Janet Wong, Associate Artistic Director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and creator of the video art for Serenade/the Proposition, discusses the creation of the piece with Aktina Stathaki.
AS: Can you give us a bit of background on Serenade/The Proposition? How was the idea born? Can you describe the process of researching and developing the piece?
JW: We were commissioned to create a work about Abraham Lincoln for his bicentennial by the Ravinia Festival. We were doing a lot of research about the man and his times and Bill decided that all the new works in these two years will be around this subject. Serenade/The Proposition premiered at ADF last year and was the first. We have three so far. We read a lot. Bill and I have our own library of Lincoln books. The dancers and musicians were also doing their own reading. We watched a couple of documentaries together . And then there is the internet.
AS: Serenade/The Proposition comes to The Joyce after being shown at other venues. And it is linked to another of the company’s works inspired by the legacy of A. Lincoln, Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray. I remember reading an interview in which Bill T. Jones said that works are babies that need attention and time to grow. How, in your experience working with the company, do the works grow from babies to maturity? Does time bring changes/revisions of ideas?
JW: It is different with every piece. For Serenade/The Proposition there were very few changes. In the past we have turned other pieces inside out after the premiere, changed the whole ending, etc. This piece was made in less than half the time that we usually have for a full length work. We were making major changes to the structure everyday during the week of technical rehearsals and somehow on the very last day we arrived at something that felt right and it stayed. I know that when new dancers come into the cast next year, there will be some changes.
AS: In contemporary performing arts (dance as much as theater), we see a growing interest in exploring the intersections between movement, music and text. Please speak a bit about how this general trend affects the work of the company.
JW: Bill has been using text since he first started making work. We have of course done works that are music-driven exploration of pure dance, but throughout the history of the company there have been many works that incorporate text, including Serenade/The Proposition.
AS: Bill T. Jones has previously said that the company’s aesthetic is social vision. Can you elaborate on this?
JW: That’s a hard one. I don’t know about aligning aesthetic and social vision but maybe this speaks to it. Bill and Arnie created this company because society at large said they cannot have children. They wanted the company to look like the world that they want to live in. On the other hand, many works from the company’s past and present deal with the social.
AS: How is the engagement with historical material reflected in Bill’s process of creating and choreographing this piece? In other words, how does the literary and archival research finds its way into the work?
JW: This piece is in some ways our rumination on history. “It could be said that this history is a woman whose house is divided”, or, “It could be said that history is distance, the distance between that man and me” are two of the many propositions we make. They are our reflection on the historical material. We use excerpts from historical speeches in a few sections, sometimes to contextualize it, sometimes to give it perspective. At other times a paragraph would inspire a section. For example the women’s section came from reading about how women would come to the battlefield to look for their loved ones after a battle.
AS: What do the dancers bring into this process of exploration and of finding connections with history? And how does the fact that your dancers come from various cultural backgrounds shape the process of creation as well as the understanding and interpretation of the historical material?
JW: The dancers always contribute in a big way. Some of the sections were made from structured improvisation. In other sections they use material that they have learned to create quartets and quintets. And during the process dancers were asked many questions, one of them is if there is such a thing as “the big question of the day” and what is it? This discussion became a sound collage for the piece. The foreign dancers in the company are very invested in the exploration of the historical material, after having made three works. In fact I feel they (Taiwanese, Turkish, Mexican) may have more relation to social upheaval than our American dancers. We did not present their stories in this piece, but we can hear them in the recorded discussion.
AS: I find the engagement with history and archival material fascinating. One of the most crucial aspects of understanding and relating to history is that there are dominant interpretations and narratives on history as well as contesting, multiple views and interpretations. How does the company deal with this in the selection of the materials it uses?
JW: In Serenade/The Proposition we are not trying to present history in any factual way so we were not very concerned about the different interpretations. But having said that, the fact that there are many interpretations and that the country is still divided on Lincoln and the Civil War (among many things) opened the way for us to write our own ruminations on history.
AS: What is the relationship in the performance between language (text) and body? In their juxtaposition, do they complement or contradict each other?
JW: The text and movement inform each other. The text sometimes introduces or contextualizes a section. Sometimes a line of text offers us an image that becomes the seed of a whole section. Sometimes we deconstruct, repeat, accumulate the text and use it almost as music. Sometimes the sentiment behind an event or a particular text inspires another section. Sometimes the dance/dancer is the inspiration for the text.
AS: This is more of a thought, an observation, rather than a straightforward question but perhaps you’d be interested to comment on it: there is something about history which is archived, “still”, frozen in time. And on the other hand dance is constant motion, always in flux, impossible to capture or repeat. I wonder how this contrast may have affected the company’s work or the way the company sees the engagement with historical material.
JW: That’s an interesting point. I was reading a wonderful book, This Republic of Suffering which looks at the civil war through the lens of death while we were making this piece. It was a big inspiration. I knew as I was reading it that I could not even begin to understand what it felt like to be alive then, but somehow I was crying by the end of the introduction. And why am I saying this? Maybe just to say that the “stillness” of history is not so still. The fact that we are looking at history across immense distance in time and space already sets it in motion. In our modest way we try to make the past reflect on us and vice versa. And maybe we do this precisely because of its “stillness”.