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Source: Critical Corresponence
Interview date:  October 30, 2010

Laurie Van Wieren: Let’s talk about the piece you just did in France,Mammal. How did that project become what it was?

Otto Ramstad: I got an email from Yorgos Loukos, the director of the Lyon Opera Ballet, just randomly out of the blue. I thought it was spam, because when does that happen? The email said, “This is Yorgos Loukos. I’m the director of the Lyon Opera Ballet. I want to know if you want to make a piece with the Lyon Opera Ballet. The performance dates are June 14 – 20.”

Olive Bieringa: Wow… and this was a year and half ahead of time?

Otto: Yeah. Before the rehearsals were going to start. I looked up the webpage to see if [he] was really the director, and he was. He was on a panel for the Rolex Protege Award, and I was nominated for that. I applied. I didn’t get it, but he saw our work sample. He put together an evening called Next Wave. It was me, Antony Hamilton [from Australia] and Jason Akira Somma from New York.

Laurie: How did you approach that? Did you look at videos of the ballet company?

Olive: We were all invited to Lyon to meet with the company, watch ballet class, look at the facilities, and sign a contract. Then, we said we needed to come back and audition dancers. We were very fortunate that when we were there, Ralph Lemon was there working on his piece with David Thompson. They gave us a lot of insight into the conditions of working with the company. We also got to watch the company perform Ralph’s new work as well as [Trisha Brown’s] Set and Reset, Beach Birds [by Merce Cunningham], and a Jerome Bel piece. It was like step-by-step getting to know what we were in for, in a way.

Otto: We also talked to Tere O’Connor, who had done a piece there, and John Jasperse [via] an email exchange. We were getting people’s advice of what it’s like to work in that [ballet company] structure, because our work always comes out of the dancers. We come with our scores, structures, and ideas and then the choreography comes out of the dancers interacting with it.
We also got advice from a friend [who was in] the original Twyla Tharp company. She sets Twyla’s work all around and she gave us a lot of advice as to how to fight for all your time, which is very necessary. We made extra production meetings go over the schedule, just because we originally thought that we had six weeks, but really we had 18 days within six weeks.

Laurie: When you went in there the first time, how was that? What did you have to give them to start?

Otto: We looked at our previous works, [specifically] the Holiday House trilogy. We took a lot of effective scores out of that piece and out of a solo that I did Hello, Nervous System.

Olive: …also out of the solo practice of GO.

Otto: We looked at our work and we took out scores that we developed and were still interested in, that still have potential. We brought those to those dancers, and choreography came out of that. Some of the structures stayed the same, and some new things were created. In retrospect, it was good because we knew how to direct and guide [those scores], especially when starting out with completely new people you don’t know at all.

Olive: When you’re working material that’s unknown and you’re working with unknown dancers and an unknown rehearsal context, it was just too much to take on in a short [period] of time. It was good for us to come in with material that we could embody in an instant and demonstrate. These dancers are incredible, but they’ve never performed improvisation in a show. We were interested in looking at [improvisation] as a possibility.

Laurie: What kind of score did you bring them?

Olive: Most of the improvisational scores were duets.

Otto: One of them was a score that we call “Active Passive.” In that score, one person is active and one person is passive. The passive person can either be in a still position, stiff, holding their shape, or loose, holding no effort at all. We described that as, “You’re either freshly dead, or you’ve been dead for a while.”

Laurie: This is from Holiday House, right?

Olive: Right. We also worked on this in Half Life to some extent.

Otto: The active person can move and do anything that they want. Part of their job is to create a context around the duet. They should cycle through different contexts and use the [passive] person’s body to get something they want. It could be compulsively needing touch or it could be showing that they’re above [the other person]. It could be representational but also physiological.

Olive: You’re building an image using that still person to layer yourself in the position.
Laurie: You’re also prodding them to jar their imagination.

Otto: Yes. Your imagination is very important, especially for the active person. Then the roles can switch at any time. A lot of times, if the passive person becomes the active person, it’s surprising for the active person, who has to become passive. You can only inhabit one role at a time, so the shift is a big part of the improvisation… generating the imagination inside of the image and then the shift of someone just cutting that.

Laurie: So then they take that and they develop it some more? They’re inside their imagination and their body and then what? You shape it or…

Otto: It can go several ways. We thought that maybe we’ll set choreography out of that, but actually we did it two different ways.

Olive: We did set one version and we had one improvised version in the show. It seems that it’s working when it comes out of the right partnership. Then there’s a magic in it in terms of how different people are approaching the score.

Otto: One [version] ended up being the two women that do it in the opening of the show. Maite [Cebrian Abad] and Eneka [Bordato Riano]. They had a chemistry that you just kept on wanting to watch. Maite had been in the company the longest, and she’s the oldest dancer in the company. Eneka had been in the company for only a few years and she had her 25th birthday in the middle of the show. They both have really different strategies, and I don’t think either of them had performed improvisation on stage, so that was really exciting. In every show, [Maite] changed strategies. She kept some things that worked, but kept on cycling through.

