Julie Mayo: Dance-making as a form of questioning the thing itself has an edge to it. And working in a field that is perhaps already inherently an “outsider’s game” (for many? All?) can be ultra-challenging, both as makers and performers. Finding performers who align with and are up for the challenge of letting go inside a process—in terms of expanding their definitions of “dancing” and “performing” as they know it, to include and be a part of mine—is a tall order.
I’ve been making dances for a while now and have worked with a plethora of performers. How I’ve come to meet and work with people has varied over the years, as have the professional and personal relationships inside the making of creative work. I’m grateful to everyone I’ve thus far had the opportunity to work with; I have learned so much! (Fortunately, an ongoing process.)
I initiated this project with dance artist Doug LeCours on the occasion of his leaving New York City after having worked together here for six years. Though we were (and are) in different stages of our careers, we’ve shared a mutual admiration and respect for each other as fellow humans and in our roles in the studio, alongside a keen alignment in values and questions around performance.
Doug LeCours: When Julie asked me to engage in a conversation about our work together, I was both excited at the prospect of commemorating a working relationship that has spanned the bulk of my performing life in New York, and a little wary—somewhat about sharing with an imagined public what has been a highly personal, deeply rigorous, and richly rewarding relationship that exists as much in the studio as it does in our friendship, but mostly of the possibility that we might fail to put words to what has been, for me, a profound six-year journey in the practice of not-knowing. How to put words to something so delicate?
What exists here is a collection of associations—a conversation. It is a sharing of the way Julie and I relate to one another, in and out of the studio: digressive because my neurons are firing so fast I have to make sure I say the thing I’m thinking before it’s gone, poetic in the way that attempting to describe the ineffable is poetic. Julie’s room is one in which humor, complexity, and the electric, humming potential of the mind-body (the “mody” as we call it) meet. I hope that reading it feels like taking a ride along the double-helix of our creative logics—and that it’s an enjoyable one.
Mayo: I’ve been thinking about our conversations about working together—most recently since we did Nerve Show at Target Margin Theater in September 2021. This has included how we’ve inspired one another over the course of our six years working together.
You described to me that working together involves a kind of sharing psychic space. Can you say more about what you mean by this?
LeCours: My experience of working with you involves a slippage into what I perceive to be your psychology, an intertwining—a duetting—of our psychic universes. I often left rehearsal feeling like I’d started embodying a “Julie-ness,” an embrace of your sensibility. I operate with a porousness inside your rehearsal processes because I find your sensibility pleasurable to inhabit. Part of what has made my working with you so rich, I think, is that our psychic universes have a great deal of pleasurable resonances.
In my experience working with you—particularly in the first piece, Terrific Freight (2018)—the How (a particular way of working/being/performing) has usually been prioritized over the What. Often, the How has to do with a certain articulation of how we’re working with perception. Rather than setting certain steps or phrases, we try to clarify our particular approach for a given scenario. This palette can involve a set of shifting states; sets of actions; and ways of relating to one another, oneself, the audience.
We often get specific about the How, I think, as a way to surprise ourselves with the What.
I felt a certain shift in Nerve Show. It wasn’t that there were a lot more Whats involved, but there were more. In my solo section, set to Alice Coltrane’s “Going Home,” I worked with what we lovingly referred to as The List, a series of actions/tasks/things that I had to embody.
My current memories of The List: small, fast steps that travel through space; whispering to myself; an operatic bellow; What if my face can be involved?; the music is not background, it influences me. In my memory we actually didn’t talk much about the How. I arrived at a How that made sense to me and made sense to you. I wonder if the rigor of working with you over time and gaining fluency in our particular duetting of psychic space allowed me to infer what the How ought to be, or at least what a How could be within the parameters of that section. It seems like the material I offered in that process was foreign yet familiar to you in that way that I’m attempting to articulate. Is that true?
Can you talk a little bit about the way How vs. What has functioned in your past work and how you feel like it’s changed/deepened/grown?
