BWW Interview: WENDY OSSERMAN Celebrates 40 Seasons
How did you become an artist? When did you first see dance creatively?
I was young, maybe five when I started keeping myself company by dancing. We had mirrored walls in our living room and I would see myself reflected and feel less alone. There were a few of me in the mirrors all around.
I danced to music of course, Tchaikovsky, and other exciting symphonic work. My parents took me to the New York City Ballet. They were excited about how ballet could be American. There was Jacques d'Amboise, a leading dancer with Balanchine's company. I think he was the first non-European principal male dancer. His name sounds French, but he's American born. My dad loved Jerome Robbins' ballets. I often danced for my dad and for the company my parents invited to parties.
My sister was a dancer and choreographer. She's fourteen years older. She left Sarah Lawrence College to perform with Valerie Bettis. When I was seven my sister said, "if you want to be a dancer, you have to study ballet." I really never loved it. I took it as medicine. I thought, "I'll swallow it if it will make me a dancer."
I studied and loved flamenco before discovering modern dance. When my teacher went on tour with Jose Greco, I began modern at the 92nd Street Y. I studied Graham technique there with Muriel Mannings and also at the Graham studio. Martha taught three times a week, and that was very exciting. But the technique wasn't a good match for my body. I discovered Betty Jones and really enjoyed doing José Limón technique. We were invited to breathe, release, fall, and rebound. In college the dance teachers came to us from Juilliard. A wonderful one was Alice Condodina who was in the Limón company. I studied with Jose at the American Dance Festival where I performed with his company one summer in Doris Humphrey's Pasacaglia. After college I performed with Alice's company in the states as well as in Turkey.
When I started choreographing I felt I had to be original. I thought I couldn't do anything I learned or saw- that would be copying which is ok when you're training as a dancer, but not for a modern choreographer. It took me a while to understand that when you let it, what comes out is your own mixture of everything. I'm impressed with choreographers who fuse different things. It depends who is doing it and how they fuse. Michelle Dorrance fuses modern with tap. Soledad Barrio fuses flamenco with some modern and hip-hop. The fusion has to be sensitive, to happen naturally and organically. I live down south most of the year. When people ask, "What kind of dance do you do?" I say, "Modern, we take movement from everywhere." I also think different forms such as African dance flamenco and East Indian are part of our heritage as dancers; when I recognize those influences in my movement, it feels as if it's from our collective unconscious.
I have to tell you a memory from Greece that I'm using in the new piece. When I was nineteen I visitted Cape Sounion, not far from Athens, and I was very drawn to the water way below. It was purple at sunset and I felt a desire to fly into it. There is the myth of Theseus's father, Aegeus, who threw himself in and drowned there [an origin story for the name of the Aegean Sea]. I had a similar experience on Rhodes, in Lindos where there was an acropolis above the sea. It wasn't like America where you had railings to protect you [by the water]. It was dangerous and beautiful. Some months ago I gave my dancers this idea: I told them there's an abyss you're drawn to but you don't want to fall in. I gave them my movement but also asked them to improvise. I like finding problems we can explore with our bodies. Challenging tasks create movement that is not decorative, but necessary and honest.
What were the key moments of transition from dancer to choreographer to forming a company to organizing festivals, all while continuing until today as a solo dancer?
The transition came for me when I was thirty four and had been performing with other choreographers such as Kei Takei, Frances Allenikoff, Valerie Bettis and Alice Condodina. I thought I could always learn and enjoy working with other choreographers, but that the point of modern dance was to find your own way of moving. If I didn't make a start at that point, I might never do it. That's when I decided to form a company.
Continuing to dance, to keep in shape helps me choreograph. Doing improvisation and particularly Authentic Movement (moving with eyes closed in the presence of a witness) give me ideas to share with my dancers. The material comes from my body and imagination to them. They interpret it their way and I include much of what they do when we make a piece. I don't like the idea of ever stopping this process. Maybe I'll stop performing, but finding new ways to move and suggest to my dancers continues to excite me and make me feel almost ageless.
If you want to have a dance company you have to learn how to present it, produce and promote it. It's expensive to hire other people so you usually do it all yourself. Producing festivals on the island of Paros in Greece was exciting because there had not been anything like that there before. I started it because I was living there and wanted to try some modern techniques I had never studied such as Cunningham and Nikolais. I taught Limón, and invited excellent people to teach ballet, yoga and Greek folk dance.
