Edisa Weeks
photo: Julie Lemberger                             

An Interview with Choreographer Edisa Weeks
via e-mail

Interviewer: Wanda Phipps

Wanda Phipps: What have your experiences been presenting your pieces in living rooms and other unconventional spaces?

Edisa Weeks: I have been performing LIAISONS since May of 2006, and I haven’t become bored yet. Each time I think I have learned all I can from the work something new happens which completely shifts my understanding of the piece. Each space we perform in is a new experience, a new variable, a new unknown. It allows the work to stay fresh, interesting and unpredictable for the dancers.

I consider the work to be interior specific as opposed to site specific, in that the dance happens in a small rectangular space with people sitting on four sides. The rectangular space can be anywhere – a restaurant, a gallery, a theater, a living room, a bedroom, a senior center - I prefer performing in a home, as there is an intimacy, informality, and sense of relaxation that happens in a home.

Each space has its own quirks - low ceilings, hanging lights, pillars, wall-to-wall carpeting - which the dancers need to figure out how to navigate or incorporate into the piece. One home had a staircase that descended into the living room that made for great entrances and exits. In a railroad apartment we performed in a contained room and how the dancers opened or closed the door to the room became a part of the piece. At a performance in a loft apartment we hadn’t finished rehearsing when guests started arriving. The host directed everyone to her bedroom where people reclined on her bed drinking wine and eating cheese and grapes till we were ready. It was awesome. How often do you get to hang out on a stranger’s bedroom. It felt very illicit. I love being able to shift and stretch boundaries.

More important than the space is the audience, as the audience directly affects the tone, direction and experience of the work.

One of the inspirations for creating the work was that I had moved from Manhattan back to Brooklyn and I started to ride the subway again. (Prior to that I would bike everywhere). What struck me about the subway is that I would be sitting very close to a person and our shoulders or thighs would be touching but there was no acknowledgement of the connection. Or I would be sitting directly across from a person but there would be no eye contact. I wanted to create a performance where I gave people permission to watch and acknowledge each other. Where how people responded to what was happening in front of them became a part of the dance. As a result the dancers interact with each other and with the surrounding audience. It makes it difficult to rehearse certain sections of the dance as they don’t make sense without an audience.

What is challenging for the dancers; is because the audience is so close there is no place to hide. If the dancers are not truthful or fully committed to the moment, the audience can tell immediately. It is both a very vulnerable and addictive performance experience.

Boxed In
photo: Jaye Phillips 

WP: How do you choose the spaces where you perform the piece?

EW: Half of the fun is finding the homes to perform in. We have performed in luxurious homes as well as barebones lofts. I initially found homes by sending an email to everyone on my list and asking if they would host a performance. After that it was by word of mouth where someone attended a performance and then wanted to host it, or would recommend a friend to host it.

I will visit a place prior to arranging a performance to make sure it can work and to discuss the logistics with the host. The one time I didn’t it was a bit of a shock as it was a tiny railroad apartment. I had already committed so the dancers condensed their movement and it was a very, very intimate performance.

When Andre Lepecki invited me to perform LIAISONS in Berlin, Germany as part of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s (HKW) 50 Anniversary Celebration, I was concerned as I didn’t know anyone in Berlin. Andre and I talked and decided that I would roam the streets of Berlin and ask random strangers if I could dance in their living room. My goal was to find three homes. I spoke with about 180 people and three ultimately said YES! It was incredibly liberating experience and a fun way to promote Delirious Dances as well as to inform people that HKW had reopened.

Prior to Berlin when I described the project to people the responses were mixed, most people laughed and said that was a sketchy way to find homes, that I needed more concrete plans, or that Europeans would not be willing to let strangers into their home. I was especially concerned after I did a test run in New York City, however I found that Berliners were more receptive to the idea than New Yorkers. There is less of a culture of fear in Berlin.

The areas where I was successful in finding hosts were the public library and the park. The worst areas were in front of a grocery store, by a train station and the post office.

There is a short, seven minute, documentary – LIAISONS in Berlin - about the Berlin experience. You can watch it on youtube or on our website: http://www.deliriousdances.com/PAGEliasons.php

photo: Jaye Phillips                                          

WP: How do you prepare the space before performances?

EW: I try to be as minimally disruptive as possible on the hosts, and to respect the fact that we are performing in people’s homes. We generally show up the day of the performance about three hours before guests arrive to orient ourselves in the new space and rearrange the furniture so the guests can sit on all four sides. I LOVE rearranging furniture. If I wasn’t a choreographer I probably would have become an interior designer, both involve arranging space and creating transformations.

