Taking Process to a Truly Transformative Place
A question that often follows a performance by Kelly Bond is “where did she come from?”
This could be because of her atypical bodily experiments, like her 2009 Fringe show “Splitting the Difference” in which she pulled her lips apart and bared her teeth until it was uncomfortable to sustain. Or in her recent “Colony” with Melissa Krodman when she approaches strangers in her audience and says “I love you very much.”
But the question could also come from the fact that her work defies categories. Is it dance? Theater? Performance art? The answer is yes. Her creations are stand-outs: they merge all three worlds, challenge any conventional definitions of beauty, and reconfigure what it means for an artist to invest in research. Talking to Bond and her collaborator Krodman about “Colony,” their current fringe event, reveals the disparate ideas that inform their work. “Colony” is unusual in the raves it has garnered from DCIst, DC Theatre Scene, and even The Washington Post, a paper that is notorious for its nearly non-existent coverage of experimental dance.
A natural place to begin our conversation at Teaism on Sunday was with the frequently asked…
PINK LINE: where did you come from?
Kelly: I grew up in Mississippi in a very rural area, which you wouldn’t necessarily think of looking at my work, but it has been a big influence on me. I did my first dance training there, in Mississippi. My first job was as an aerobics instructor when I was 16 and later I did fitness competitions as well. I did two competitions in one year when I was in community college, and then I went to university and decided to study dance, which is when I stopped competitions and shifted direction as well as developed a very different physical aesthetic. After undergrad in 2002 I moved to West Virginia to do musical theater and then I moved to DC because I didn’t want to move back to Mississippi—I wanted to dance and to be close to a boyfriend in WV at the time. The first company I worked with was Jane Franklin Dance in 2002. I searched for dance companies on the web and found her company online. One of Jane’s dancers, Stephanie Bass, had also worked for Theatre West Virginia, so there was a connection. I emailed Jane and she invited me to a rehearsal, and after I went, she said she’d like to work with me so I moved here. Then I went to grad school for dance in London at Laban and then I went to France to be part of a program of artists in Montpelier... And I keep coming back here.
PINK LINE: Why to DC?
Kelly: It feels like my home and I’m comfortable here and have connections here. I haven’t yet felt super compelled not to be here.
PINK LINE to Melissa: where did you come from?
Melissa: I grew up in a family that moved every few years and I was in dance classes from a very young age, but the constant moving influenced my training because it all depended on the studios where we lived and I never had consistent classes. When I was 11 we moved to Houston and there I started taking classes consistently.
Kelly: You have more dance training than I have. I didn’t start until I was 16...
Melissa: I did not have a propensity for ballet but did a lot of jazz and musical theater. I did media studies in college and really kept with musical theater. I trained with Ann Reinking and was very influenced by Fosse’s style. It’s in the body and I can’t get rid if it.
PINK LINE: Did that influence Colony?
Melissa: The way we work – I would say our process – is to allow things that are in the body to rise to the surface, maybe in a subconscious way. We don’t create phrase work. We don’t do set choreography. Instead we have an open canvas process, exploring what comes first to our bodies. I think it’s natural that things in our bodies’ histories come up but that is not a conscious process.
Kelly: That could also be a comment about “Splitting the Difference,” which was a piece about a body’s history [performed in the Fall Fringe Festival in 2009]. What Melissa was saying about style was one of the reasons I wanted to collaborate with her: because she had a background different from mine and she did jazz and I had seen her perform burlesque. With those kinds of things I was curious about what kind of piece we would make. Obviously in “Elephant” [Bond’s 2010 Fringe show] Melissa was a collaborative performer, but I directed that piece and this one we co-choreographed. I was curious what kind of dance we would make together.
Melissa: Over the years I have been losing interest completely in musical theater and losing a lot of interest in jazz and I have more interest now in experimental work. For me the collaboration with Kelly is accessing things in my personal history but would not be used in any form of dance I have more experience with. My current training is in clowning and mime and improvisation. Those are more recent additions to my training. I’m now in my last year at Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training in Philadelphia…
PINK LINE: How would the two of you describe the process of making Colony?
Kelly: It started in March of 2011. I was pregnant with Jolly and we were at Sabrina Mandell’s house and Sabrina has a piano. We started playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano. I thought, “Why is this so fun?” It was so engaging. We were very amateur. I thought, “Whatever is happening to us while we do this, we should make a piece about that.”
