Jess Curtis is an award-winning dancemaker and performer who has created and performed multidisciplinary works in the U.S and Europe. In 2000, he founded, Jess Curtis/Gravity. He holds an MFA in Choreography and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California at Davis. Over a meal at San Francisco’s Oasis Café, he spoke with me about his approach to dance accessibility.
Toba Singer: You have worked in Europe and the United
States. Can you share a travelogue of your career?
Jeff Curtis: In 1998, I moved to France with Keith Hennessey
and Jules Beckman, all of us former members of Contraband. In France, we joined
the experimental circus project Cahin-Caha. In 2001, we brought the show that
we built there to San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. After
leaving France, I taught and worked in Berlin where I made “Fallen,” coproduced
by Fabrik in Potsdam with ODC-San
Francisco. All my major work since then has been coproduced in Berlin. I still live there but have a strong
attachment to San Francisco. My career has been largely built around smuggling
ideas back and forth from art making communities in San Francisco to those in
Europe. In 2008, I returned here to pursue a MFA in Choreography and Ph.D. in
Performance Studies at U.C. Davis, under the tutelage of Della Davidson.
TS: The program notes state that (in)Visible was not “an attempt to enforce empathy for blind people.” What controlling argument gives rise to the work’s patterns and disruption of patterns of light, dark, and atmospheric sound?
JC: The central
inspirations arise the question, “How can we make work accessible outside of vision?”
Costumes and set design are based on sound, so you can hear the dancer moving
through the curtains, and sounds people make as they dance. Traditionally, it’s
the opposite. Dance is supposed to be noiseless: Your teacher says, “Don’t
breathe too loud.” I often felt chastised for that inner seven-year-old boy [Curtis
makes the whooshing sound that small boys typically make when they run around].
I had to work hard to not be audible. Sara
Shelton Mann would encourage us to
vocalize what we were improvising. She’d ask, “Can you do one thing and say
what it is as you do it?”
In 2005, I was invited to do a work by the band, Blue Eyed Soul. The commission included a score by Derek Nisbet that would give low vision or blind people access to the dance, where the dancers would sound and say what they were doing. In that piece I rerecorded the aerialist Jami Quarrel. We did a run-through during which the performers spoke what they were feeling, and sounded their breath impulses. Then we added music. I don’t trust not seeing people breathing. Breathing audibly allows Jami to offer the suppleness and shape of his torso. Sara would say that the chest shows emotion. Alva Noë, who is our philosophical consultant for (in)Visible, wrote a book called “Out of our Heads: why you are not your brain.” It proposes a cognitive philosophy that Alva refers to as, “Enactive Perception.”
I did “The Way You Look at Me Tonight” with Claire Cunningham. It became one of best known among those who identify as disabled. Our work was among the most successful undertakings of my career. We decided to make audio description our residency project at The Place, in London. We researched how to build it into a piece instead of tacking it on. We tried out different techniques, including self-description supplemented with audio. The collision of language and movement felt much more interesting. As a writer, I know that if a picture is worth a thousand words, how you describe a movement is worth a million. We became involved in subjecting movement to language and soon ran into its limitations. Most theaters offer audio description, but dance has always proven problematic because responses are so subjective. Chloe Phillips is a visually disabled artist who, when I asked her whether she attends dance events, told me, “Well, I go to dance if there’s a lot of things and dance is one of them, but if it’s a bunch of people jumping around on the other side of the room, no. I don’t go to that.” Most aging patrons are losing their sight. One of our most successful events was for kids from a school for the blind. They left saying, “Now I understand that I could be a dancer too.”
As a graduate student, I wrote about phenomenology in
performance. Now, when I think through every sound cue, and movement from the
point of view of accessibility, I consider that person sitting on the side, who
can see into the wing, and who is sitting where. As a dancer who enjoys dances
from the inside, proximity makes all the difference, especially in theaters
with mezzanines and balconies, where the audience is a good distance from
dancers on a proscenium stage. I mostly enjoy working in black box 400-seat
theaters that offer a multi-sensory experience.
TS: The program lists you as the Conceiver and Director of (in)Visible. There are also movement and body rhythm consultants listed. Who is the choreographer?