In those days it was very cheap to fly round trip to Greece. Some American colleges were starting to give credit for independent study. I had 100 students the first summer. That was a lot for a small island, so the second summer I doubled the price to $200 a month for all the classes they could take. We accepted 12 students who performed with us. We gave free outdoor performances and the Greeks would ask, "What is it, ancient theater?" And I'd say, "We're making it now." There were tourists in the audiences as well so it was an interesting mix. There was a row of pine trees on one side and eucalyptus on the other. A sailmaker made canvas canopies between the two rows to give us shade mid-day. The performances started an hour or so before sunset.
How important is the specific venue in your performance work? Do you have a favorite in NYC? How have venues changed in NY since you began?
I feel in New York that things are shrinking. We used to have the Joyce SoHo. I performed there as well as at the Chelsea Art Museum which is also gone. Performance spaces are booked at least a year in advance and it is harder to get presented. Even rehearsal space is harder to find. I am glad to see dance showing up in museum spaces and outdoors. On Paros I often danced in a square near the water where people took their evening stroll.
I've been presented at Theatre for the New City since 2004. The artistic director, Crystal Field, likes my work and makes accommodations for me. There are several theaters in the building. I have used two of them. There are many theaters in the city but they don't often have good sight lines for viewing dance. Then there are venues that have become modernized and out of our reach because they require we pay union rates to technicians.
Describe working with your dancers and with Skip La Plante for your upcoming performances?
Skip does wonderful things with instruments he creates. Last year it was paper with different thicknesses. He made sounds that unless you saw the paper, you wouldn't know what they came from. I said the audience should watch you use the different paper for the first five minutes. After that we used recorded versions so people could concentrate on the dancers. This year, our fourth together, he'll be playing live with Harry Mann, a jazz musician who plays saxophone and clarinet. I think it will be an unusual mix of homemade and recognizable instruments. The three of us, Harry, Skip, and I are in our sixties and seventies; with the dancers in their twenties and thirties we have another interesting mix.
I like doing a solo every year. If I perform separately, it is easier for me to direct the dancers. They always say, "Why don't you dance with us?" The last time was two years ago and I enjoyed it, but it has to be the right score. I love watching the dancers and am tickled to see the differences in their performances every night.
You are performing Udjat for the upcoming performances alongside two world premieres. How does ancient culture influence your choreography? Has Paros played a significant role in this?
In the sixties when I was teaching and performing in Athens, I married a Greek who was born in Cairo. We went to Egypt on our honeymoon. We saw the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Each tomb had a different color scheme and style of painting because the generation of artists was different. We biked to the Valley of the Lords, and saw a mummy lying half out of an opening. An arab lit the inside of the tomb for us with his lantern. We suddenly came upon a monolithic stone king and queen presiding over a rice field. These are indelible memories. When I had returned to NYC, my second husband was studying architecture in the eighties. He walked in while I was rehearsing with three dancers, and said one looked like a "ka" figure, the double of your personality that separates from your body when you die. I started researching Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife and found many images to nourish the piece. The soul was depicted as a human-headed bird that would visit the living by day and return to the mortuary temple to rest near the mummy, and there were other parts of the personality such as the shadow, prowling cat-like through the tomb. This trio looks different from the work I have been doing which is friskier, more personal and maybe messier. Udjat has a ritualistic, magnetic quality. The current company was intrigued. It's from 1985. When I revived it in 1995 a review in Attitude Magazine called it "powerful and compelling."
When I first returned to NY in the seventies, before starting my own company, I was asked to choreograph some Greek tragedies such as Trojan Women and Hippolytus. Under my married and improbable name, Wendy Papakonstantis, I received some good reviews in Dance Magazine and the Village Voice for these as well as for other pieces presented at the Cubiculo and other venues no longer in existence.
How has the life of the dancer changed or not changed in your experience in New York and abroad? How has the life of a dancer changed for women in dance?
I think that men do better in our field; they get farther in terms of exposure and recognition. I've had reviews that said, "she's never made it big" and go on to say good things about my work. Perhaps it has to do with not being aggressive enough. I don't know. If a woman wants to have a family it can be financially too difficult to "do it all." I heard about a very good choreographer who had to stop when she had two children. It must have been financial or she wanted to spend the time with her children or both. I have two dancers now who are good choreographers and I encourage them, but it's really hard for them to make work because rehearsal space is expensive and difficult to find. I'm proud when dancers who have worked with me such as Aszure Barton and Stefanie Nelson become such good choreographers. We call them my "dance daughters."