Melissa: What was interesting was what our bodies were doing to engage with the music and not screw up, but it felt like we could mess up at any moment! We kept going. There was a lot of joy in that moment. When we talked about what was interesting on the piano [as we began Colony], it was the excitement and tension and the question: how long can we go?
Kelly: But it was not just about the marathon process. Although, as part of the rehearsal process, Melissa did a dance marathon for seven hours. We thought that the moment she stopped something transformative would happen and nothing happened.
Melissa: The only thing that happened was I had horrible blisters on my feet. But in the piano playing, there was this critical moment of something changing, and the space of the critical moment was interesting to us.
Kelly: We thought in the beginning [of making Colony] we might make a piano piece. Then we realized we didn’t have a piano. Then we played on Melissa’s roommate’s keyboard, and then on my iPad. But then we decided to take the elements that were interesting and go into the studio [without a piano]. This was all in the first month, March of 2011. Then we moved on.
Melissa: We had a work-in-process showing in Philadelphia in May of 2011. We were still looking at critical moments but had gotten into the idea of stillness. We were doing a lot of talking about life-modeling. At the time I was doing a lot of life modeling and we did a joint session, me and Kelly, as research. I think the body goes through internal processes while still: the body reaches different thresholds. There is an internal experience of different body parts going numb. There is also the mind’s incessant monologue or time-keeping. What seemed relevant was the idea of thresholds, so we got on the idea of playing with stillness and the audience walking in and around us. For our first showing the only movement we had was the movement of the audience and our eyes: looking in the distance, shifting our gaze, and then looking at people in the eye. And we had some text that we said.
PINK LINE: What changed after Philadelphia?
Melissa: We got into this idea of where would the movement go from there? What’s the relationship between us and our bodies versus the audience and their bodies? I would say some of the ways we ended up using movement came out of this process and has stayed in the piece. Weaving toward and away from each other… Each showing helped us to change the piece dramatically and helped us to see what people’s experiences were and if their reactions were the reactions we were trying for.
Kelly: I wouldn’t necessarily say that we were going for certain reactions. We were interested in creating an environment but not necessarily certain reactions. One of the important things we talked about was how the audience was experiencing the piece. So from the work-in-process showings – we did three – then we also invited people to come into rehearsals. We thought about how the audience was moving and how we would like them to move, so we worked to craft that, to try to make the situation be helpful to the audience’s experience of the piece. So we talked a lot about how we are relating to one another when we are close to one another and then when we split in two, so the audience can’t see both of us at the same time…
PINK LINE: Did you want the audience to be mobile?
Kelly: We know some people are going to be still no matter what but we thought people would feel more free to move around than they do. However a lot of the stationary-ness is the space where we are performing: it is small, weirdly shaped, has a strange floor thing – so the space has changed what we intended to do originally.
PINK LINE: When is it next performed after its last Fringe show in DC this Saturday?
Kelly: We do it in the fringe in Philadelphia in September and then at thefidget space in March 2013.
PINK LINE: Will the piece undergo more transformations as it has in the last year?
Melissa: I think it feels like a finished piece.
Kelly: We don’t have any major overhaul planned but we did a major change before the show’s premiere.
Melissa: …which has turned out to be a favorite part of the piece – even though it was stressful to make such a change at the time.
Kelly: This actually speaks to your question about the work’s evolution. When we started the piece in 2011 we worked on it a fair amount until our showing in May but then Melissa was gone in the summer and then she moved to Philadelphia to start school and I had my daughter so we took a couple months break and then there was this phase when I couldn’t remember what the piece was about. So much time passed, July through October, before we started rehearsing again in November: one weekend every four to six weeks. For a long time the piece really felt like it was not getting very far very fast. Because of the collaborative nature of the work I felt a lot less pressure to have ideas. I wasn’t spending those weeks contemplating the work which is what I was used to doing with Splitting the Difference and Elephant where I was the sole creator. I didn’t do a lot of reading for this work…
Melissa: I’m in an ensemble-devising program [at Pig Iron] and we are learning how to make work for an ensemble and using improvisation and writing on your feet, so I think over the course of the year I was in school there were certain things I was consciously but often unconsciously bringing to the rehearsal process. Rather than setting movement or coming in with ideas, I was bringing the tools that would help us improvise. I was feeling release of pressure by co-choreographing and also the model of coming into the studio with a lot of plans was something I was working against –
Kelly: Stuff would come up in a rehearsal based on what was happening in my life outside of the process. Like I remember going to Mississippi to see my family and my niece and nephew were playing patty-cake games and they were testing how fast they could do it without messing up. It’s not necessarily in the piece explicitly, and it’s not about the longest duration, but rather about building tension in that unison.
