Steve Clorfeine's Blog


Interview with Florence Derail
October 19, 2009, 3:22 pm
Filed under: Biographical, Interviews

I grew up in New York City and I came back and lived there for many years afterwards as well, so I’m going to say a little bit about my influences.  I think that in the way we grow up there are seeds of what the future is going to be; what the conditions are seem to serve as an incubator.

When I was a kid my parents were interested in performance as a cultural thing although they had friends who were professional musicians, photographers, painters. They tried to see as much theatre and dance as possible and particularly world dance, ethnic dance. So as children, living in New York City, we went to all the great theatres to see plays and dance concerts. At that time Broadway was rich with musical theatre and also with very good dramatic theatre. It was a great age for theatre and for early presentations of major ethnic dance troupes from around the world.

By the time I was in high school, I was able to go to the theatre by myself and with friends one or two times a week.  It was a great advantage that students could see everything that was on Broadway and Off-Broadway with special $1. tickets on the slow nights, Tuesday – Thursday.  Of course I took theatre classes and I did some acting in school but I never really thought about it as something that I would do in my life.

Another thing that was very strong for me was dancing.  My parents were connected to folk dancing circuits.  There were regular groups in our neighborhood which met one or two times a week. My parents would often go away on weekends to folk dance festivals in the countryside.  It was a popular thing to do at that time.  So through them I became involved in folk dancing – I had no choice!  I was too young to stay by myself at home and we didn’t have money for someone to take me somewhere else.

When I went to university I left that behind.  I got very involved in academic studies and I didn’t really come back to theatre and dance until post-graduate studies where i was in the Eastern European Institute at Columbia University and I studied Balkan dance, music and culture which saved me from the dryness of academics at Columbia.  At university I went to Paris to study for a year and while at Columbia I had fellowships to study in Prague and Yugoslavia for a year. I had a strong connection to Europe from an early age.

tanets

Where it started to come together was when I was teaching at the university in New York. I was teaching Balkan dance and Balkan culture but I was also creating a program of world music and dance.  That had a good effect on me – opening me up to African dance, Latin dance, Indian dance, Native American dance and vernacular tap dance and jazz.  There was also some involvement with theatre at that time.  When I left the university job I was 27.  I knew that academics was not the way I was going to fullfill myself but I still didn’t know what the way was going to be.  With that kind of open question and almost by accident, I went to the first summer program at the Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

I had been on a spiritual path for five years already through the Gurdjieff work – I was part of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York.  When I went to Boulder I met Trungpa Rinpoché and other people who would have a great influence in my life, particularly Allen Ginsberg and Barbara Dilley.  Allen in terms of writing and Barbara in  dancing (improvising) and Trungpa Rinpoché… that was a triangle of influences !.. When I look back I see those influences as the beginning of a direct line of both transmission and inspiration that have stayed with me.

Barbara Dilley

Barbara Dilley

Those original connections never waver.  I feel lucky to have been open to that contact at that moment in my life. The connection that really pushed me forward in terms of livelihood and career was the connection with Barbara because she invited me to be part of her performances later that year, 1974. So I came back to New york City and I started performing with Barbara. Then I continued to go back to Naropa every summer. The first time I was an assistant for Barbara and then I started teaching on my own, both Balkan folk dance and also improvisation.

The second summer of Naropa, 1975, I met Meredith Monk and we became good friends through two persons who were also very important in my life – Lanny Harrison, who was a member of Meredith’s company and Collin Walcott who was a musician in a jazz band called Oregon. We all really connected and I was invited to be part of Meredith ‘s company.

That was the root of my new theatre career, suddenly being in Meredith’s company, being paid a salary and making  ensemble theatre pieces that would travel to Europe, play for a month at La Mama Theater in NYC, and go on to play a hundred performances in Europe and the States.  I studied and absorbed the way Meredith did things and I was also catching up on training in dance.  A lot of it was new dance and improvisation but I also studied techniques like Eric Hawkins and some ballet.  New forms were popping up all over: Ideokinesis with Irene Dowd, Nancy Topf’s anatomical release, Steve Paxton and contact improvisation.  I was studyng with these people as they were first developing these forms of improvisation.

It was an incredibly rich time in NYC from 1974 to 1983.  After that there was a kind of shift towards commercialism…. dance and theatre companies started to get big grants and subsidies and were competing with each other; moving onto different levels actually… so the culture of downtown NYC loft performances where everyone mingled together and saw each others’ work on a regular basis and everybody seemed to know everybody…that started to diminish.