Every year I say to myself, "You don't have to do this anymore." The wearing part is the production preparation, a lot of nitty-gritty. And if I'm trying to stay in shape, and perform, I'll be 74, I'm thinking, "do I need to keep doing this?" But my dancers are so fine and I always want to work with them year after year. I'll have an idea, or the desire to return to the premise I just used and see where else it can lead. It's hard to do it all and hard to give it up. Maybe it's not so important to have a company. There are other ways to choreograph such as sharing evenings and being in each other's work. I see people figuring out ways to work collectively.
Why is solo performance essential in modern dance? Why is the role of a soloist in a dance company uniquely important? Can you share about your experience choreographing Timed, your own solo performance?
I like giving the dancers solos, two or three on a program. Even with a small company there is room for variety when we go from a solo to a quartet, a trio to a duet.
My solo is a way for me to grapple with what's happening in the world, to take the political personally. I speak during my solos, and this is something that's easier for me to do than for the dancers because I have been doing it for over twenty years. Words can generate movement and vice versa. When we went to war with Iraq, I was angry and sad. I thought I wanted to make a peace dance, but my fury turned it into a war dance. I spoke about that while I danced. It was funny and upsetting to do and to witness. When I started the new solo, Timed, I had one of the dancers feed me lines like "Take your time" "There's no time." When I went back south where I spend most of the year, I realized I could say what I needed to include myself. I like the interplay of text and movement, and it's a surprise for the audience when I talk to them. It changes the texture of the interaction.
Is your work inspired by current migrant issues in Greece and the world?
There is a dance from 2004 that I started incorporating into new work in the fall. The refugee situation had started to explode. The dancers start in pairs: they try to touch each other while not wanting to be touched and alternately, to be touched while not wanting to touch. This reminded me of how we're feeling about the news. How much can we empathize? We want to look and then not to look at the refugees and their plight. How much can we look at it? How close can we get? It's very disturbing and very sad. Through dance we can express some of this and not ignore how difficult it must be to live through it.
Years ago when I first did Udjat I imagined an expanded cast of Israelis, Palestinians, and arab Israelis working together on it, using it as a vehicle to share moving and their stories. When I see photos of Syrians arriving in Greece, I feel like I should go there. What could I do? Give any kind of comfort? I wonder how the Greeks are taking it. It's such a dilemma. These countries are small; they can't absorb the floods of displaced people, but what happens when we loose our humanity and forget we could be them?
What are your thoughts on storytelling as a dancer and choreographer?
The dancers improvise with difficult tasks I give them. Then I say, "this is what I see. Your movement tells me this. You seem to be this kind of character. I see this situation." We don't make a linear narrative. It's more like plunging a depth guage. We're looking at an issue, a conflict or image with a magnifying glass. The abyss is, "I'm curious, it's the unknown, it entails obliteration, transformation"
In the new work I'm wondering if we're on the brink of catastrophe. Is it the end of my life that that the abyss represents? I ask the dancers how they relate to the image. We all write about it and discover deeper connections.
The dancers' experience and expression of the images are different from mine, and I enjoy sharing the exploration with them. It gives each of us the freedom to expand our movement vocabulary when we try on each other's. In some sections I give them my movement, my way of embodying the problems. Depending on how conceptual a piece is, choreography and dancing can have a symbiotic relationship.
The audience might not get the same images or scenarios we're thinking about, but as long as people can find their own connection to the movement, we are communicating. Recently someone was watching my solo about time. She is sixteen. She said, "I liked seeing you become a baby again." I didn't know I was doing that. I was able to see why she said it and it helped me to incorporate what she saw. This is what I do with my dancers: I give them contradictory, impossible tasks; they offer back their investigations. The story grows that way.
Wendy Osserman Dance Company will perform for four performances, April 20-23, 2016 at 8pm. Tickets are $18 and may be purchased by calling Smarttix at 212.868.4444, or online at http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net/. Theater for the New City is located at 155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets), New York, NY 10003. Subways: 6 to Astor Place; L to 1st Avenue and 14th Street; or R to 8th Street.
For more information, visit www.wendyossermandance.org