Melissa: In school we talk a lot about tension: how long something lasts, what is “just right,” and being able to know instinctively how long that is…
Kelly: …and we decide “just right” differently.
Melissa: In Colony we are making a piece that deals a lot with moments of tension and transformation. It was something that I had been learning about for nine months in school but not applying consciously to our piece. There were things that in rehearsal would develop, but I wasn’t coming in and saying, “What if we tried this to build more tension?” We would look at what speed would do the material and what happens so that a moment feels the most tense.
PINK LINE: Where did the movement material come from?
Kelly: Sometimes material came out of exercises and sometimes out of our warm up. Several chunks of material came from us playing around doing warm-ups to Missy Eliot playlists. Before we had the sound score for the piece we rehearsed [Colony] to a rap song.
Melissa: Sometimes material just feels right. We watched when each other tried different things and would say “Let me watch you, now you watch me…” Sometimes you just feel that something has rightness to it – a correctness – we also used the iPhone a LOT. Recording ourselves with iPhones and then watching because we needed to see both of us at the same time. If there was something that I found myself watching a lot – like [the opening sequence called] robo-running, then I knew there was something about those moments. Anything that I would watch over and over – even totally ignoring other things – had to be worthwhile. Or I would go to school and say watch this. That showed there was something interesting happening…
Kelly: I keep having thoughts when I listen to you talking about Splitting the Difference. It was about “Hey watch this,” and Elephant was too but in a different in way. Elephant had elements of both, the inside sensation and the outside appearance or how the body is perceived. I felt that with this piece it was really about how something looks.
Melissa: I do think it is about how it looks and, more so, what things feel like in an energetic sense. I do think that was something we were purposeful about: how the audience will experience it. We mean experience it emotionally and energetically as much as intellectually. We ended up creating a piece where your physical responses to the things that you are watching are what matters. When you focus in on a repetitive movement that’s happening for eight minutes there is a physical response to that which, I think, people experience. It’s an anxiety that tends to climb – it is present for us as performers too. Sometimes our anxiety is about “are we on the same foot?” That tension, that anxiety, exists for the audience as well. It’s not a piece you approach intellectually, or can even intellectualize. It resonates on an emotional and energetic level. For some audience members not being able to intellectualize creates a kind of frustration – and an emotional reaction – that puts some people in a kind of crisis. David Kessler saw us after a show and said he had seen Colony and, paraphrasing, he said: I don’t know what you are doing but your working relationship works. You don’t as an audience member understand intellectually how or what the performance is, but it brings about an incredibly strong emotional reaction.
Kelly: What I was saying about how things look from the outside also has to do with an internal experience of tension, and this really translates to the outside. When we are together or even when we are in opposite ends of the room, our experience of this tension, I think, translates to the audience. I also think there’s a lot of space in Colony, space for people to have their reactions. I feel like sometimes that dance works move from one idea to the next so fast, but Colony gives time.
But audiences do not have a lot of time: this Saturday is the last chance to see Colony as part of the Capital Fringe Festival. As exemplary as the reviews have been in DC papers and on websites, it is rare for critics here to place Bond’s work in context. Although Bond and Krodman had not seen their creations, Colony resonates with recent ideas by choreographers Sarah Michelson, David Zambrano, and Yasmeen Godder, all artists who are investigating repetition and duration, immersive environments and mobile audiences, and questioning the idea of a singular sensation. In fact Godder, based in Israel, made a work called “Singular Sensation” a couple years ago which Godder described as embracing “the deep connection to the body through sensation… This research came up as a response to my sense that we are living in a period where it seems as though the world is offering us more ways of connecting to ourselves, our individual needs and desires, and at the same time a period where we push our need for sensations to overcome a sense of numbness.” Without giving too much away, it is worth mentioning that Colony is part of an international conversation concerning contemporary performance. The DC-based Bond may be making work alone and with collaborators such as Krodman that seems one-of-kind and unique for DC, but her performances are engaging in themes and concepts that drive innovative artistic processes. In recent years she has created three stellar fringe shows, each captivating and each slightly different, that resonate with ideas circulating nationally and globally. I see part of this success coming from her commitment to creative-processes that last at least a year each. She supports her art-making -- and being a mom -- with teaching at George Washington University where she will be an instructor of technique and composition courses this fall.
Photo Credit: Nathan Jurgenson
Photo Credit: Nathan Jurgenson
Photo Credit: Paul Gillis
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