Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Conversation with taisha paggett

the dancing body is the same body 
we move through the world with
a conversation with taisha paggett     
by Jaime Shearn Coan
taisha paggett (photo: Taka Yamamoto)

As your interviewer, I’d like to begin by asking: Do you have any concerns about being represented?

A lot of my issues around representation actually have to do with being in other people’s work—how I am continuing or contrasting one’s standard notion of a black dancing body on stage. This was coming up a lot when I was younger. I started dancing when I was eighteen, kind of late for a dancer. I remember being cast in these Alvin Ailey-esque type dances, and wondering: “Who, or what is this figure that I’m being asked to perpetuate all the time?”

I was very aware of myself as a black dancer within the downtown dance scene, which is predominantly white. Our training was always: “the neutral body, the neutral body—we’re just skin and bones.” I totally believe that but I also think it’s so complicated and it’s a very privileged thing to say. How the body is talked about in dance when we’re training—I think that’s where a lot of those questions came up for me.

Going back to my earlier years, I remember just loving the freedom that came when the teacher would pull the curtains over the mirrors. There was this notion that we could just be in our bodies and not worry about how we looked. That’s powerful, but it also is this practice of overlooking the fact that our bodies are radically different. When we’re performing, we’re not performing in the dark, we’re performing in front of an audience, for the people that are on the other side of the mirror.

I’ve always been aware of my difference in the dance world. I remember when I first moved to New York, I went to go take class at the Trisha Brown dance studio. I was super excited—my first time! I got in the elevator and it was this beautiful diversity of bodies—different colors, and hair textures, and heights, and body sizes. I was like, “This is amazing, we’re going to Trisha Brown, we’re going to take class!” And at the first stop on the elevator, all the people of color got off, because that floor was the Alvin Ailey studio. Then the elevator closed, and it was me and a bunch of white people, and we went up to Trisha Brown, and I was like, “Oh, right.”

And that’s actually why I started making work. I was interested in spending time reflecting on those experiences. I never had a dream of being a choreographer. I had some questions that I wanted to take up. I feel like identity—specifically, questions around how we come to understand ourselves as individuals and as members of a communityis constantly a part of my work. I feel like it will always be part of my work. I don’t believe that identity politics is dead or that it can ever be dead. I think that the ways in which we talk about it really have to shift.

Could you speak about your training, in dance but also visual art? You’re saying you’re motivated by questions rather than wanting to be a choreographer. And your work is very interdisciplinary.  What were some turning points for you in your approach to making work? How did you become interested in presenting work in galleries and public spaces in addition to more traditional dance venues?

First off, I have no formal training in any other discipline other than dance. Back in my hometown of Fresno, where I first started dancing, I had a friend and mentor named Cheryl Kershaw, a dancer with a visual arts background, whose work really blurred those lines.  She exposed me to a lot of possibilities around artmaking and was super influential.

Later, when I went to college (UC Santa Cruz), I felt like I was too old to focus on dance, although I was super into it. My focus was Art History, but I had some fantastic teachers who let me write all of my papers on dance. I was like: “Why isn’t dance in here?” And they were like: “You’re dancing, you’re really interested in it, so make these connections.” I think that was the place where I really started expanding this notion of what dance is. I wasn’t just trying to talk about the concert stage, but rather how the dancing body makes meaning—in whatever context. And when I got to studying more contemporary performance works, I was able to make really tangible, tactile connections. I think that turned my brain on.

Then I moved to New York (not to be a dancer!) and lived there for three years. I wasn’t interested in making work, but I had a lot of questions bubbling up in my head. I ended up performing a lot, so I was always in studio and in creative process. Something shifted and I realized that I wanted to go back to school, that I was interested in addressing these questions. I decided that I didn’t want to go to a conservatory program—that wouldn’t make sense for me at all. I chose the World Arts and Culture/Dance Program at UCLA because they did have a really interdisciplinary perspective: thinking about dance and other embodied practices all under the same umbrella.

How I started was not thinking that I wanted to be interdisciplinary. I just started thinking about the frames in dance.  Why are they so set? Identity, and the notion of the black dancer was one of those frames. But then I started seeing the stage as a frame. And the division of labor as a frame. And I just wanted to play with that. Why is it that what I’m doing is limited to the bodies in space? How come I can’t design where I perform and how come I can’t do the lights? And why do there have to be lights? And why does the audience have to be separate? 

A lot of my friends are visual artists and I got involved in having conversations with them about their work and my interest in the body. I have always believed that the dancing body is the same body we move through the world with. It was always already politicized. I guess those divisions were never really there for me in the first place.

I did some projects with Ashley Hunt, and Ultra red, and then I started working with artist Kelly Nipper, as a dancer in her work. So I was in Los Angeles, and in graduate school, and I ended up focusing a lot more on other choreographers’ work (my professors). As soon as I graduated, I started touring their work, which was all concert and black-box performance. When those things ended, I was motivated to start making work that went beyond those spaces, and to return to those initial questions I’d started exploring.

