Kate Wallich & Perfume Genius on Collaboration

The Sun Still Burns Here is an evening of collaboration between Seattle-based choreographer Kate Wallich and her company The YC, and Los-Angeles musician Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius. The work transcends form and expectation, a spiritual journey of individuals unravelling themes of catharsis and deterioration. The project unites a team of two musicians, five dancers, and four designers to create a three-dimensional performance that radically integrates an indie rock music performance with contemporary dance. We sat down with both artists to discuss the work now at The Joyce from November 13-17, 2019. 


An Interview with Kate Wallich and Perfume Genius by Nadia Halim

Tell us more about the title of your collaboration, The Sun Still Burns Here. How did you both decide to describe the work in this way?

Kate: It was important for us to somehow let people know that we're in a different place, ‘Here.’

Mike: I also thought of it as hope because we kind of cycle through everything. It's not all sweet in the show. But it ends in this place that's hopeful. Not because it necessarily got better or anything, because all of that stuff can exist all at the same time, both good and bad. That soup is complicated and messy, but there's still a lightness. There's still love there. It feels like it’s own place.

Do you feel like the work changes, when you’re performing in different places?

Kate: Well, at this point, we've only premiered in Seattle, but we've done a piece a lot. It really feels like every time you start to do the piece, it feels like its own journey. We created it in a way that snowballs for everybody, individually and collectively. It accumulates how it needs to based on if there's just one person in the room watching it, no one in the room watching it, or a huge audience. Premiere night was so fun. It was really bizarre to have that much energy shooting at you. It's energetic, it changes the room.

Did you ever envision this piece not being on a proscenium stage? Maybe in the round, or something a little bit more interactive with the audience?

Kate: Definitely from the start, from early production meetings, we considered its ability to morph and change. I think also just knowing the meeting points between our mediums and the different audiences that may potentially be seeing this, we had to be flexible.

Mike: There's many ways to do the show and have it remain intact energetically, like at a music festival or something, versus within a silent theater.

Kate: Or even here at The Joyce, you bring in a dance audience, so I feel like our rehearsals, even between the premiere in Seattle and to coming to New York, have considered that. Working with Mike brings in another audience, even in Seattle, which we consider our home audience. I think we definitely have considered seeing this morph and continue.

Nadia: That's exciting to know that it's a project that will continue, not just a blip in time given how ephemeral these forms are.

Kate: I mean there is a set though-

Nadia: True, I was going to ask about that.

Kate: That set can shift though, I guess.

Nadia: The set is just saturated with visual illusions. I mean, when describing the piece, you've referenced everything from dance theater to visual art to film. Cy Twombly, Pina Bausch, Scott Ridley, Paula Abdul…

Mike: Lots of references, yes.

Kate: I think we both mood board-

Mike: Pretty heavily. Sometimes, I choose a tiny bit of it or it's blown up completely, but from the beginning we would always go in with at least a world for everything.

Do you find that both of you like to immerse yourself first visually into an idea versus sonically or in a movement-based way? Even coming from entry points of music and dance, is it always a visual impetus?

Kate: For me, it is. It's been like that forever. When I think about my childhood, I was obsessed with collaging from fashion magazines. I would put together colors and images and fashion and models’ faces because they were exuding a certain energy I like to feel in dance. For me, inspiration is very visual, and the visual brings on the other elements.

Mike: When I write music, it's essentially finding some divine thing, catching onto a mood. I just write it and go deep into it. I get obsessed with one vibe or one crunchy moment in my head, and then I just start grabbing anything that I feel fits. With visuals, it’s like ‘How will I feel being in that picture? How will I feel wearing that?’ Whatever I'm looking at starts that whole conversation.

Kate: I haven't considered this until right now, but I'm just imagining if you didn't also work like this, from the start. You also do that. I didn't ever consider that until just right now in this moment. I bet not everybody does that.

Nadia: No, for sure. It seems like such a specific way to start a process.

Mike: We would send each other absolute garbage, like "Look at this garbage."

Kate: And I'm like-

Mike: And she’s like "Yeah, yeah! I love that garbage!"

Kate: I've just never considered that maybe people don't work like that.

Nadia: That's why I was interested to hear that you both were invested in sharing imagery in order to build that artistic sense of trust. I wondered if it was something you just agreed to do for the sake of learning about each other, or if you were already aligned from the start.

Mike: It felt like that. And sometimes I feel like, when working with other people, what I want gets lost or changes, and it's less mine. This project felt like things grew and changed but ultimately all growing in the same direction. The ideas were everybody's but because it was made all together, I still felt really connected to it. Maybe that's because it's such a 360 thing where I'm moving inside of it and singing and it's always a 360 thing. It's not just a picture I have to fit in to technically as a musician.

There's an egalitarian nature to how the work is being presented. Everyone involved is credited to the same degree. I feel like that's part of your ethos as artists. How did that work logistically in a rehearsal setting? How did you make sure that you were being productive as well as listening to everyone?

Kate: There's a lot of listening. Historically, before this collaboration, I've been in a place where people are afraid of me. I didn’t want that. But now, I would say in this creation, everyone has a voice, everyone is heard. I've always wanted that. But for a while, I didn't know how to access that. I didn't know how to create the space because of the dance world, because of the hierarchies that this medium has, that we are born into in a lot of ways. But we didn't all know each other, so I questioned how there was going to be a space for us to get to know each other and for there to be authenticity and genuine choice-making? It had to be in this place of listening.