When you work with those dancers, their training and professionalism is just to take the information and not ask any questions or give feedback. That was an interesting way to try to direct improvisation because they would hold on to what they had from us for a long time and then keep working on it and change it. Because of the structure, it took us a while to realize we have to directly say, “When I ask ‘How was that for you?,’ I actually want to know.” Each individual had their own strategy within [the score], and I don’t know if they were telling each other [what that strategy was].

Laurie: Was that important to you though? That you know [the strategy]?

Olive: What was great was that it was revealed to us later in the process, but whatever it was they were doing was working. Eneka’s English is not so great, and it was revealed to us later that she had chosen just to work on one thing the whole time. It totally made sense when I saw it, but at the time we were so in the construction of the work, and what they were doing was working, so we just let it be.

Otto: Maite has a child, so we rehearsed our six hours of the day, and then she just went home like you do. It’s a job.

Olive: She’s not hanging out and socializing, talking, and processing.

Laurie: Who in that piece… there’s someone who dances in the lobby or entryway?

Olive: That’s Eneka. In her solo, she’s working with tone and being in the social environment of the pre-show audience. The audience has just come out of seeing another piece. They’re waiting to get into the theater. She comes through them, and everybody just thinks she part of the audience, but then she’s working subtly and not-so-subtly [to change] the muscular tone in her body which then is transforming the social space. People are really responding empathetically, kinesthetically, moving towards or away from her. They either want to get close to see what’s going on or they’re like, “Woah. This is too close for me.” She’s setting up a visceral experience of the physicality. Once we enter the theater, and she enters the stage space, we continue to resonate with her because it’s been set up so intimately with us.

Otto: Then, she interacts with the cast the way she interacted with the audience. Our hope was just that they have a different kind of access to empathy, having experienced something and then seeing it. [This section of the piece] was driving at one of our root concerns about working with a ballet company. They’re totally elite athletes and elite craftspeople in terms of dance, their training, and the life that they’ve had… just being a dancer your whole life, never having another job, being in a totally supported system of France, which is great and at the same time it makes a context where you can be seen as an object in a way.

Olive: Like the “other,” the special, the ballerina, you know…

Laurie: The artiste.

Otto: The valorization of the “other” in ballet is a very big thing. People want to see just how far and how different the extreme technique is from them. Part of our thought was that to be different is not that hard. [Laurie and Olive laugh.] We have [Eneka] walking around the audience, and if she just changes the tone of her shoulders quickly instead of slowly, then [she is] like the other. It’s like if you’re in the street and you see someone who is going a lot slower or faster or if they’re homeless… it’s so small, the tipping point between me and the “other.”

Olive: We were also looking at this question of culture, wildness, and civilization. I think that also comes into play with the title and having the rabbit on stage. There’s also a dog that appears in the video. There’s this play between social bodies and animal/human bodies and this idea of wild versus civilized. For me, it relates to this idea of the trained ballerina being at the height of this hierarchy and playing with that whole range of what is possible in their bodies.

Laurie: Just to get back to [Eneka’s] entrance again, she was an athlete in that. It was very intricate and disturbing in a way. I was very aware of the dancers standing next to her and [how they were] getting out of her way or getting embarrassed. The detail of her dancing was very elite in a way. It was very specific to her but highly skilled, which reminds me of ballet, but it’s a different code of course. It was a fascinating thing when she entered the theater and then she just stopped and put herself into this pose on the stage, next to the rabbit. That was a really beautiful way to just let people enter.

Otto: Just to clarify, when we’re talking about a rabbit. It’s a dead rabbit on the front edge of the stage.

Laurie: Did you eat the rabbits?

Olive: We couldn’t because we used them for multiple nights. We ended up using two and we had a burial ceremony for them down by the river. In France, everyone’s eating rabbit so it’s easy to access.

Otto: I was thinking about what [Laurie was] saying about the detail of [Eneka’s] movement and the skill of it. I’m thinking about this in our current work and always. We’re interested in trying to not display known dance vocabulary. To try to, as a puzzle, not use representation of dance. A byproduct [of this method] is that there is a level of complexity that you can get going through physiology rather than the language that you know. I think that’s interesting that when you saw [Eneka’s solo], you read the complexity of it and related it to the really technical complexity of dancing, but it’s different.
In our current piece, Symptom, we’ve been on a back-and-forth about setting things or not setting things. Because I’m so interested in discovering the complexity, going into the different sensations of it, and because I’m not super skilled at setting certain things, I’m realizing that there’s less and less time I need [to set choreography]. I could be happy with getting close enough to an approach that is generating what I want versus setting.

Laurie: How does that relate to when you’re working with other people and you’re trying to get them to do your work?