That’s when I made Decomposition of a Continuous Whole, which is a piece where I’m blindfolded and drawing on the walls of a room. I wanted to create a space where an audience was around me, and I wasn’t aware of their viewing, their eyes. I wanted to get out of this 7 minute, 15 minute, 45 minute, evening length dance structure. I wanted to expand time and have no narrative arc. I just wanted to be in an experience. And I wanted my internal experience to be as informative as what the audience was taking in.

I’d love to talk about LET’S USE THESE THINGS, your 2012 solo show at Commonwealth and Council Gallery in Los Angeles? Is that the largest spanning work you’ve made? Looking at your website, I was struck by the range of practices you engaged there. And then there was the multiplicity of your representation; I felt like you as the performer and creator were very present in all the different pieces. Also, you did something with your hair?

LET’S USE THESE THINGS was my first full installation where I’m here, and the work is there. It was a string sculpture, a painting (let’s say), a video, and a book.

That [hair] piece was called Proscenium. It was in a small room. I dipped my hair in different colored paints, and did this splash that I called “hair whip color magic.” That action was also documented and incorporated into a video called Fila Buster in the Autotuniverse which played in another small room of the gallery. So it’s like this trace of performance that becomes an object in itself, but you have to read through a knowledge of a body. In addition to the paint-streaked walls, the Proscenium piece was also full of lit candles, making it a memorial in some way.

I was especially drawn by the video triptych in LET’S USE THESE THINGS. In the center, you are performing movement outdoors, on your left is a televised dance-aerobics competition and on your right, a body-builder, who  is past middle-age, female, and black, poses in a Fitness America Pageant. What sparked your interest in popular movement phenomena such as Zumba and fitness competitions? Can you speak to your process of bringing these practices into your body?

What brought me to Zumba in the first place was this interest in negotiating shared practices and putting my body up against these other forms. I came to this whole project with the realization that I had become fixed in my notions of what is dance and what’s not dance. I’m a dancer—I felt like I should know all these other forms that are coming up, and bring them into my body. What does it mean to consider that as another type of knowledge?

Another aspect of this project was about getting some inspiration from Earth-based spiritual practices. What has been really valuable is trying to source, to find, radical practices. I feel like embedded in Earth-based spiritual practices is a really intense, capitalist critique. It says, “That tree over there is just as important as the strip mall you want to build, so we can’t plow down that tree because it lives there.” And it’s this awareness that the Earth and the things that we live around—they have a right to exist and they have intelligences. I got into these goddess notions (this is really kind of underground information, but it’s in the work), and this notion of maiden, mother, and crone. Things in threes: intelligences in threes, and three different stages of life.

I found these fitness videos, which just blew my mind! And then I came across this woman: Ernestine Shepard, the older woman who’s the bodybuilder (she was 74 at the time of this recording, so must be about 76 now). Here’s this elder who is practicing this type of form that is the exact same thing as what the fitness people are doing, but what does it mean to look at her—this coming out in her form? The juxtaposition of this virile grandmother with buff muscles. I was interested in placing myself as a negotiation or intersection of those two points. What I was doing was improvised, it was very square, because that was how I was interpreting Zumba. Zumba on my loosey-goosey, everything-flows body creates square, angular, structured-ness.

Can we talk a little bit about your vestibular mantra (or radical virtuosities for a brave new dance) In it, you write:

stay visible, stay wanting more, stay addressing
what’s not there and what the
audience isn’t willing to see.

stay knowing that if they get this dance, there might be something wrong.
stay knowing that if something is only to be gotten, we might all be doing something wrong.

Maybe this has to with the frames you were talking about before: the show’s over, the lights come on, we go home, we’re satisfied (or not). It seems like you’re expressing an interest in the audience and performers moving forward together, being more involved, or interdependent. I feel like there’s also a kind of pushing too: “what the audience isn’t willing to see.” There’s an interesting tension that’s coming across. Were you ever more concerned with the audience “getting” your work?

I do think about what the audience perspective might be on work while I’m making it, and then I have to put that away, and come back to it. The experience of someone spending time with my work—well, time is a resource, and I think that’s very sacred. I also feel that the audience is the work. There is an exchange that happens; the work exists because there is an audience. I mean, work can exist without an audience, but I do feel like there’s a completion of a circle when the audience is present. I’ve become more interested in creating spaces that envelop both the audience and the performer into this total experience.