Mayo: Thank you for your thoughts here and the many threads in response to my initial inquiry. I like this “psychic duetting.” I will start by saying YES: the How of your response to “The List” that we generated from a little experimenting, and beginning right off the bat with the Alice Coltrane track, definitely worked as a How for that solo to be. A list is not a usual facet of material for me in a dance. That I chose to and could use such a minimal What speaks to the fluency you mentioned we have in the studio, and to a discernment and understanding of aesthetic choice-making that proved useful in that relatively open container.
So, yes, What and How. Historically, they have seemed very different entities to me and through the process of making a dance become one and the same. Let’s say there’s a section called “the lighthouse,” with a jumpy foot pattern, a stillness in the shape of a bridge, and a truncated speech pattern (What), and it all happens upstage and is performed with a rigidity in your body until you melt in the upstage left corner and your seeing is focused on details in the space (How). It becomes a thing, as a whole. I do think there’s a hierarchy for me with How superseding What, in many cases. It’s like the Hows become the Whats. Or Whats are constituted by Hows. This has come into play more and more over time. Starting out, I generated and configured almost all of the movement in the space. Dancers participated in my dances as executors of movement. We discussed the performance of the movement, but the specificity we worked toward was based in the movement pathways, rather than activating the perceptual realm(s) that enable the performing of the movement. Over time I’ve found ways of working that necessitate a different kind of engagement from performers, one that keeps me interested in making dances.
As you pointed out, the process for Nerve Show was a bit more focused on content than the previous piece we did. But there was still a sensorial tracking of oneself necessary for it to work. And I feel like none of my dances could ever work without that sense of immediacy, the very real sense of feeling things in each moment, but not in a somatic way. I mean, yes “somatic,” as in sensing one’s body, but not just the body and one’s internal landscape; rather, a kind of surrender, to whatever it is at the moment, while also being aware of your relationship with an audience, that it is a sharing. It doesn’t have anything to do with closing one’s eyes or trying to be “authentic,” or any other way other than what the dance is asking for: in this case, Nerve Show. It wasn’t easy, but everyone stepped up and knocked it out of the park.
There was much more time for the development of Terrific Freight for The Chocolate Factory. We had a lot of time for playing with “invitations” as experiments to improvise in and time for discussion around these. And I remember we all (Jessie Young, Iris McCloughan, you, and I) evolved a language over time, specific to how we were working, that was like a map legend for the work. I wish I had done more to document that emergent language. But it did its job; it was there when we needed it.
I have a question regarding how we came to work together. Before meeting, you had seen some of my work and were interested in being in it. We connected and had a few workplay sessions and it was apparent that we were a good fit. Can you say more about what it is that you were drawn to in my work? And do you feel like the works you have been in do that thing or things that you were searching for as a performer?
LeCours: Yes—I had peeped your work (Buoys for Escapees at New York Live Arts in 2015; Novatia Tryer at Gibney Dance in 2016) and was very drawn to it. When I saw Buoys I was in my undergraduate degree, in the early stages of developing my interests as a choreographer and performer. I remember feeling a kinship with the logic/non-logic of that work: its use of language, direct address of the audience, and humor. I felt drawn in by your collision of various tones and textures rather than inhabiting a familiar performance of Being A Dancer. You moved between recognizable dance movements, less familiar physical pathways, tragicomic text, and affective play with ease. I’ve come to understand, through my own attempt at embodiment, this state of performance as highly complex (thank goodness) in its rigorous interplay between restraint and abandon.
It was clear to me in Buoys and in Novatia Tryer that the terms you follow for your work are the terms that the work reveals to you. I remember a Q & A after Novatia where you and Jeanine Durning talked about your process, and you articulated something about starting with very little, rather than coming in with some thematic idea or content: the work develops from the process, the people, the conditions of making it. It felt refreshing to me to apprehend an artist’s work who seemed to be following their artistic interest, allowing that to be the motor with the awareness that, of course, we are making work in a social context. This is a quality I admire in a handful of choreographers, writers, and filmmakers in particular whose work we have connected over—Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, David Lynch. Your work, like theirs, is not about one thing; it is not, as you articulated in an interview about Terrific Freight, “billboard work.” It is not polemical but rather proposes an expansive array of politics, an embodiment of paradox.