By the early 1980’s my studies in Buddhism and Shambhala teachings were getting very demanding.  I was going to dathun (one month retreat) and completing the first cycle of Shambhala training and then going to the three month vajrayana seminary, Kalapa assembly and starting to be a meditation instructor and to direct programs. This was the middle of 1980’s where a deeper and more consistent study in Shambhala Buddhist teachings was mixing with performing and with theatre teaching.

At the same time, I began to teach in artisit-in-residence programs in public schools.  It was a good livelihood and the work felt close to contemplative practice.  I taught storytelling and improvisation residencies in high schools and with smaller children, as well as creating training workshops for teachers. This took a lot of my focus during that time and it’s something I continue to do; particularly the teacher training.  I’ve constructed a curriculum for training theatre teachers which is based on improvisation with movement and images, text and props. It’s a way of making theatre based on what’s on hand.  The text doesn’t come from scripts and the concepts don’t come from outside;  we really make it together.

I call it Theatre on the Spot and that’s basically what I love to do in training – working as an ensemble and creating the ground for making a performance through improvisation.

Question: What is the influence of Buddhism in your work?

 

From the very beginning of The Naropa Institute summer program, Trungpa Rinpoché said to us as the summer faculty that he really had confidence in us, that we could transmit what we were studying and practicing in terms of meditation practice; that we could transmit that through our teaching in arts disciplines- and particularly in the work with visual dharma or Dharma Art which had an influence on all of us, actually quite a big influence.  Dharma Art works at the very heart of human experience which is sense perceptions and particularly where that intersects how the mind works.  It’s looking into how we see things, how we hear things, how we feel things and what we do with that information.  Though we often distort sensory information we also have the potential to receive it and transform it into pure expression, the expression of 

direct experience, direct perception.  So that was from the very beginning a very strong and rich thread in the process.  The way of looking at and noticing what you are doing, not  being afraid to not know what you are doing and to watch yourself finding a way…  We have a concept that the teacher has his preparation, has her notes and exercises and you just do them, and maybe you think about it afterwards and  review or change your presentation a little bit.  But here there is a challenge to witness yourself as you are doing these things and relate to what is needed in the room with the people who are there from moment to moment.  So you are challenged to shift the way you do things, you can let go and have a gap and not  know what you are going to do and wait until an idea arises or just have a period of silence, a period of not knowing.  You are not afraid to be exposed that way, your mind works with the situation and engages people in the way of that process.  This attitude can grow so that it becomes an intuitive way that you are working and relating.  You are working with knowing and with not knowing and you are wiling to step through the doubt that arises in that process.

 

I think we begin to see that all this is innate in the Mudra Theatre space awareness exercises, the essence being that you are present, receptive from moment from moment.  You are working with knowing and not knowing, being present, drifting away, coming back to being receptive and being again distracted and coming back.  These are not opposites and they don’t conflict with each other, it’s actually more like a dance relationship and the wholeness of any moment is containing both of those possibilites: being present and being distracted, being present and seing things clearly, experiencing with a relative clarity and then losing it, drifting off, having a thought about something else.  We expand what we accept.  There is a wonderful phrase of Suzuki Roshi,  the great Zen teacher:  “Big mind, little mind;” big mind is more the mind that holds these shifts with a sense of presence even as things are changing from moment to moment; it’s not trying to grab onto something and work with the particular distraction that’s coming up so much or work with the beauty that’s coming up so much, but holding that in the centre of what’s going on while the larger circle is being present to all of it.  Like the poet Lew Welch writes, “I saw myself a ring of bone in the clear stream of all of it/ and vowed always to be open to it/that all of it might flow through.”  This becomes a powerful experience in improvisation.

 

Fundamentally what a lot of us have found in working with improvisation is that there are parallels between awareness practice and improvisation practice, and the parallels are so consistent that one can after years of working like this begin to articulate them and to set up situations in which people can have that parallel experience and can inform themselves through that experience. You don’t need to explain what is going to happen but you set up the situation and people have the experience and become their own teachers.  Then we are training together: ensemble.

 

Question:  You create conditions ?

 

Yes.  I’m attracted by ensemble performance and ensemble theatre because the basis of it is acknowledging that we are held by collective conditions at the time when  we are working together and from those conditions we can create together.  Each of us has his individual way of moving  through those conditions  and the more receptive we are to each others’ particular way  of moving through these conditions, the more  the

ensemble can grow, the more accepting  it can be, the more demanding it can be.  Each person is challenged to open up further, to not be afraid to show themselves further and to not hold on.  That sounds like the message of daring, the message of the warrior in the world.

 

Question: This was the foundation of your work with Barbara Dilley and Meredith Monk? 