Olive: I think that’s a question of how far you can go with them based on how much time you have. There’s a certain kind of work that we create. If I wanted to create a big site-specific piece with 50 people, I may want to set material and have big unison choreography, but it’s not our interest in our work right now. We’re much more interested in these kind of intimate and complex states or physical realities. It’s the developmental way that you bring people into the complexity of the score. Right now [in Symptom], we’re working with Emmett [Ramstad], Otto’s twin sibling. He’s a visual artist, so it’s different, but the same time it’s totally the same as working with a ballet dancer.

Laurie: Because Emmett isn’t trained in your vocabulary?

Olive: Right. We have to bring people in one step at a time and layer information as we’re defining what we see as being the potential of something. You can’t just dump something on someone and expect them [to know] it. How do you bring them in piece-by-piece? Maybe that sounds very obvious. There’s something about the approach to movement [in] Body Mind Centering work that allows us to figure out what somebody needs in terms of physical activity, mind focus, senses, and imagination. [We use Body Mind Centering] to get them to this complexity that we’re interested in. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work, and we go back and figure out what’s missing.

Laurie: How do you know when it’s right?

Otto: For me, that’s kinesthetic. You’re working with empathy and kinesthesia and you’re getting intrigued or engaged. [Something works if it] is answering a lot of questions or it’s confusing in a positive way. Confusing and exciting… that’s what we call it.

Olive: There’s an agreement too.

Otto: Well, there’s two of us, so there’s a back-and-forth.

Olive: There’s a conversation about “Are we there yet?”

Laurie: What about the audience? How do you want the audience to be engaged in their imagination?

Otto: I guess there are lots of different responses. I like it, personally, at a show when I can ride the edge of understanding. I’m looking at it and I’m engaged in it, but I don’t know what’s happening… I sort of [know] and I sort of don’t. That’s the experience I want to share.

Laurie: How did you begin Symptom?

Otto: Two or three years ago, we were writing a funding application and we had that possibility to apply for the piece we were working on and then apply for work-in-progress for the next piece. We just said we wanted to do a work-in-progress, and they said, “You need to send more information.” So I invented it in a day. I had the title, Symptom. I thought this about how you know you have a body, looking at it from different perspectives—from language, medicine, and somatics.

Olive: …and how these three different perspectives give you an understanding that you know you’re in a body.

Otto: For instance, when someone says, “He has a lot of gall.” It relates to your gall bladder, and that’s a language thing. We don’t consciously think about it, but that’s one of the ways we know we have a body.

We started working on [Symptom] in a residency in Hamburg a year ago. We started working on that piece with another dancer, Elizabeth Ward. Emmett came to the second half of the residency, and we started working on the same piece with him. The communication between us, being siblings, was a huge part of the piece. So it still has some concerns about how it is to have a body and some of the vestigial interest from what the piece was. It now contains our relationship, the way we communicate, the way we look (we look really similar), and what that does. It also became about the interaction between performance and visual art. What is the dialogue between those [forms]? What is Emmett’s physical practice as a visual artist and can that come into dance?

Laurie: How do you work with him as far as getting him to move and dance?

Olive: Emmett grew up doing creative movement as a kid. When they were kids, he studied with Suzanne River who was a Body Mind Centering teacher and a children’s dancer teacher. I can say to Emmett, “Move from your blood.” And he can just do it. Because he doesn’t have a dance vocabulary on top of that, it comes from a very fresh place. There’s something lovely about that, when you’re watching someone who can really engage in something on an imaginative level and just be present with it. That’s been a starting point for us in terms of the work. There’s also been very simple gaming structures we’ve created. There’s been a lot of Emmett drawing or sculpting imaginary materials in the piece, as well as many references to other artists… kind of stolen materials.

Otto: There’s another interesting thing about when you work with someone who can move but hasn’t done a lot of dance as an adult. What do you keep of their “non-dancer”? When I look at Emmett move, I’m engaged because some of it’s really new to do and new to do it in front of people. There’s some vulnerability and total freshness. There are a few technical things that we would try to help him out with like coordinating the upper body and the lower body. There are a few things that you want to help out with physiologically and technically to make it easier.

Olive: But then at what point do you start to lose the originality of how he moves? If he hangs over, does he crook his neck to look at the horizon? A dancer would release the back of their neck unless it was part of the choreography. This brings us into seeing between Otto and Emmett; their similarities and differences. There are these physiological similarities but then there are these socializations that have happened that have led [them] to move differently or make certain choices.

Laurie: What’s different about Symptom, though, is Olive: You’re sitting outside. Are you more of the director?

Olive: Well, we’re co-directing the piece, but yes, in that I’m sitting outside and constructing the order of the day.

Otto: It also plays to some differences in our collaboration. A lot of times, I generate the scores and structures.

Olive: And I’m the structural person who makes the order and makes sense of things.

Otto: We both do both [roles], but there’s a tendency towards that.

Laurie: This is going to be performed soon.

Olive: It’s premiering in Minneapolis November 11 at Intermedia Arts and then in New York at P.S. 122 during COIL Festival and [the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference] January 5-12.

Laurie: Thank you!