Long story long, I’d say YES, working together has invited me to access those qualities I saw in you and your work, and so much more as I’ve felt your work develop and deepened my performance in it.
Thanks for those earlier thoughts about What vs. How. It’s interesting to hear more about how your arrival at HOWness emerged from a boredom with previous ways of working. I’m interested in how developing a perceptual language allowed you to make that shift. Are there any experiences you can think of, turning-points in your practice when that language started to show up for you? We met in a Deborah Hay workshop, and I know that her work has been deeply influential for you. I’m curious if it was Hay, someone else, your own time spent with your work, or an amalgamation of things that allowed you to find that.
Between these entries, LeCours and Mayo had an in-person studio session in which they mined their history of working together, segments of which appear in the video above.
Mayo: Well, the discovery of language that supports my work is an ongoing process. I’ve been influenced by many experiences and people inside and outside of dance. It’s been through my practice of making dances over the last twenty-five–plus years that both my language and my practice has evolved. Deborah Hay, with whom I began studying around 2016, was offering up her dance practice in the form of questions, while not expecting answers. I’m on board with this. It feels like an articulation of “embodied paradox,” an experience that I have been dancing and making dance with all these years. When I came into contact with her, I really appreciated the specificity of her questions—they expanded outwards and inwards at the same time.
I’ve also been influenced by filmmakers and comedians. I’m attracted to that thin line between laughing and crying, how they feel similar or can move easily from one to the other, or can be present at the same time. David Lynch is a hero to me in his uncanny alchemy of the mundane, the horrifying, and the humorous. It’s layered, it’s all in there. You and I have talked about films a lot and continue to give one another great recommendations; it’s part of the muse-ship. I recently read an interview with Lars von Trier, in which he talked about how filmmaking is about building a world of his own and that part of his job is to persuade all involved to join in his “game.” I totally align with this. Sometimes there has been a lot of persuading to be done. And this involves a great deal of trust, which has come rather easily for us.
LeCours: I recently saw Lynch’s Inland Empire, which is a beautiful example of an artist letting himself follow, however wildly, his interest. It felt intensely choreographic to me. I can’t stop thinking of the sudden dance number to “The Loco-Motion.” I laughed aloud in the theater because it came so out of nowhere yet was so exactly right.
I like that von Trier idea. Maybe that’s where a politic comes in—in the way the rehearsal room and the performance is conducted. Working as a performer for any artist involves some kind of buying into the politic of the process, but I’ve found that with you I was keen on being persuaded.
There’s a quote on Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Wikipedia page where he says that even in a fictional film, what the camera captures is a documentary about the actors because that moment of embodying the script only happens once—the subject of the documentary is HOW the performers are performing the material. This resonated deeply with me in thinking about my own process as a choreographer—what I’m interested in getting from the performers I’m working with. Does this resonate with you? There might be a little Cassavetes in there, too. I’ve felt this quality in your work, and in seeing and performing in RoseAnne Spradlin’s work, and in much of the dance and performance that has stuck with me: something at stake, a clarity or mystery in the performer’s attitude toward what they’re doing, and, in the best cases, something else that’s harder to pin down, an inevitability in the way the performance unfolds.
Mayo: It resonates a lot. Definitely a Cassavetes fan! And that Hamaguchi quote is spot on. That meta-ness is always happening. And we have a shared understanding of this in the studio (and out). What was that description you told me once of what it’s like for you performing in my work? Something like: it feels like carrying a big basket with lots of things in it, so many that some of the things are falling out as you go. So gratifying to experience an ease with transmission in a choreographic process, a keen compatibility; less time persuading equals more time for dancing. Sometimes we get lucky.