Deborah Slater and her dance group, Deborah Slater Dance Theater, have been taking on themes both intensely personal and political for more than 25 years. At the same time DSDT is readying 2008's "The Desire Line" for a run at New York Joyce SoHo in March, the multi-award winning company is in the studio preparing a new, environmentally-themed piece "Men Think They're Better Than Grass." Amid rehearsals, Deborah talked about her work.Q DSDT has a big and busy 09 season ahead. What is it like preparing a new show amid getting ready to take your company to New York?
DS We began rehearsals yesterday on inauguration day. It seemed like a very auspicious beginning and we had a terrific rehearsal. The last time this happened was when we had rehearsal on 9-11. I went to the studio thinking no-one would show up but everyone did. We made a piece based on all our experiences and what was happening in the world and it was performed on a mountain top—a one time occurrence commissioned for a Djerassi Artist salon. It was a magical, extraordinary experience. This new piece has the same special sort of feel.
One of my decisions was that this break in our regular rehearsals should be a straight ahead play period, with no sense of deadlines or finished product. The reason this was even scheduled is that one of the dancers is in the National Guard and had to leave for training. To give you a sense of perspective, he gets his health coverage this way. Creative people come up with creative solutions. The rest of the company was itching to start on the new piece, so this seemed the perfect time.
DS I usually have a prolonged play period when starting a piece. One, it gives the dancers a common ground and vocabulary of experience, especially if they are new to each other. Every one starts out on equal footing. In this case, I wanted to be able to invite the various collaborators to participate - as performers, as creators—in whatever capacity interested and challenged them. This is a work about our interdependence with our environment and each other so starting rehearsals in this way seemed an interesting idea.
Q Tell me about your play periods? You've a month-long session for 'Grass.' How do you structure those? What do you want to have as a take-away? How often have you worked this way?
To begin, I gave each of the dancers a new notebook. In it they can record notes from rehearsal, their own thoughts and writing and any drawings they want to make. It's a set of blank pages for them to fill and ultimately to look back on. For our first rehearsal I read to the dancers from information sent me by [writer] Kristen Yawitz. She wrote, "Basically, if you want for people to be changed by this piece, then I think that they need to go through something. A pilgrimage, a yoga of transformation..... Hinduism says that there are 3 kinds of yoga: jnana (knowledge), karma (actions), and bhakti (devotion). Maybe you could work with those 3 paths somehow, move from one to another (it's clear in Hinduism that the 3 interrelate)." and "There's a Hindu teaching that says "All of the great pilgrimage sites can be found in a woman's body."
With that to set the tone, I had them write about their first memories of being outside, a kind of sense memory exercise in remembering, writing, and feeling. Then we did a series of improvisations based on simple movement tasks. No more than 3 in the center at a time, first, no contact, then contact, then acceleration, inclusion of stillness, tempo changes, etc. All basic stuff filtered through the concept of flow, as in water.
Then we began a series of studies of drops of water - what that would look like. And we did some variations with that information. That pile up/compilation is just one in a never ending cycle of how one idea feeds another, triggers another. We all give input, ask questions, play, discuss and start again. Our next rehearsal will have a whole different sequence of tasks. And so we start.
DS I would like it to have a sense of hope, a rediscovery of the joy in the world around us, a remembering of what we love in the world and in each other. These were ideas i had before the Obama campaign slogan of hope came along. It was a response to the accumulated weight and depression that had settled over some many people I knew in the past 8 years. We hope to make a joyous, beautiful celebratory piece for ourselves and for our audience. That is not to say that the realities of the world will not be present. It is in the contrast, and in how we respond, that will offer a sense of possibility, a sense of continuity and a sense of a future.
Q You tackle big subjects? Where would you like to take this next, environmental piece?
DS The original trigger was a video of a polar bear trying to get onto a piece of ice that was too tiny to hold his weight, followed by the statistics on how many were drowning as they were unable to find a place to stop at the end of a long annual migration. The theory is that Global Warming has reduced the ice cap so much that there simply isn't enough anymore extending out to where they swim.
Q What or who influenced this piece most?' What is inspiring you at the moment?
Then my friend, director Jayne Wenger, introduced me to the poetry of W.S. Merwin, a deep ecologist who has been writing about the world and the environment for many, many years. Robert Haas's work, Time and Materials, and Alice Oswald's DART, are also inspiring for ways of looking and ways of structuring work. Right now i'm in that ecstatic period of drowning in reading. Would that the day to day didn't have to be taken care of!!!
DS There is simply nothing like the combination of research, new conversations, and the process of going into the studio with smart, curious, hardworking dancers to tease out the threads of an idea into something concrete - a movement phrase- and yet ephemeral. Something both thought-provoking and a source for beautiful music, visuals and movement. It is exhilarating, frustrating, astonishing and at times ecstatic. Not a bad line of work to have to spend time in. It is never boring.
Q What has/does kept/keeps you going despite the challenges?