 

Right from the beginning ..my experience with Barbara was particularly strong in that way.  With Meredith it was more learning about creating performance in terms of imagery, film making and sound/music,  and using movement images.  With Barbara it was learning “pure” improvisation- being out there in that field of not knowing.  Barbara represented that so fully, completely.  The group that had a strong influence on me was an ensemble improvisation company called the Grand Union.  It didn’t last for very long, maybe 3-4 years.  It was a group of choreographers. Barbara, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Douglas Dunn, Nancy Lewis and Steve Paxton.  At the beginning Yvonne Rainer was the initiator.  They would come to a performance space with no script at all. Maybe they’d worked together informally, maybe they had been in casual contact to each other but they came to the performance space and improvised performance, creating situations, imagery and stories using props, language, movement, music.  It was amazing to watch that unfold;  it was like swimming in water that came to feel like the room  itself and the audience was in the water with the performers..  Not cozy or comfortable so much but essential like a birthing.  The Grand Union group was a great influence on me.  There were connections to that kind of work, that kind of spirit that i found in different places – in Peter Brook’s work, in Grotowski’s work in the Polish Theatre Lab and also in Taddeus Kantor’s work and in less well known groups in New York that I had contact with over the years.

 

Question: When I see this kind of work I feel a great simplicity, a sort of relaxation, availability…they are so alive…

 

When I watch a group like that I sense they’ve been together in a profound and intimate way to be able to give this kind of performance.  It’s not created from a conceptual place so much as from experience;  it’s coming from a lived experience, a collective, emotional lived experience. There has been suffering, there ‘s been conflict, joy, revelation, there’s been all of that before we see them and when they come to us on stage, those emotions and that emotional history are moving through their blood stream.  It’s what they are expressing.  We are drawn in by that so rather than just absorbing what’s given, something of our own emotional history becomes engaged with them, we become part of what they are doing, of what’s being made visible.  That’s the essence of theatre, the essence of what Brook and others call “making the invisible visible” – eliminating the separation between audience and performance by being relaxed and confident enough to invite the audience deeply into the space. 

 

Question: We cannot reach this level without working a certain amount of time together…the notion of troupe, company is essential for me…it seems so difficult to work like this in the actual world…we’re losing a certain sense of collective in society these days, it makes me sad.

  

 

Yes you know Andre Serban talks about that.  He wrote a wonderful essay where he says that he can’t believe that people are asked to put up a play in six weeks or even eight weeks…he says for him, it’s one or two years.  There was a point where he actually stopped doing theatre altogether because he didn’t see it as a process that

was framed by time and result and production.. all the conditions of money: renting space, a theatre, having publicity, all that kind of thing.  There are certainly realities that we accept if we want to work in a public way. But he had very strong statements

to make about the time frame.  I like what you are saying – ideally we are looking for a situation that is ongoing so that we can explore together the history that we are creating by being together from day to day; that each day we come back and we have an agreement that something is offered to the mixture of the collective and we don’t

hold on to that, we renew and regenerate it in an ongoing way. I think there’s good discipline that happens naturally. People can fall apart and pick themselves up again and do it for the benefit of the group;  you might let go a bit more your attachment to your mood, recognizing that as “small mind.” 


In fact, it’s important for us to get through the mood, absorb the mood.  Otherwise, it can be a distraction from our openess to ensemble work.  As we work together and deepen our experience, we can encourage each other to relax around our personal stuff and let it be part of the information that we are collecting and creating  together….

 

Fundamentally people know how to open up, how to be receptive and come back to that situation, that space where we have direct access to ourselves, to our own spot, to our own hearts,  our sense of goodness, of being ourselves no matter how we are thinking about ourselves at the moment…

 

It’s not this subjective partner controlling our experience with conditions and preferences and demands and so forth; it’s a more open partnership with ourselves.  So physical theatre, improvisation, and making performance is an excellent way to experience art-making…

  

We are training ourselves to relax our reference point and part of that is relaxing around our egos (laughs!).  There’s nothing wrong with our egos…but when we hold them so tightly that nothng gets in, that’s a problem.  In theater and improvisation practice we can find moments together where the ensemble recognizes relaxing around

egos and the space becomes a partner, direct experience becomes a partner in a direct way; it’s not so random anymore.  You are not waiting for your muse to sing the song or dance the dance!

 

Question: It’s also a possibility to free up joy, cheerfulness, a sense of energy.

 

Yes.  I think cheerfulness is related to receptivity and the sense that things are just doing what they do and being what they are; in the same way I am doing what I do, I am being who I am despite the problems, conflicts, the issues and the obstacles…

We tend to be so serious, maybe artists especially, we struggle with being such serious people.  Noticing this seriousness, and the defensiveness that arises around it, we can relax and then a little sense of humour bubbles up. 

 

Thank you Steve.

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