My issue about what the audience isn’t willing to see, and knowing if there’s something to be gotten, we might be doing something wrong—is that there’s this “aboutness” that weighs so heavy in dance-making (and in making work in general, and in thinking). That “about”—we’re so fixated on that. And there’s so much more. I feel like work is an experience. When you even say that word “about,” it fixes—like it has to have a certain conclusion, or have a series of logic in place. I feel that that’s really limiting and not useful at all. So, it’s not about not caring what the audience gets. This work might not be “about” what the work is about anyways—it could simply be about us being together in space. It could be as much about the tampon you accidentally dropped on the floor while you were trying to turn off your cell phone and what came up for you in that experience—as much as it is about this duet I did. Again, frame—it’s not just the dance. It’s all the other things that come up.

Yes. I feel that that’s also really relevant to writing about dance, that we tend to go to a place of the mind, rather than trying to talk about how it feels to experience a performance through our bodies. Relying exclusively on language, or ideas. That somehow feels safer, or easier. It’s also keeping it away from us, the audience, as in: “This is not about me, this is about what I’m seeing, what’s being presented.” I think people only think of the audience being involved if it’s an audience-participatory work. And people have very strong feelings about that, for or against.

Audience participation gives me the hives! I guess I'm interested in involving the audience on a more experimental level.  How do I shape the environment so they feel that the boundary between them and the stage is not so present? I also really like making work in small spaces where eye contact can actually happen between people. 

What are you working on now?

The Fila Buster project started last year with a piece I was asked to propose for the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco. The prompt was: “This is what I want.” I decided the thing that I wanted was to address speech and the act of speaking. I had become very aware of the silence of my body. A friend of mine made a comment to me about one of my works: that she was really struck by me being blindfolded and not talking. She felt that sometimes it took power away from me. I sat with that and was thinking about how the voice is so not-present in dance.

So I was interested in speech and voice and I started researching ideas about talking and came across filibusters, which I thought was like a queering of time—a way to toy with and stretch time, and use it as a tool. In the filibuster, you’re just buying time through speech. So I was questioning this thing of “aboutness” and thinking, “How do I get to these ideas?” I decided, instead of making a piece about filibuster, to make a character called Fila Buster, who was the embodiment of these ideas. A pivotal moment in American history when the notion of the filibuster became a household name was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which was part of a chain of events that eventually led up to the American Civil War. I got interested in this character being a woman who is trapped between that era and this current era.

It made me realize that, in dance, the “neutral body” that we perform is always a version of us that’s not actually us. I got interested in pushing that thought further and exploring the possibilities around inserting character and subjectivity into a dance, seeing what that might add to these questions around identity and fixed-ness. The specificity of identity but also the ambiguity of identity is really interesting to me. And so, all the works I make now have Fila Buster. Her questions, her thought process and subjectivity are present, and she's the one who guides and helps me make sense of it. That’s how I’m getting at “aboutness.”

The process brought up more questions than what I could address in that piece. This next work that I’m making is also under this Fila Buster Project/Certain Repetitions Fail Us.  It has a working title of Parallelogram, and is definitely a continuation of questions about Zumba and structured dance forms, history, and identity.

It seems similar to writing a persona poem. Or like a prompt, in that it can bring you to new places. Do you feel that you receive a voice? Does that character feel like a real person to you, that you work with, or are you very aware that you’ve created her?

I definitely enjoy tapping into the notion that she’s speaking through me. That’s actually quite informative. But I'm also clear that she's a series of ideas and a strategy for doing things. And that “she” is an “it”. She’s not even a “she”. To call her a “she” would be too much to fix her as this thing. She’s like a transhistorical constellation of ideas.

Wow. Yes. Okay, one last thing: Can you address your decision to forego capitalization in the spelling of your name and in your writing?

I think it’s my lack of interest in labels and certain types of fixed formalities. I typically don’t capitalize the beginnings of the sentences when I write my bio. Politically, I think there’s something about softening myself into the collective of the other words on the page and choosing to make decisions about how that narrative is constructed. I guess I see the bio as a script, a location, and a point of entry—so I do pay attention to how it speaks.

taisha paggett makes things and is interested in what bodies do. she believes language is tricky, thoughts are powerful, and that people are most beautiful when looking up. her work for the stage, gallery and public sphere include individual and collaborative investigations into questions of the body, agency, and the phenomenology of race, and has been presented nationally and abroad, including The Studio Museum in Harlem, Danspace at St Mark’s City (New York City), Defibrillator (Chicago), The Off Center (San Francisco), and BAK Basis Voor Actuele Kunst (Utrecht, NL). as a dancer she’s had the honor of working extensively with David Roussève, Stanley Love Performance Group, Fiona Dolenga-Marcotty, Vic Marks, Cid Pearlman, Cheng-Chieh Yu, Baker-Tarpaga Projects, Rebecca Alson-Milkman, Kelly Nipper, Meg Wolfe, Ultra-red, and with Ashley Hunt in their ongoing collaborative project, “On movement, thought and politics.” she lives between Los Angeles and Chicago where she's a full-time Guest Lecturer at the Dance Center of Columbia College. she holds an MFA from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance and is a co-instigator of the Los Angeles-based dance journal project, itch.

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