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Rosemary Lee
Caught by seeing
down arrow the Suchness of Heni
and Eddie
DVD video clips
Image gallery
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Process writings
A Tribute to Michael Donaghy 1954-2004
A tribute to Niki Pollard
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In December 2004 Niki Pollard interviewed Rosemary Lee about her work the Suchness of Heni and Eddie. This interview took place after Suchness was first performed at NightWalking in 2002, and before Rosemary revived and developed the work for tour. It was also prior to her involvement with PARIP (Practice as Research in Performance) on an interactive DVD about the work.

NP   the Suchness of Heni and Eddie is a project in which I have collaborated with you as a writer. I think you would agree that it is an unusual one in many ways. Can you describe how it came into being in 2002 and how you will re-work it later this year?

RL   the Suchness of Heni and Eddie I suppose originally started when I watched two dancers, Henrietta Hale and Eddie Nixon, dance together in the rehearsals of a work I made in 2001 called Passage. The qualities and the sensitivity with which they danced together really complemented each other as a couple and I felt that I would like to make a duet with them.

I have become more and more interested in using duet forms since I choreographed a series of duets in Three Studies in Courtship for Transitions Dance Company in 1997. I have avoided the pas de deux form for a long time as I find it so heavily laden with the heterosexual narrative of a man and woman dancing together. In my own work I have preferred to look rather at relationships between different ages than between different genders. As a young dancer and choreographer I shared in the ethos of New Dance and the techniques and philosophy of Contact Improvisation (first devised in the 60-70s and continuing to develop). Both worked against the traditions of various western classical or traditional dance forms in which a woman is conventionally always supported and lifted by a male partner. This was the artistic climate I began working in and has influenced my choices to a certain extent.

In spite of this, seeing Eddie and Heni dance together in Passage, I decided that I was ready to make a piece as one duet. I also felt strongly that I wanted the duet to be about my sense of who these dancers are when I watch them in the rehearsal studio. When I speak of ‘suchness’, which is in fact a translation of a Buddhist term, I am trying to mark this quality. I borrowed the term as I felt it could suggest my interest in what I am seeing in a dancer, that is, an essence and potential which I want to draw out through their dancing. By this, I do not mean any impossible idealisation of who they “really are”, but rather that I am focussed on who they are to my eyes as they dance.

The first opportunity to begin researching this duet came in 2002 through my role at Middlesex University as an associate artist with ResCen, the Centre for Research into Creation in the Performing Arts. ResCen curated an extraordinary event called NightWalking: navigating the unknown (2002) which was concerned with unravelling and revealing artists’ creative processes. As my contribution to this event, I decided to give a kind of performative lecture growing from a week of research that I would spend in a rehearsal studio with Heni and Eddie. My idea was that I would reveal what was happening for me choreographically as I started a creative process from what felt like nowhere - other than in this conviction that whatever was created be about how I saw these two dancers dancing together.

I invited you to join that research week so that you could share with me your observing eye on our rehearsals. At NightWalking, I tried to reveal, as ways of interpreting my rehearsal process, our voices and viewpoints as dancers, choreographer and observer. the Suchness of Heni and Eddie became I would say an ‘inside-out’ performance in which I tried to show the workings of a piece and particularly the layers of influence that come into play when a choreographer tries to make a piece.

This year, I plan to rework that ‘inside-out performance’ model, developed at NightWalking, and create a duet that will tour to small venues such as colleges and studio theatres through 2006. As before I will be involved in the performance, talking and reading. The performance will somehow start from seeing the workings of the duet, like listening to a musical performance while following a score annotated by the composer’s notes. This ‘score’ will gradually disappear, giving way solely to the performance of the duet. Its as if you can see the workings of something like a see through wrist watch but then as you keep watching the workings disappear and you begin to be drawn into the qualities of the duet. The idea reminds me of Tech rehearsal days when the rig is down the working lights are on and the theatre looks like a skeleton laid bare. Then that evening the place is transformed as the dance itself creates another world for the audience to enter into. I think I want to try to recreate that in a small intimate setting. Making the transformation more evident and visceral for the audience.

