Next week, Courtney May Robertson will finally premiere her first evening filling performance, THE WOMAN DESTROYED (TWD). In the performance, a series of ‘exercises’ that use new media technologies in different ways will appear. Natural language processing, computational linguistics and sound / video programming software allow different aspects of the performance to be determined in real time. For example, the order of the ‘exercises’, spatial trajectories, choreographic scores, soundscapes, and the length of certain scenes. The solo TWD is a clear example of one’s perspective on the body in all its diversity, strength and vulnerability.
Choreographer / performer Courtney May Robertson and dramaturg Lara van Lookeren reflect together on parts of the creation process for TWD. They took ‘structure’ as starting point for their conversation as the performances will never be entirely the same.
A REFLECTION BY COURTNEY AND LARA
Lara: The structure of the performance is partly determined by a computer program in real time. Do you recall why you wanted to hand over the decision making, surrounding structure specifically, to a mechanical device?
Courtney: A few reasons, one being that I was looking for ways to be genuinely surprised when alone on stage. I imagined that if I didn’t know what was coming I’d be disarmed and respond in a human way. I also figured that a live computer generated structure could ensure each performance would be undoubtedly unique; because of the overall rhythm, tempo, dramaturgy, and associations or connections that arise due to the order of images, for example. For a bit of thematic context, I got to these ideas through topics I wanted to address in TWD such as uncertainty, precariousness, and elusive control systems.
Lara: So you had theories going in, can you share something about how these ideas played out during the creation process?
Courtney: Well, we did not leave the decision making entirely to the computer but rather made a triptych of sorts. Quite early on in the process you and I talked about working with a simple three part system: two supportive pillars placed either side of a fluid centre, classic sandwich theory. We figured that if the pillars were concrete and clear, then we could give space to the ‘live research’ part of the performance in the centre. The ‘live research’ is the part in which the structure of events would be left up to the computer to dictate in the moment; as well other aspects such as spatial trajectories, choreographic scores, soundscapes, and the length of certain scenes.
Lara: Right. I think we found that on the one hand we were looking for ways to let go of setting the dramaturgy, but at the same time we were pinned on how to create rhythm. We were searching for structured chaos almost in a mathematical sense. That was one of the main challenges: to find a balance between giving authority to the arbitrary choices made by the computer, but also making an aesthetic work in which the dramaturgy and rhythm of the viewing experience are important.
Courtney: Yeah, exactly, although quickly I began to want to set the centre too. Leaving so much space for failures, blunders or unsatisfactory outcomes made me equal parts terrified and intrigued at first, but slowly I found myself trying to control the result. There was a moment during our residency in Dansateliers when you came in and shook it up. You suggested we make more space for the uneasiness. It would have taken weeks of computer programming to make such big changes to the system, and so we manually made a rough audio edit and just ran it. It was a total mess but turned out to be a pivotal moment in the creation. I think for the first time we both felt this fragility we were looking for and the tension / excitement that comes with that. I like your observation of a structured chaos. I think it is an accurate description of where we ended.
Lara: After that point, it started to become clearer how structure – in the practical sense of the dramaturgy – related to the thematic context that you mentioned before: uncertainty, precariousness, and elusive control systems. After quite some conversations and questions, the words ‘resistance’ and ‘submission’ lingered with us. I think it became more evident that the questions were: how do you react to different structures? What can power imbalances, specifically, do to your freedom of choice? Is there ambiguity or tension present? We talked about how having limited freedom can also give certainty. Perhaps it can even have something attractive. Sometimes it can be comforting to have a structure imposed on you that you can submit to.
Courtney: Uh huh. I have to think of Zadie Smith’s piece Peonies from her short essay collection Intimations that eventually ended up in the work. Specifically the line “he complex and ambivalent nature of submission”. There is a friction there that interests me. Certainly in the context of performance making. Imposing strict structures and ruling out certain options helped me from drowning in ‘choice overload’. Choice overload is a cognitive impairment in which people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options. This is something I experience from time to time, and so I do find it attractive – albeit complex – to work with limits. I say complex because I also value my freedom of choice immensely, and so at a certain point it can become frustrating. I eventually find myself wanting to resist the rules of the game that I myself have created. It’s a bit of a paradox.
Lara: The question could then be, what do you choose to resist / what do you choose to submit to? There was an opening later on in the process when we started exploring how you could react to the things that are imposed on you by the (self-made) programmed system. And in turn, how you give shape to your personal freedom of choice, within the parameters.
Courtney: I think that what I resist and what I submit to will change; depending on how I feel on the day of each particular performance. At first I found it really hard to accept the resistance I was feeling towards the system during a run. I was in ‘performance’ mode, in ‘doing’ mode, in ‘compliance’ mode and really struggled to honestly ask myself what I desired at that moment. Did I really want to go on? Or did I want to stop, say ‘give me a moment’, and take a drink of water before I continued with the exercise? Or did I want to throw in something new, a spontaneous action? A couple of days before the ‘try out’ in the Grand Theatre Groningen I finally managed to disassociate myself from being the creator of the system, and was able to fully absorb myself in being the subject. Only then could I start to give space to the feelings of resistance that arise in response to the commands of the computer, and also find space for ‘in the moment’ choices. How to give shape to my personal freedom of choice in this strange, perhaps borderline masochistic, dynamic will also be a continual process I think.
The premiere of THE WOMAN DESTROYED will premiere in Frascati at the 16th of Februari 2022. It is a solo performance created by Courtney May Robertson, co-produced by ICK Artist Space and Dansateliers, and supported by Dans Brabant, Grand Theatre Groningen and Festival Cement. Last information
At ICK Artist Space a new generation of dance makers are given the opportunity to experiment, create and present themselves. They do this from their own perspective on the body in all its diversity, strength and vulnerability.
READING LIST BY COURTNEY MAY ROBERTSON
Intimations – Zadie Smith
This short essay collection was a huge source of inspiration and comfort during the creation of TWD. It was written and published during lockdown and touches a wide variety of topics related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The essay ‘Peonies’ was the most related to my research as Zadie Smith writes about the complex and ambivalent nature of submission; specifically about how submission and resistance have no predetermined shape but are always relative and contextual. If you’re curious you can check it out here.
THE WOMAN DESTROYED – Simone de Beauvoir
In THE WOMAN DESTROYED Simone de Beauvoir tells three short stories of women undergoing different but equally pivotal changes in their lives. For me, each story narrates so aptly the variety of uncertainties, fears, obstacles and eventual triumphs that one may experience when trying to embrace change. The stories are also about being pushed to one’s limits and being forced to rethink strategies for survival. This short story collection was an early source of inspiration for the project and, needless to say, is where the title of the work comes from – THE WOMAN DESTROYED.
The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
This book is with me in every creative process. It’s a ‘groundbreaking memoir that offers fresh and fierce reflections on motherhood, desire, gender, identity and feminism.’ For me it’s also a lot about embracing change and daring to interrogate one’s own preconceived notions about so called taboo topics. The prose is simply gorgeous and generally a must read in my opinion! Read more here.
Photo header: © Own photography