JC: I don’t like calling myself a choreographer. I make movement through improv prompts and steer the dancers’ choices. The work is mostly improvisational, lying on the floor, moving gently, while describing sensations. I use the neologism “grammarturgy,” where each score has a grammatical structure. It starts with First Person Present (I raise my arm), and moves into First Person Gerund (I am stroking his cheek), then repeats the pattern in the Second Person (“You raise, you are stroking. . .”) and so on.
TS: What accounts for pre-show trigger warnings pertaining to everything from bathroom visits, to wearing escape devices, to how to choose your seat in an open seating venue, accompanied by a signed survey that asks for ethnicity and sexual orientation (but not social class)? With so many precautions, and interrogatories, shouldn’t the audience be advised of them before purchasing tickets?
JC: They are not trigger warnings. They are Consent for Touch Requests. What we do is just enough out of the ordinary that audience members should at least know that there’s a safe way to get out of the room. I’m taking some level of risk around content. These concerns occur in the disability context: “You can’t ask me sit in the dark and then run into my fragile shin.”
TS: Speaking of fragility, one dancer, Gabriel Christian,
stepped from the floor onto the thighs of a woman seated three seats away from
me. She looked to be over 65. A 90-year-old
woman seated between us commented, “That’s too much!” In a proscenium stage
voice, Christian responded: “A woman to my right comments. I ignore her.” In
breaking the fourth wall to announce disregard for the 90-year-old’s concern (without
sharing its content with those too far away to have heard it), wasn’t he discounting
audience safety concerns? Doesn’t that imbalance send mixed messages, taking
into account the pre-curtain focus on audience safety assurances?
JC: The person who commented can leave the theater if she is uncomfortable, but she doesn’t get to comment on what happens next to her. On my side of the space, there were audience members who patted three times to indicate that they did not welcome touch. One of the dancers said, “I am taking his wallet out of his pocket,” and I heard the man whose wallet it was say, “No.”
TS: In their vocalizations, dancers refer to audience members as “Subjects.” Do you think that audience members who are acted upon, and their witnesses, might report that they feel more like objects?
JC: There is multi use of subject and object. Those subjects
who are acted upon shift into becoming objects. The question is “How does that
person remain in an autonomous state?” It
emerges from their interaction with the work, and level of choice that they
find. Letting the subject decide is an essential element.
TS: Some elements of the work seemed intended to challenge the sensibilities of the audience. Should a dance work be prescriptive or ideological, where it presumes deficits such as a puritanical bias that the audience should be made to feel uncomfortable about?
JC: There is no such presumption. We are addressing a range of humans with diverse sensory modalities. Addressing range in a live performance does exclude a lot of people because of their inattention to such choices. We focus on accommodating accessibility. Many performing artists in Berlin assume that the average audience member is 20 years old, able to stand for an hour and a half, and walk around in the dark. I attended a performance where there were so many people standing that I couldn’t see the performers. I demanded my money back. While I was negotiating my reimbursement, I noticed about eight older audience members leave the theater.
TS: Could you compare (in)Visible to your previous
work, “Fallen,” in its conception and execution?
JC: In (in)Visible, certain aesthetics collect around darkness and who sees what. My attention to the sensory experience of both audience and performers is more precise and explicit in this work. More language and theoretical elements contributed to shaping the work. When I was working on “Fallen,” I was making intuitive choices about similar issues, working with primary and secondary images in various parts of the stage to keep the attention here, but change that when I was working on over there. That kind of attentive, sensory, primary work means directing attention to what you are feeling and how you report it. A big dancing score is brings attention to joints and vestibular systems that produce specific sensations in a body. How does a score that produces those sensations become useful for dance when we remove vision from the equation? It doesn’t matter what shapes a production creates. More important are sounds you’re making in the dark, and where you are in space, the qualities of these entities and how they register, not whether a dancer has his or her arms in low or high fifth position.
In the 15 years between Fallen and (in)Visible, my collaboration with performers with increasingly diverse physicality has expanded. In Fallen, we were all fit young dancers, classically trained in modern dance or ballet. The breadth of disciplinary training has shifted a lot over that time, which makes for a much richer, qualitatively different and wider audience. In terms of access and discipline, Fallen was a proscenium piece: we did a lot of installation, time-based work, in a gallery bar, informed by performance art and challenging the audience. The room construction in (in)Visible mobilizes different sets of expectations. From beginning time to ending time it mobilizes a different attention style than when the audience sits in the dark facing in one direction.