NP   How did you approach that first week in the studio?

RL   Clearly I knew that there would always be two dancers – a duet – in the performance space. This relationship was something I could not get away from. My recollection, then, is that I started with tasks that were about the dancers being ‘present’ and ‘arriving’ in the space, but in a duet form. For example, I remember asking Heni and Eddie each to sense their arrival – in their bodies, their readiness for rehearsal, how they were noticing the space, how they felt – but to be simultaneously sensitive to the arrival process of each other. They could only move when the other moved. I wanted to heighten their awareness of the space that we were in and of themselves in relationship to each other. So right from the beginning I was focusing on them as a duet and them as individuals even in their warm ups.

My work often comes from an interior place. It is very important to me that the dancers are very aware of the sensation of the qualities I may be interested in, they are present, sensitive and open. That way the dancing is theirs and the qualities are embodied in their movement. This time I wanted to do that but ask Heni and Eddie to be preparing themselves in that way but to also be always acutely aware of the others presence as well. This may sound simple but I feel it’s actually a very complex thing to actually do.

NP   With that ‘arrival’ were you trying partly to lay aside memories, for you and for them, of their duet in Passage?

RL   Yes, probably though I did not realise that at the time. I remember strongly wanting to ‘start from scratch’, with ‘a blank sheet’, I consciously tried not to prepare in my usual way. I can’t even remember having written any ideas in a notebook. My thought was simply to start with finding themselves in their own bodies, of becoming present with each other. In that sense I wanted to begin in and from the present moment. This was my challenge.

I remember I gave them improvisation tasks with formal structures like the spatial patterns of partnering in a court or folk dance. For example, each day, I would set a relationship such as far away or left shoulder to left shoulder, or face to face. Think of the squareness of the two bodies in a folk dance. You are often side by side or front to front or you might circle each other. Then in a tango the relationship is more over the shoulder, with diagonals and twists, the focus on each other then has a totally different suggestion to that of a folk dance. Our eyes also recognise these patterns from everyday life – in social habits of how we line up, or of how children sit shoulder to shoulder or back to back.

NP   Did you feel anxious that you were not letting yourself plan, given that you were making something in one week for performance (be that a very particular ‘inside-out’ one)?

RL   Yes, faced with these two highly skilled dancers it felt as if I might be shirking my responsibility as the choreographer. Normally, when I make a piece, I have some sort of vision of a quality of the piece. All I clearly knew here was that these two people would be dancing together. So here we were in an empty space, two of us looking at two of them. ‘Arriving’, then, struck me as the most basic but fundamental process that I could begin with. We were arriving there together so let’s start there in that moment of arriving.

What I did bring to the space too, besides an empty notebook, were many postcards that mostly featured two people or two animals – images of different partnerships and duets. I imagined that we would each write on these postcards every night after rehearsal. I would give a question to the dancers such as “when did you feel that things were especially present for you?” Or, “when did things not work?” Some of that writing was read or circulated through the audience during the ‘inside-out’ performance.

NP   Did the experience of your research and development project, One to One (1999) feed your wish to explore the ‘suchness’ of Eddie and Heni? It strikes me that those five artists who you asked to create solos for you were probably exploring your ‘suchness’ as a performer?

RL   What a good point, I'd never have made that connection. Yes, the experience may very well have fed through. I initiated One to One because I wanted the challenge and pleasure of performing again, of interpreting somebody else’s work. I am sure you are right, that each of those artists was thinking as they worked with me, “Who is this? What do I see in this person?” Those five solos were very much to do with me, but indelibly stamped with each author’s voice.

NP   During that first research week for Suchness you seemed concerned that the stamp of your voice would impose itself too strongly on Eddie and Heni’s dancing?

