Chasing movement as if it was a rainbow

Elaine Summers and Pauline Oliveros are the  living history dance and music improvisation. We met them in New York for a talk about their work, their legacy and what they still don’t know.

“We know each other for more than 100 years, isn’t it right Pauline?”, asks Elaine Summers, 86 years, a very fragile figure, like a porcelain doll ready to break. The house where she lives is also a studio, the one where Merce Cunningham and John Cage first kissed. It’s full of her memories, packed in boxes ready to be sent to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York. Meanwhile they are guarded by paintings done by artists belonging to the Fluxus movement.

Summers is one of the main names of the nort-american vanguard and she was, at the beginning of the 1960’s, a pioneers on the crossover of dance with cinema, in a new discipline she invented herself: intermedia. “There are a lot of multimedia performances, but how many are there of intermedia”, she asks us, she that at the beginning of the 1980’s founded the intermedia festival “Filmdance”.

She continues to tour with her work, mainly with “Sun, Moon & Stars”, that she loves to call “an experience”, done in collaboration with Pauline Oliveros, 78 years old, and one of the most important names on experimental music. But Summers is also known for having belonged to the mythical Judson Dance Group, the artistic movement that in the 1060’s assembled together such names as Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Yvone Rainer, Deborah Hay or Steve Paxton. Such presences were kept in some of the movies Elaine Summers did, such as “Judson Fragments” (1964) “Ford Foundation Garden” (1971), “Iowa Blizzard” (1973), or “Two Girls Downtown Iowa” (1971), some of them available to be seen on You Tube, but in fact real masterpieces of dance films.

“I was older than them almost 14 years. I still am. We would meet every Monday”, she recalls. The place was, and still is, a Baptist church in Washington Square, in New York. “It was very funny to imagine the faces of the folks going to the church and that would find us rolling in the floor”, she tells laughing. These sessions continue still today with presentations by students or young choreographers from the Tish University that ambition to one day also write the history of contemporary dance.

“They needed someone that could film them,” she says. One of the first movies Summers ever did, back in 1962, putted together images of the dancers with excerpts of movies by W. C. Fields. “We would put all sorts of footage in a bag and then we would edit it”. She called it improvisation and she used it both in movies as in the choreographies. She still does today.

Already in 1987, in an article published in the “Contact Quarterly” magazine, Summers would establish the differences between choreography and improvisation, after what John Cage – that used to rehearse in the same studio we’re in – called “occasional methodology”. She wrote: “Choreography is the building up of a structure that allows the dancer to improvise. But can choreography, in itself, be improvised? Maybe the best way, and certainly the most natural way, may be to allow improvisation to come when one’s working at a studio, letting the movements ‘happen’ and, eventually, become part of the choreography or in what the choreography is based upon”.

“I very much like this idea of unpredictable ritual”, she says today. At the age of 86 she does not allow herself to define what she does, because words are “only limitations”: “I like it when a movement that I haven’t seen, appears in front of me. And I chase it, like we chase the golden pot at the end of the rainbow”.

Summers explains us that if she asks, “to one of the dancers to jump, different jumps will appear”, and that’s what matters the most. “That variety in itself is the choreography”, she adds. “I tell my dancers that they can do one movement only once, and say one word only once. The dancers learn the score, that might appear simple, but it is not. One of the qualities of an improvised choreography is that it produces a movement that can never be the same”.

To Pauline Oliveros, that for years has been working with Elaine Summers in the music of the performances, what is unique in her friend’s work is its “freedom of construction”. The same principle Oliveros applies on the method she developed and is called “Deep Listening”, a method based on improvisation, ritual and meditation. The music she produces, both electronic and experimental, emanates from experiences she has been conduction over the course of years, and that sometimes led her to live in the desert for long periods. “It’s a process of liberation the one that is applied in the structure” she explains. “It’s not the frame that matters for me the most, but what can exist inside that structure. What I ask to my musicians is the same Elaine asks her dancers: to place themselves in the room in which they’ll be performing and interact with it. Its both a process of listening and research”, she resumes. 


The works that you’ve done and the time and the way you’ve did it, they were being done because you want it to do it. So, the idea of game and ritual very much appears in many things that you’ve done. The question I raise, however, is when seeing it again, repeating and recreating it, how much of the original is there if you always aim to a new thing and certainly you’re interested in the repetition in itself?

