

Oh! Okay! I’m cool with that—I mean, if that’s the case.

Maybe that’s just a definition of the avant-garde—art that dispenses with the distraction.

But I don’t think there’s no distraction. I don’t think I’m completely unconventional. I’m really attracted to the ebbs and flows, to such an extent that I didn’t even realize that not all avant-garde artists are interested in having that in their work. That’s how I am like Cunningham. He was really into that; he was a showman. And I think I’m a showman in that way. I think of rhythm as a plot: little ways of setting up expectations.

Opal Ingle, Paul Hamilton, Owen Prum rehearse Neil Greenberg’s “Betsy.” Photograph by Frank Mullaney

You know Cunningham has this thing where he says, Why does a dance have to mean anything at all? Like, you go into a drugstore and you get a cup of coffee, and it’s raining outside. And that’s the same as a dance. It feels to me like you’re saying something a little different, that you’re saying that something that is also means—and means and means and means. It keeps generating meaning as long as it exists.

[Long pause]

This is Neil thinking. It’s a very silent process. [laughs]

[Long pause]

I can get behind both of them. I took a workshop when I was 19 where Merce said something similar [to the drugstore visit equals dance idea]. And I felt, I definitely want to dance in this company. I really want to dance in this company! probably because I could dance! The dancing was the meat of it. But, yeah, I do think that it’s naive to think that there’s such a thing as neutral. We’ve left Eden.

Someone might say that the Cunningham unitard is neutral—just shows the body. And then you go to India. I remember when we performed in India, I had to see a doctor, and he came to the performance, and all he wanted to know afterwards was, Did the women wear anything underneath their unitards? That kind of display of the body was shocking to him. No artist, nobody, is not in relationship to a culture.