RL   Yes, I questioned the integrity of what I had set out to do. The potential I can draw out of them is inevitably inseparable from who I am and how I see. There is always that duality. I remember talking once about a solo I made with Gill Clarke, The Galliard, Every Morning Before Breakfast (1994). That solo is for me about an unexpected spark of fire and passion in Gill’s dancing that I'd spotted in Gill. I had always admired and loved her dancing and I wanted to focus on a particular range of dynamic energy so I gave her tasks that would provide a framework for that energy. I was talking about how much that solo was Gill and she however, corrected me, commenting that the solo was also very much my choreography. She was right of course. I am so very interested in drawing out the potential of a performer and I am sure I do that but it is my work and will of course have my voice there. Imagine a portrait painter, the artist has their own style and is inspired by the sitter, they are the subject and without them the painting does not exist but it is the artist's interpretation of that sitter that makes the painting. Does that work as an example? Think of it this way, Galliard could be danced by another dancer, but I would feel extremely uneasy about that as to me it is made with and for Gill. I don't feel comfortable separating the process from the finished product which is interesting as in Suchness the process is the product.

Although I have always said that I am interested in drawing out the potential of my performers, I rarely start solely from that place. The Galliard was one of these, as is Suchness. Another exception was a solo, Silver (1997), danced by Simon Whitehead with live music by the Balanescu Quartet. How I try to draw out their individual qualities, I think, is to find images which release ways of moving that feel right for who they are and so empower them in some way. Simon, for example, usually comes across to me as a gentle person, but I was struck sometimes in his dancing by a powerful even angry energy that was otherwise hidden in his persona. From Passage, I knew that Eddie’s dancing too could have something of this energy. I found his performing presence at times quite unnerving, warrior like. Within the community I was imagining when I made Passage, I thought of his figure as a strong, driven charismatic and confident leader. Yet I was equally drawn to how, in the next moment, Eddie’s dancing could have a very different quality of extreme tenderness and incredible sensitivity to the presence of the other dancers.

NP   Can you describe an image or task during your research week which drew this ‘suchness’ from Eddie?

RL   One task I set was for one dancer to manoeuvre the other to walk through the space. Imagine only moving if your partner moves you and their task is to make you walk by picking up a foot, getting your body in the right place, placing that foot down on the floor again and so on.  In other words every detail of a walk had to be attended to by the active dancer in this exercise. Walking is actually a very complex action involving being off balance for a second, it is like a series of little falls but we do not often break it down like that. Visually, I was interested in the awkward movement that the task produced and by the emotional implications of seeing one dancer surrender his or her will, becoming suddenly dependent on the other. As a dancer, Eddie can seem taller than he actually is and muscularly solid, although he is in fact highly flexible in his joints. In this task, I can see the solidity of his bones and musculature by how laborious it is for Heni to move him. Yet I am also drawn to how he surrenders his authoritative quality of strength and is quietly absorbed in how Heni is trying to move him.

NP   The dependency imposed by the task could seem disempowering even humiliating, but Eddie neither resists, nor is helplessly passive within the task?

RL   Yes, he is fully engaged in this task of not being able to move on his own. He is expectant and co-operative.

NP   What then is the ‘suchness’ of Heni?

RL   I imagine that many people would describe Heni’s dancing as graceful, lyrical and fluid. She has a strong sense of line, and as you watch you are aware of her legs, arms and periphery, rather than her trunk although that is still very involved in her movement. Her presence is very open – one that I find it extremely beautiful. I see abandonment in her dancing, a kind of wild, ‘limby’ grace. I can see the child in her but coupled with that a real sophistication and articulacy of movement.

When I wanted to give Eddie and Heni different imagined environments in which they could improvise as individuals, I remember describing to Heni the feeling of being out in the endless long grass of a prairie, under a huge sky. I was thinking of the extraordinary descriptions of prairie lands in Little House on the Prairie which I was then reading to my daughter. I feel that Heni’s dancing existed in a place like this. For Eddie, I imagined a more boxed or hedged space.

NP   I remember you worrying that you could not really be looking at Heni and Eddie’s own ‘suchness’ as you were sometimes giving them movement tasks that you have used elsewhere.