The very first home we performed in the host – who was a yoga instructor – freaked as we started rearranging her furniture. She had knick-knacks and books that were arranged in a particular order to give a specific effect and we were disturbing her arrangement. She wanted to take photographs so she could remember how to put it back together. Her husband convinced her to relax and go with the flow.

In Berlin the three people who said YES to hosting were a law student, a religious professor, and an experimental music curator who had questions/reservations about my choreographing to Mantovani's music. Another difference between New Yorkers and Berliners, is New Yorkers cleaned up their home so it was spotless before a performance, whereas Berliners were less concerned about having perfectly clean and proper spaces. I appreciated that. It is more real, lived in.

The law student lived with three other people and what normally would be the living room had been turned into her bedroom. It made for a huge bedroom and we decided to perform there. We hid the undies in her hamper so when the undies started flying, she was initially mortified as she thought her dirty laundry was being tossed.

The religious professor could not be at home to let us in, so he arranged for a neighbor to open his apartment and give us the keys. I was amazed by his trust in complete strangers and also by how dusty and disorganized his place was. Not only did we rearrange his living room, we also swept, mopped and watered his plants. He returned to a transformed space. He actually liked and kept some of the changes we made.

The music curator had a very minimal aesthetic and her apartment was simple and spartan so there wasn’t much to rearrange. She had an awesome collection of lights and artwork, but only three chairs. We borrowed chairs from a neighbor and most people sat on the floor.

WP: Does the dance piece work in every living room?

EW: YES, with some tweaking.

WP: Does the performance change based on the space?

EW: The dance changes depending on the audience and how willing people are to take risks and participate in the dance.

From trial and error I’ve learned that I need to give the dancers freedom to respond to who is in the audience and what is happening around them.

In Solomon’s solo my initial idea was to have a black man offer his hand to a stranger and give them a gift of a dance. In American society black men are perceived as threatening so I wanted to shift the paradigm. It initially was an open improvisation however that wasn’t effective, so I developed a series of six “tasks” that Solomon can choose from to give as a gift.

At one performance a person gave Solomon his head instead of his hand. The ‘gift’ became a tender exchange of weight and trust. At a performance in a restaurant a man immediately stood up when offered a hand and then created an incredible duet where they were forging rivers, climbing mountains and catching stars. The audience laughed, cheered and spontaneously clapped when it ended. In talking with the man after the show I found out he was training to be a mime. At a senior center an elderly woman was so clearly thrilled to be asked to dance. She had an amazing presence and it was a joy to watch her interact with Solomon. At that same performance an older man kept a hilarious running commentary going that added to the dance. Like when Jeffrey who is a small guy and was just wearing underwear approached a big heavy set elderly woman, the old man shook his head and stated “Oh no, she’s too big for you”.

At another senior performance the center was running behind schedule so started serving ice cream and cake during the performance. We could not compete with ice cream and cake. The dance is designed to disintegrate into ‘real life’, and at that performance it truly disintegrated.

In Ben’s solo I was interested in flipping the objectification paradigm and specifically objectifying a white male. His solo occurs after two women have blindfolded him and stripped him to his under ware, and in the solo I wanted him to inappropriately displace his anger at the two women onto the audience.  Initially the solo was set and there was a specific spatial pattern that he followed.

At one performance a woman strongly empathized with his predicament and became very upset when he displaced his anger. She also was not comfortable with having a man dancing in just underwear. She started shaking her head “no” as he approached her, but she was directly in his spatial pattern. She felt threatened and violated and fled the room in tears. The situation generated an intense post show discussion as the dancer felt terrible about what had happened, several people thought that her leaving was a part of the piece and that it made the moment more poignant, and it raised the issue of what is my responsibility as a choreographer to the audience.

What I learned is that:

  • It is important that people understand there will be interaction between the dancers and the audience so they can decide if it is a performance they want to attend.

  • When possible provide two rows of seating so people that are not comfortable with being on the spot can sit outside the circle.
  • Allow Ben’s solo to be more flexible and improvisatory so he can adjust to any information he is receiving from people.

  • That as an artist I am not interested in aggressively pushing buttons, but rather in tickling them and getting people to reflect on why those buttons exist.

A crucial part of the work and in many ways for me the point of the work is the discussion afterwards. It allows people to address what they experienced and any issues that might have come up, and it allows contemporary modern dance to be a vehicle for discussion.

It is so satisfying when people are not afraid to make choices and engage with the work. I find it frustrating that in general men are more willing to take risks and are less concerned about being “right.” I’m trying to figure out if I can create an interactive dance that encourages women to have more gumption.