Elaine Summers (ES): I’ve always believed that the improvisation idea, that I’ve always used a great deal, was a way to train my dancers to do one movement only once, and say one word only once. So it’s playing with the kinetic mind and the imagination of your dancers. When they learn a score, that might be as simple as one and one, I really don’t know what you’re going to do. But you can only do it once. It’s like a jump. I can tell a dancer that I want him to jump, but the way he is going to jump, and he only has one chance to do it, it is his way of jumping and understanding what I want to say. They love making mistakes but then they go oh-oh… One and one is not two, is infinity. And when you think of it, it’s about permission. When you’re in a form, then, in order to step out of it, if you’re willing, you cannot do it.

Is it the same to you Pauline, the way you process the ritualistic dimension?

Pauline Oliveros (PO): Just recently I had the recreation of a piece I did for Merce Cunningham in 1969, and two of my former students, that had been connected with the dance of Merce, and if it was very improvisational in the first place, still is today, but the form of the piece comes trough, I would say naturally. There’s an inner structure in there. Curiously enough, the technology I used in 1969 is no longer available, because I’ve used two isolators, but today they are not adequate to create the waves that I now make by using a computer, but nevertheless they’ve performed it very well. It’s the simplicity that Elaine was talking that makes you not to care about certain things. But what you do care about this the overall objective of the piece.

ES: That’s what’s very interesting with one of the Walking Pieces. You don’t know why each set of rules has to exist in each of the dancers, and in that dance you cannot fall down or make your partner fall down. The dancers asked me why couldn’t they fall down, and I told them I didn’t knew. When we filmed it, I didn’t like the heads t show and it should be from here [points to the chest] down. The rule is the same, but each one has an eccentric kind of demand from that when you begin to do the dance.

A work needs to write itself in the time and place in which is being produced…

ES: People say I’m sort of responsible for the release technique work, but I am not [laughs]. I don’t want to carry that heavy burden. Don’t do contact improvisation for me, sometimes is very funny, but it’s not for me, this is a dance of not touching the floor. I’ve often wondered if in the improvisation that you, Pauline, do, do the voices ever get into that or into very simple basic structures?

PO: I have pieces that also have rules or principles, one for instance where rhythm is based on breathe and breathe changes and contracts. And you can do it in just one breath that will have a sound, and a different breath will have another. And then there’s a piece happening in interaction with the imagination of the performers and the audience

The way that all of you started producing experiences, they were in fact experiences and not actual pieces because none of that kind had ever existed…

PO: That’s right

Did the different backgrounds you all had back at the Judson Dance helped, in any way, the democratic proceedings?

ES: Oh absolutely. My background was in teaching. I had decided to do it to please my mother that did not believe I could afford myself to live as a dancer. So, I had a very harsh trainer that made me see things in a very hard way, even if I loved everything. So, they had all their different trainings and I as doing my things. They were all coming from Anna Halprin and when I first saw it I was like: “Oh my God!”. Anna and me had this very strange relationship. I though I didn’t needed that, those experiments with kinetics, and it was marvelous when I learned that she sent me my first student, that of course ran out of the studio when she saw us all rolling on the floor.

But you always felt very much part of the group, right?

ES: Yes, of course. They were ten, and I was a sort of teacher. It’s so strange today when I think of it.

But were conscious enough that those rules and principles were important so that these experiences wouldn’t remain on the experimental level and would in fact produce “something” and become something else?

ES: Yes, and that’s what wonderful about improvisation. You cannot just be stuck repeating it. Not the principle in itself, but if you’re working and experiencing it, I swing my leg… One of the things I love on the work of Trisha Brown is that it is so delicate and in the momentum they are so precise. It always seems so precise, the exact same hype of the leg, and the irony of that always fascinated me, that hardness.

It looks unreal…

PO: That piece that we were improvising in the Castel d’ Uovo, in Naples (Italy), it was called Wind Whirl, so we were doing it and the wind starts to blow, first is enlightening that the wind is entering in your improvisation but then the wind is so hard that you cannot hear anything else and blew us of the stage.

Luckily enough was the wind; other times were cops stopping you to dance…

PO: it’s true. It was a very amazing experience. And experiences of this sort, encounters with nature, they always felt part of the piece.

Or was it you that opened a space for it to become part of the piece?

PO: Well, if you’re open to it, rather than being a disturbance is another element that comes in to the flow of the piece.

Today “everything that happens will be and can be used even against your will in the performance”. Is this idea of receiving everything was an excuse to justify everything. In both your cases, do the principles appear as boundaries so that you are able to progress?

