Jess Curtis is the director of Jess Curtis/ Gravity. He lives/works part of the year in Berlin. Jess is a choreographer/dancer and generous spirit and was willing to talk to me from Berlin (via SKYPE) about his work and about being bicontinental. A side note for my Bay Area dance friends- Jess will be here with his “Symmetry Project” at Counterpulse, March 27-30, April 3-6.
He will also be guest dance faculty at UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. yay!
Okay, here it is:
JOE: Mostly, I want to know the big sweep of how you came to split your time between Germany and SF and how that is working out for you?
JESS: Well, let’s see…. I mostly just followed the work that was offered to me and this is where it lead me.
JOE: But at a certain point you decided to have two homes, not an easy decision I would think….
JESS: It was actually more that at some point I decided not to give up on America, or San Francisco in particular. In ‘98 I was invited to work with in France. And I was in France without coming home for almost two years. At that point I decided to make an effort to keep coming home to SF each year and doing work there.
JOE: Well, lucky for us over here that you kept your hand in. Can we talk about the differences? How is the Berlin contemporary dance scene different from the SF one?
JESS: OK….. Berlin has a very long history of art and culture, and much more developed avenues of cultural discourse. I remember my first review here referring to the “unripe dramaturgy” of my work. I had to go look up the word dramaturgy to make sure I knew what it meant.
JOE: Not likely that our SF critics would accuse you of such an elevated thing.
JESS: haha. There are some that I see are trying, but the level of critical discussion in general in the (SF) newspapers is sort of discouraging. They have to write for their audience and they are not given much space to educate that audience.
There is much more discussion about art here in Berlin. Right after the show AND in the newspaper the next day.
JOE: Do you find that the discussion ultimately assists you in making more mature work? Or are you just being muscled into making work along the current trends of Berlin artmakers?
JESS: I think the discussion challenges me to be more aware of what I do. And forces me to take responsibility for it, and sometimes to defend it to my collaborators. Even if my defense is that I “feel” an intuitive impulse to do something. I have to take responsibility for that intuition.
JOE: And how does this discussion unfold usually? I guess what I am after is the “how” of artists talking to each other about their work. As you know, here in the US we mostly just say we loved it and then start criticizing when we’re out of earshot. How does this more open dialogue come about in Europe?
JESS: Well, first of all, Germans are famous for being willing to tell you they don’t like something. I remember the one choreographer talking my ear off for an hour about how much he didn’t like one of my pieces. People are not afraid to disagree and they in general take disagreement as a sign of engagement. Over here that kind of discourse is seen as the point of making art. But it is even built into the architecture of the theaters. Every theater has a bar and most of them stay open after the show and lots of people hang out and talk about what they saw. (Like we did when you were here at Tanz Im August.) It is also in the nature of the collaborations – that people are building time into creation processes to examine what they are doing. It is almost de rigeur now to have a dramaturge working on your piece.
JOE: That is the most cogent answer I have received on that topic- thank you!
And are you now finding that you can “engage” a choreographer by challenging him/her on what they did in a given performance? I ask this because it seems like such a deep cultural difference, here in the US we just don’t go up to someone after a program and say- “ I didn’t like this part of what you did.” I think it is a great loss really that we are so well trained to be polite- the opportunity for dialogue, really challenging dialogue about ideas, can get passed over.
JESS: I am still pretty polite unless I know someone quite well. I think it’s a bit different as a colleague to tell someone you didn’t like what they made without a clear invitation and time to talk about why. I find that normal audience members are much more willing to engage me about what they saw or felt, and in general they are a bit more articulate and have more language tools to talk about the work than I usually experience in the states. But that is certainly a big generalization.
I would like to find/create some more forums in which we could engage and challenge each other as colleagues when we have something to say about each other’s work. I think we all learn a lot about the work in general when we can do that.
JOE: To go back to something you said earlier about this German (is it German?) tendency toward placing more importance on the theory over the feeling. I remember we disagreed about Matanicola, the rather “queer” piece with the Goth music and all the boys in high heels. I think I responded to it because I felt the garage party energy of it. They were working out their naughty (if clichéd) fantasies and they were loving it. It was the uncomplicated “loving it” part that made me enjoy it so much. It was in such stark contrast to all of the theoretical “unfelt’ work we were seeing in the festival.
JESS: Great example. For me that piece was just a bunch of un examined, self aggrandizing strutting that only worked on any level because they had some big budget costumes. I thought it was in fact justifying itself (in the program) based on a kind of queer theory re-reading of Weimar Germany without actually coming through in any substantial way. And I thought they were actually a bunch of drag posers. I would rather go to Trannyshack any night. On the other hand, one piece that you didn’t much like by Eszter Solomon, touched me through its very post-structural deconstruction of her identity/name and all the stories of the different Eszter Solomon’s that she found. The de-construction of identity gave me something to think about, but the stories of the different people touched me even when I lost track of who was who.