RL   Yes, I was anxious. Could I shape a task that was purely about finding out who these people are? (When I say, “finding out who they are”, I am not asking after their personal histories. I want rather to find movement that seems to come from their core - that is not a superimposed structure of movement.) As soon as I started to work in the studio I realised that obviously my tasks impose structures and spatial relations constantly. For example, the relationships I described as they travelled in the space, shoulder to shoulder or face to face, or even a task of closing their eyes, sitting side by side and one trying to frame the others movement imposes a great deal. How, then, can I claim that I am investigating their ‘suchness’? I sometimes fear that I am being hypocritical. My aspiration to uncover a dancer’s ‘suchness’ may be more bound up with my ethical sense of wanting to respect and recognise a dancer than a reality. It's usually at a mid point in rehearsal when a wave of self doubt comes in. I have become accustomed to this now. There is evidence in my notebook of all the questions I throw at my ideas and thoughts, trying to uncover their weakness and fraudulence. Recently I have come to think of this period in the making process as a way to see if any of my ideas can remain water tight despite my criticisms. Can I argue the case for everything I am doing? So this question of whether I can actually really get at the suchness of Heni and Eddie without imposing my own pre-existing tasks was a constant question in my head.

In my defence, though, the tasks I gave in Suchness were usually only skeleton suggestions that left a great deal of room for interpretation. These tasks connect with what I said earlier about exploring the idea of a duet. I am interested in how the duet forms of folk dance become a mesh for the patterns of relationships within a community; formal structures which are flexible enough to evolve over time. What we are getting to here is the relationship between form and content. I was trying to find forms that were formal and simple that allowed the poignant content of seeing Heni and Eddie together to spill in and about the forms. One poet and folk musician, the late Michael Donaghy described traditional forms as baskets; the question is to find the right basket with a weave that is loose or tight enough to hold the contents, in this case the Suchness of Heni and Eddie.

I think I may even have started to play some folk dance music in rehearsals, and we did talk of how this duet might become as a kind of folk dance. I have a long if non-expert interest in folk music and dance, particularly of Hungary and Bulgaria and Morris dancing and am fascinated by how folk dancers interpret their set forms in so many different ways; the sticks held in one version become handkerchiefs in another, high jumps replaced by staying low into the earth.

NP   You worked on tasks with their eyes closed, can you explain more about that?

RL   While realising I would impose structures, I also tried to be very receptive to Eddie and Heni’s qualities of movement. One way I did this was to ask them to move with their eyes closed. In part this was to do with asking them to sense one another’s movement profoundly through senses other than the visual. I love to watch people moving with their eyes closed for many reasons. It draws you into their world, you see their thought in their movement and you witness their struggle. Witnessing them work without sight makes their sensitivity to each other all the more explicit. I am interested in the audience knowing the dancer is facing a problem. For example, seating them side by side on chairs, with eyes closed, and asking them to try to move in the same way the other person is makes you acutely aware of the struggle to sense in the dancer. This struggle to find their way in the dark seems to me to not just represent this couples desire to find each other but perhaps a state familiar to many people finding their way on their own journey. It's both acutely specific to Heni and Eddie but is resonant to each of us.

NP   And it was in these ways that you were exploring a combined “suchness” of Heni and Eddie?

RL   While I was certainly interested in them as individual dancers, I was also constantly thinking of their relation to the other dancer. I said earlier that I gave Heni the image of open grasslands to draw out what I see as her essence in dancing. While Heni danced, then, Eddie was there as her witness, watching as if he could see into her state of mind.

The tasks that I gave were almost all of partnering, creating a physical dependency which might also have indirect emotional resonance to an audience. I do not give physical tasks that might be ‘about’ an emotional situation, for example, the grabs and pushes of a fight. Rather, I might give a practical task of Heni being always held away from the ground, while Eddie walks an imagined tight-rope. Their interdependency is in physical terms, but the image created can also trigger many interpretations to a viewer. As another example, they worked on moving while always holding onto one another’s head. Visually, these are strange forms of embrace, but this was never a stated intention. The intimacy that arises between them then is abstract, belonging to the dance form, but it can hint at the unspoken complexities of human relationships.