Mike: I think we're both used to filling in space. I didn't feel like I had to do that because it was so circular. Everybody was making it-

Kate: Part of the conversation. Sometimes it is hard for me to get choreography out. Actually, most of the time. I am not the type of choreographer that says, "Will you go over there and make eight counts of it?" because I want to be the one making eight counts, but sometimes I can't get it out. But they know me so well. We created space for conversation for all of that, so everyone is a collaborator. Everyone made the piece.

Did any of those conversations revolve around the language of the piece, the lyrics? 

Mike: I think it was hard for me because we were clearly talking in this morphing language with each other. But then, in order to write lyrics, I have to be specific if it's going to be effective. I needed to inject a narrative, but the narrative is mine. Everybody in the dance has their own. It bounces off mine, it has become part of my lyrics.

Kate: There's a lot of improvisation inside of the work that was built off of physical, kinesthetic research. I see the actual lyrics, in a similar way. There's a structure, a clear form that's highly designed. Even when there weren't actual lyrics. It was-

Mike: It was gibberish.

Kate: All this gibberish. That clarity from gibberish to actual language or structure of improvisation to dance or choreography, it feels similar. It wasn't like I was just responding to the lyrics or something.

Mike: We had already rolled around with each other before I wrote the lyrics. I had actual bodies in my head when I was writing the lyrics. I say names. I think you and the dancers hear it when I'm calling. They're not your actual names, but I'm calling out  names in this theatrical old-timey way, kind of introducing everyone, and then calling out for them. I thought of it as an opera, in some ways.

It seems like you're deconstructing a lot of what's normative in collaborations between musicians and dancers. It's not a musician featuring the backup dancers. It's not dancers featuring background music. You're really working in this radical realm. What was it like working between these mediums so fluidly? 

Mike: We gave each other freedom to go as hard and as far as we want in any direction. I actually felt more free than usual. I guess because it's not all reliant on me when I was writing it.

Kate: When we first came into the room together for rehearsal, at that point there had been a lot of conversations, talking, meeting, production meetings. Prior to that, the dancers, we had a pre-research period to create all the conversations that we were having together based on the mood boarding and all of that distilling. Then I went into the studio with that distillation process and was like "Let's start physicalizing some of this." We formed a language for it; words that help describe a feeling or physical landscapes. Then, when Mike and Alan Wyffels, Mike’s partner and our collaborator, came into the studio with us for the first time, we proposed that physical landscape. I remember Alan being like, "If you were to just walk into this room right now and not know anything that's going on, you would have an idea what was going on.” That's when the seeds of music were starting to get formed, too. The music became-

Mike: The real thing. That's how I write music, too. It was so fun and inspiring to me to watch other people do that with just how they move. I mean, I go into my room, I play, I turn off the lights, I start playing the piano, and then I'll find some feeling and I'll explore it for a while and just be in it, singing and playing. Then eventually when I feel like I have it, I turn that into something more concise rather  than just this ephemeral thing. I turn it into a song. That's how we made the whole thing. We threw everything in the pot, we hung out in the pot for a while, and wormed around, and then slowly-

Kate: Until we caught onto something.

After all the distillation of ideas, how would you describe your experience performing this work?

Kate: I never get to perform. This is my fifth evening-length work. I never put myself in the center, I always put myself in the back. I always want everybody else to have the experience because they're my dancers. They're the art. It made me want to cry the other week thinking about it because I never really get to experience my works and I never get to do them more than four nights, maybe. The few pieces that have touring, it's very minimal touring, and then you go somewhere and you do a full week of tech for like two shows. This is the first time I feel like I've got to live inside of my world and my work. Even better that it's not just mine and that it really was made from this place of trust. It feels really rare and special and, for me, it just feels like happiness.

Mike: It requires a lot. It's giving and taking in every direction, for me. Before the first show, I cried for two hours. Then we did the show and I felt like I recycled through every possible feeling I could have. Then I fell asleep laughing. You know what I mean? I went home and I just laughed for an hour. It's tense. It doesn't feel draining because that's what I want. I want that. I've always wanted that. I want all those things to exist at the same time, always tumbling together and just f***ing blowing up. Not that the patience and tenderness and stillness can't be in there, but it can be really close to the opposite. But that also requires a lot of you. To be able to feel that way with other people and have that somehow feel safe still? It's almost too much.

Nadia: I can only imagine. It feels like it comes from a place of such genuine intensity. You're feeling the whole gamut of all of these emotions.

Mike: And that's what I love. That's what I'm waiting for when I watch anything or see anything. That's what I want to have happen when I go on stage and when I go to a show. I want to see someone completely lost in whatever they're doing. This, more than my own shows in a lot of ways, creates a place for that to happen.

Kate: Like Mike, I want to see someone getting closer to the thing. When I watch, like, videos of competition girls on Instagram, I feel it more than I feel like it when I'm in an actual professional dance setting sometimes. I feel like I don't see it enough and I wanted to do that. I want to see real people, getting closer to it.