In the end I think it is important to me that I feel that I am part of an exchange. That the artist is offering me something for my 20 bucks.
I’m starting to feel like one of those New York Times “blogging heads”.
or siskel and ebert.
JOE: wow, well here is our opportunity to disagree. I felt the Solomon piece was a one note exploration of something paper thin (the people who have my name) and the presentation was so frontal and really just an excuse for some fancy video work which did nothing to reveal or illuminate the “topic”. With the Matanicola guys, while they certainly were not doing what they proposed in the program, they were inhabiting real time in the space, they were getting into something tactile and sensual that I could share as an experience.
Perhaps if I had seen the Matanicola piece outside of the context of Tanz Im August I would have dismissed it. But, for me, it was such an antidote to see people having a good time and being brazenly silly in the context of all that bloated theoretical pomposity- that I ended up really going with them.
JESS: For me, the video in the Solomon piece gave me an association of image, memory. The fact that it was lit so that I wasn’t always clear if something was live or a video projection made me think a lot about how memory changes and our images of things are not always what they seem. But in the end I think I was intrigued by the comparison of the actual stories of the different Esters. Maybe I was sitting too far back for the Matanicola piece, but if they were having a good time I didn’t feel at all let in on it. And I didn’t read them ever as silly, quite the opposite. They felt like they were taking themselves way too seriously. But here we are, modeling exactly what we were just talking about. I would even admit to having been much more polite than this when we talked about both of these pieces in August after seeing them. If we were German, maybe we would have already said all of this.
JOE: True, but it’s interesting (and frankly, a relief) to get it out now. But let’s get back to you and your work which spans two continents- As an outsider observing your work over the years, one thing I have noticed is that you now seem to include language a lot more. Both “Rachel Lincoln (see footnotes)” and “Touched” were very language oriented. Has your time in Germany somehow given you permission to go in this direction? It seems that perhaps your interest in “ideas” has propelled you more into spoken word, not at the cost of real movement, but in addition to it. Does this stem from being in that environment where ideas are so valued?
JESS: I’m not sure I see that. We talked a lot in Contraband. Sex and Gravity (94) was very text based. CORE’s “entertainment for the apocalypse” had a lot of text in it. I studied theater at university and have always used text when I had something to “say”. But as far as ideas go I would say that I have felt challenged to be more clear about the ideas that are in, or behind the work. The new piece we are bringing to SF this spring has no text at all, but it is based quite firmly on the “idea” (and the physical embodiment) of symmetry.
It is a little funny to me that in the press in SF, I start to gain a reputation for being “that Intellectual choreographer”, while here in Berlin I am a bit “that californian that still thinks dancing around is relevant”
JOE: haha. That’s says a lot about the two dance cultures. The fact that you’ve gained that reputation here in SF is precisely the point. Here audiences have been groomed to see dance as something that happens “to” and “around” the music. If dance tries to do something else (i.e. talk about ideas, refer to other things in the world), it is considered suspect, even pretentious.
JESS: Well yes. I think it’s more about the texts I’ve been reading and how that affects the work. With the piece “Rachel Lincoln (see footnotes)” I had started reading more french philosophy/theory, Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes about the death of the author and Kristeva’s concept of Intertextuality- that everything you write is just a recombination of things you have read before, from the literal words to the more complex ideas. With “Touched” I was reading Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 plateaus and I was trying to see if some off their ideas about “the plateau” and “becoming” and “rhizomorphic structure” could be put on stage. I’ve started reading Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” this week, I’m curious what that will instigate.
I do think one of the exciting things here in Europe is that people start to position “dance” as a real forum for research into what it means to live in a body. I was reading an article by Martin Spanberg, a big shot dance dramaturge here, who was questioning the “research” aspect of dance that is such a buzz word in Europe at the moment. He was asking, “Who are the end-users of this research?” I like that this is being asked. In the end I believe that “dance” has lots to offer the world on many levels other than being pretty and entertaining.
JOE: Yes, it seems the Europeans are in danger of going down a path where the “research” on a piece trumps the need for an actual experience to happen. Andre Lepecki’s “Exhausting Dance” really illuminated this for me. Personally, I want to swing back toward something tactile without losing the thoughtful segment.
That is a great book. I could go on of course. But…
Joe, I have to go buy dinner before the Super Market closes.
Another Euro/ American difference-
That all the Super markets close.
JOE: Of course – Run, run to the market!
JESS: Do you think we got something there?
JOE: I think we got a few gems. Thank you so much!
JESS: Thank you. See you in the new year!