NP   Several of your duet tasks made them move clumsily, for example, restricting them to moving while always standing on the other’s feet. Did you hope that these would reveal to you hidden aspects of their movement?

RL   That is a curious question. When I made the solos with Simon and Gill, I was certainly trying to draw out a side to them as dancers that I felt was often hidden. Oddly, I cannot say that I am expecting to find something like this in Eddie or Heni, as I feel I have already worked with them intensively for Passage. In Suchness, I think the surprise could come from their relation together in the duet.

So why did I set those clumsy tasks? I was interested in their struggle to achieve the task perhaps because it is evocative to me of the struggles we experience with partners in our own lives. A viewer too will see what they are trying to do precisely because it is a struggle. If I think of gymnasts on a beam, I am more aware of how they have to concentrate to balance when they in fact stumble or waver. If they are fully and adeptly on balance, I lose connection with the difficulty of what they are doing.

In my work, I am interested in staying with the difficulty of the task although I also admire and respect polished virtuoso performance, in which effort is effaced. A simile I sometimes use is that while I appreciate the beauty of a glazed, smoothly finished bowl, I am equally interested in the raw, rough form of the bowl as it is being made, and in watching the potters’ hands shaping the bowl.

NP   As a researcher interested in the processes of rehearsal, I feel I share that interest. I wonder though if you could talk of how it influences you choreographically?

RL   A difficult question. As a choreographer, I am interested when the difficulty of a task is not hidden – or even simply knowing that a dancer is improvising– because I believe it engages an audience in a more knowing and visceral way which in turn creates a different intimacy to performance. When, for instance, Heni stands on Eddie’s feet and leans far out, you will see a beautiful image, suspended like the figurehead at the prow of a ship, but you also see Eddie straining to counterbalance her as he holds onto her hips. The audience knows that she is on the cusp of falling.

As choreographer, I want the dancers to keep working at this edge. My dilemma is to compose work that can also be ‘raw’ and ‘unpolished’. Do dancers inevitably sometimes fake rawness? After all, they are expertly skilled performers performing rehearsed movement. I remember myself performing a solo in which I had to cradle heavy flints in my arms while constantly changing my underneath, supporting arm. Through rehearsing, I became more adept at the task and so had to find ways to increase the difficulty, for example, by changing the speed or the gaps between my arms, so that I would still accidentally drop flints. Even so, in some performances, I could not find a way to fail and would have to fake failure. The challenge to me as I direct dancers then, is to discriminate finely between over and under rehearsing material depending on the dancers I am working with.

NP   We have talked about what happened in that first week. What did you learn from the ‘inside out performance’ at NightWalking that you and I presented at the end of your short rehearsal process?

RL   I think I realised what I already knew – that people love to be a fly on the wall, they love to hear the inside story. Also audiences are hungry to know more of the relationship between the dancers and choreographer. I personally love to watch master classes, sadly the only ones televised seem to be music rather than drama and dance. I find it fascinating to hear the comments of the teacher and then hear the subtle changes in performance as a result. I think Suchness gave the audience an intimacy with the dancers that I had not realised was possible. I am striving in all my work to form a relationship with my audience that is non verbal and unspoken. This relationship felt deeper and much more tangible because of the form the performance took. The affect on the audience seemed genuinely powerful and it struck me then that I wanted to give more viewers the privilege of watching these two dancers at close quarters. Just as I want them to sense Heni and Eddie's state as they dance, so in this setting, we can sense the audience as they watch intently, they are part of the action. All the relationships between us in this setting feel more apparent and we are all in a less safe place than the comfy red chairs of the theatre one step removed from the stage.

I will soon be working with the dancers again to research how to develop this inside out form. I really look forward to the challenge I am setting myself-of starting with it inside out and slowly turning it the right way round and of continuing the search for the Suchness of Heni and Eddie.



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