ES: There’s something the painters used to say: “once you out a stroke on a canvas, well…” And I’ve always though “well what?”.

PO: But the same with sound, when you produce a sound you’re setting a course.

When we read through your work, the image we get is something that very much reminds me of what Roman Paska, the theatre and puppet director once told me: “the puppet itself” – in your case the instrument – “for it to have it’s own living, it has to have someone living in it also”. This relates to presence and a presence that is aware of the space it occupies. Do you feel that the process of building up a musical structure is more rigid that the one of a dance piece?


PO: Music is a variety of closed systems and I had to work them up so that they would become more open. When you work with closed systems it becomes very difficult. I believe that methods can be substituted and something that can be very natural appears to be conflictive.

But do you believe that a sound can become organic?

PO: Well that depends on what you’re producing as a sound. I don’t prescribe a sound. It’s never the same. It’s like jazz. What is the same are the exclusive and the inclusive attention you provide.

ES: In the Judson, for instances, if I can add something, the principle was not to use music, and it’s true that something it can get you so compelled that might take you to the wrong direction. But we had so many wonderful teachers, like John Cage that taught us differently. He used to say: the entire world is inside you. The entire world is your practice.

Can it be your technique?

PO: I don’t like that word… technique.

ES: But you’re right, it is a technique. If you listen only to someone else’s music you’ll never be satisfied. They say we come with the ability to understand music, I cannot understand it, but I can listen to it. When someone tells me “You’ve changed key”, I can only answer, “what do you mean?”.

Do you believe that what you do as an artist is to add more doubts to ideas that are shared by many?

ES: Yes, absolutely. Incredible bodies and minds always amazed me. I’m teaching experiential anatomy and when I started learning it, it was almost as life is planned. And if you listen carefully, you see the pathway that you’ve taken and you explore your being. The revelation is not the same. And is never the same, no matter how many times you address the question. When thinking about kinetics, the fact that I said something very physical, relates to the way the music is responding and my relation with it. Not knowing makes me move forward. When I did my very first film inside the Judson Dance, back in 1959, this dancer told me that he would go to the studio and would get ready to jump. But if he did not understood what jumping was, no matter how many times he had practiced at the studio, he would get injured. So, you can jump and not get hurt, proving you have a kinetic sensibility, and someone else can jump and get injured, because it forgot his own. But you have to have pleasure when doing it.

Do you ever get stuck?

ES: Oh yes, of course. Many times. A journalist once asked me “how do you do your choreography”. “Do you go there and do it?” he asked. And I laughed and said: “No, I don’t do that at all”. “Yes you do”, he said. And I kept laughing. People thought I knew how I did it. I find that exhilarating. It takes me a lot of time to even start. And the ending parts, don’t even make me start on the ending parts… Ahhhh

PO: Sometimes you’re just not open to what can come and you cannot focus. And I also sometimes look at my own work and don’t know how I’ve done it.

But do you recognize yourself on your previous work?

PO: Sometimes, yes. I know the works comes from inside the body, from places that even the mind cannot process it.

ES: Sometimes I ask myself if it was in fact me who did it. But the truth is that even today – and this s a metaphor, of course, but because of the bad design job of the One who designed our bodies we don’t have eyes on our back, which is a shame – we can see only portions of the things. So, saying that we can see the entire work, just because it’s done today, is no less true than saying that what was done before can now be better perceived or better integrated. But that’s the beauty of life: showing us all the time how small and tiny we are.

PO: We have to be quiet enough to increase our level of understanding.

ES: The whole world is there but you cannot see it. The first time I realized the work I wanted to do, having spent so much time in a catholic boarding school, should be about ten or twelve and I had been sitting in a chair in this big room and the priest was shouting to everyone and I started hearing classical music and suddenly realized what I wanted to do. One day I was allowed to go home, and I asked my mother to take me to dance classes. It was very clear.



[Elaine Summers (na imagem com o seu gato Leo) e Pauline Oliveros foram convidadas do programa Improvisações/Colaborações, do Museu de Serralves, em Abril 2011. Este texto, resultante de uma conversa com as duas artistas em Nova Iorque, feita com o apoio da Fundação de Serralves,  teve uma primeira versão publicada no suplemento Ípsilon, do jornal PÚBLICO, sendo a sua versão integral, e em formato de entrevista, publicado, em alemão, na revista Tanz, em Janeiro de 2012]

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