An Inner Place That Has No Place is the latest collaborative work from Seattle performer Shannon Stewart (tEEth, co-founder of The Vera Project) and videographer Adam Sekuler (program director for the Northwest Film Forum). The work brings movement and video together in an investigation of memory and memory loss, touching on personal mythologies created and re-created and the way that these stories and memories define our experience of time. They were gracious enough to answer a few questions about identity, memory, rhythm and working collaboratively.
An Inner Place does an incredible job of fully integrating the video and lighting elements with the dance movement- it didn’t feel like a dance piece that had some video in it. Can you talk about how these elements came together and where the sound and lighting fit in?
Shannon Stewart: Trying to find a genuine collaborative method between live performance and film (usually recorded and edited) is something we are in constant dialogue about. For this process, we decided we really needed to be able to improvise together in real time, so we made some investments in technology to be able to dance and shoot film at the same time. Thus emerged the use of the live feed in the piece. Jeff (Huston, lighting designer) came on very early in the process and started making the composition with us. Adam, Jeff and I also did some durational improvising together (Dance, Film, and sound) that provided some kernels of ideas for movement, sound and light. In my choreographic approach, I try to let myself be informed by Adam’s editing choices and the way he frames things. I also try to see the dance as something that is supported by video from the get go and have an idea in mind about how it might work. Sometimes those ideas work and sometimes they fall flat on their face.
Adam Sekuler: I’ve long been a fan of dance, and much of my film work has involved dancers in some capacity. I’ve always found that they just understood rhythm in a way that actors don’t. While my work tends to favor the durational quality of cinema, a connection of time and space, I think that like dance, rhythm is the essence of the medium. Working with Shannon and the cast in live performance has been such a treat because it’s really heightened my awareness of those rhythms. Many of the conversations about the choreography reflected that heightened awareness, so I tried to feel the rhythm of the choreography as I built each video piece. My sense of working with Jeff is that he takes a similar approach to composing for dance. All three of these mediums really rely so much on a sense of time that they seem to naturally fall together.
Can you talk a little bit about how you both see the conceptual role of video in partnership with the rest of the piece?
SS: Film can capture and control the sense of time passing in a way that is sometimes less clear in live performance. I think this is one of the ways we used it in An Inner Place. In (the particular part with the trio of three female dancers), we are recording the present moment, but it is delayed and then refracted. There is no one version of its history even as it’s happening. In the last scene, the film is super poppy and edited, like the narratives we construct about ourselves as we tell the same stories over and over in response to questions that trigger our mythology, but they also come in and out of focus. When I first started thinking about this I was definitely thinking about how the way we document our lives in the social media age takes the idea of memory hoarding to a whole new level.
AS: In our process we talked a lot about how in general, performances using video often favors the video over the performance. I always found that odd because the performance is more immediately present. Yet, there’s just something about how large it (video) is in relation to the human scale of the dancer that draws the eye. Part of what we tried to do with the video was make it meld with the performance in a textural way. Consequently I wanted the recorded video to transform so slowly that any change would be almost imperceptible to the audience. Only occasionally would they notice its evolution, creating a similar sensation to memory in that they might find themselves wondering, “was it always like this, did I miss something?”
Moreover, as Shannon mentions, the video’s gradual temporal structure, while at once imperceptible, also heightens the sense of time. For instance, the landscape videos function in a way almost like day itself. They come and go, condensing and compressing time as only the moving image can. The audience can read this any number of ways, all of which I was hoping for. Yes this is a passage of time both real and in our minds, but what we see now is suddenly lost. I think of Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even finished.” It always lives on in our memory.
What about the creative decisions here to include such a huge range of emotion and pace in the work? Both the video and movement highlighted a lot of repetitive patterns as well. Can you say a few words about what that repetition means for you guys in terms of thinking about memory/experience/time?
SS: We started with something called Seven, Plus or Minus Two, a somewhat debunked theory about memory that says we can remember up to seven chunks of things at a time (think telephone numbers). We played lots of memory games–have a dancer make up a one minute phrase, having the other dancers watch it once and try to recreate as much of it as possible (to much hilarity). Ultimately we were most interested in the constant recreation of a story–trying to make the repetition always shift slightly so you never see the same thing twice even though you think you have seen it five, six or seven times. In terms of pacing and emotional decisions, I have taken many cues from time with my grandmother (and her experience with dementia). Things can stay the same for a long time and then change very rapidly- horror and ecstasy can live in the same moment, a paradigm can suddenly shift that untethers many things and starts to rearrange them in odd scenes, not just in her mind, but for all of us who go along with her.
AND Keep your ear to the ground because they’ve got a bunch of upcoming projects including a piece in a certain local international film festival (hush, hush for now). Soon they’ll be headed to Vienna, Berlin and Scotland so that Shannon can work in residence with choreographer Deborah Hay. (Read all about that here.)
Big thanks to Shannon and Adam for sharing their work and their minds!