Joyce Liao interviews Rachel Grant, Kaitlin McCarthy and Jenny Peterson, the creators of Hot Mess. Hot Mess was an independently-produced evening of new dance performance that premiered through the Access Velocity program at Velocity Dance Center on February 22nd and 23rd, 2013.
How did Hot Mess happen?
I have to give Kaitlin all the credit on this one: she decided to just make this show happen, and we were all swept along by her energy and determination and organizational skills and refusal to take “no” for an answer. She was the glue that kept us all together.
I feel like 2012 was a huge year of transformation for me. For much of it, I spent a good amount of time dancing for other people. There’s something really fulfilling in getting the opportunity to help nurture someone else’s vision—and you, as a performer end up being what people see—you are the conduit for that vision. But I felt like in a lot of circumstances, I would distance myself from the actual work. It was a splitting of self—of being a person with a performative investment, but not an artistic investment. I think there are often very few dance/performative opportunities where you really get to be first and foremost a human being.
Also, I turned 30 this year, and felt that it was high time to grow up and take some artistic risks. I’ve been working in the visual art realm with photography for a while now, and feel a certain amount of confidence in my ability to generate visual material. But choreography was definitely something I wasn’t comfortable with at all. And what better way to become comfortable than to force yourself to do what scares you?
Kaitlin was very much the impetus for Hot Mess, and I felt like her enthusiasm was a great opportunity to have support in doing what terrified me the most. When she asked me to be a co-producer/choreographer, I accepted with much trepidation. I think even the title Hot Mess came from our initial meeting in which there was some flippancy about what the show would actually end up being like. In many ways, I rode on the confidence of Kaitlin and Rachel (and Annie McGhee) to get over the hump of having to make something and take full responsibility for the outcome.
Since moving to Seattle, I had been wanting to choreograph and had applied for a number of opportunities that didn’t pan out. I was tired of not exploring concepts for pieces that I felt excited about, and felt that I couldn’t depend on receiving a grant in order to make work. I think it is easy to say, “If I made work it would be x,y and z,” but you really can’t say that unless you’re making work. The decision to self-produce came out of the knowledge that the most important thing as an artist is to make work, and that I was the only person keeping myself from doing that.
I asked Jenny and Rachel to split the bill with me because I wanted creative support for this endeavor. I had worked with Jenny as part of Khambatta dance company and had seen her photography. I knew that she was an artist with a lot of skill and vision. And I had danced for Rachel and Annie in a piece for Evoke Productions’ Full Tilt last year. I really enjoyed their process—they taught me a lot of strategies for working from improvisation. I felt that all of us were on the same page artistically, and that our aesthetics spoke to each other. I desired the kind of environment I had in college where my peers and I were constantly talking about art. That kind of dialogue is so important. You can’t make work in a vacuum.
I think the impetus for the show also came from my frustrations with being a dancer. I understand that part of being a dancer is enabling other people’s visions, but I felt that in most cases there was very little room for dancers’ input. I think dancers have a unique “inside” view of pieces, and should be used as a resource to help choreographers. I was rarely given permission to say, “hey, this isn’t working for me” or “I have this impulse to do this here, can we try it?”
How was Hot Mess important to you as an artist?
Kaitlin’s decision to self-produce this show came at a good time for me: I had some momentum after showing work in last year’s Bridge Project and then Full Tilt (collaborating with Annie McGhee), but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I think if I were sticking around in Seattle for longer I would have entered the cycle of grant applications, but I knew from pretty early this year that moving away was a possibility, and I wanted to just do something celebratory and fun that would feel like a grand exit. I felt like I was done trying to “prove myself” as an artist and just wanted to make something that was interesting for me and the dancers and hopefully the audience as well.
I found this show to be an opportunity to synthesize a lot of the themes that I’ve been marinating on throughout the duration of my time in Seattle: I’ve been working as a Montessori teacher for three years, and have been interested in making a dance that explored early childhood development and sourced movement from the dancers’ memories and experiences but was NOT a dance where adults pretend to be children. I’ve also been very interested in creating sound/music for dance, and this piece gave me an opportunity to create my most complex sound score to date.
To be honest, I’m kind of a curmudgeon when it comes to art making and my process. I think I’ve always avoided relying on art-making for any practical purpose (to make a living, as a source of identity and self confidence, etc.) because I simply enjoy creating things too much and I don’t want to sully that. Maybe this is cowardly—I don’t know. What was most satisfying about this process is that producing a show independently means you get to call the shots. Sure, you are also taking on the financial burden, the threat of failure, and all of the other responsibilities. But it felt so relieving to know that with enough moxie, anything is possible. I had a moment—literally in the middle of the show—where I realized I was doing EXACTLY what I wanted to be doing. I think there’s nothing more powerful or validating as an artist than that.
When you put dancers on stage, they are more than bodies. They are people. You are putting their whole lives up there. I wanted to acknowledge and use that. I wanted to make a piece where my dancers had that permission, both to collaborate on material, and then to have freedom to explore creatively within that. I told them that if they were doing something that didn’t make sense to them, then it wouldn’t make sense to the audience either. In making “There’s No Id in Team” I tried to create an open dialogue about what we were making together. In return, I asked my performers to be unconditionally positive and open to trying anything.
This idea of enabling the performer also led into ideas about why we perform, and the desires that we have in performing. I think in the final piece this translated into the different evolutions of self my dancers performed. The magical liminal state of the theater that allows us to be anyone, and do anything. I also wanted to find alter-egos inside of my performers, and ask those alter-egos to come out and play. For instance, I told Rachel that she had an inner diva, and then asked her to her act like she knew she was hot shit. Which she is, by the way. I think it’s considered immodest for people to want to act like that, but because I told her to do it, she gets to experience that and still keep her modesty. Same goes for Jenny, who I made act like a total gross creeper.
What difficulties did you run into?
Oh, I think we were all terrified pretty much the entire time we were preparing for this show. We covered it up pretty well, but there were points for all of us where even our dancers could feel our stress and it affected everybody in different ways. We were all making these bold choreographic choices, and I think each of us was worried that our work was going to flop. We entered into this process with the desire to take risks, but it turns out that risk-taking is fucking scary!
Another difficulty was that I ended up in the middle of a cross-country move about halfway through the choreographic process. It was challenging to hold my life together, living on a different coast from my partner but still deeply invested in my Seattle home. This ended up being a mixed blessing, because rehearsing for the show turned into a bit of a refuge—the only place in my life that wasn’t completely turned upside down during this time of transition.
Gratefully, because Kaitlin was so on the ball with everything, there weren’t a ton of practical difficulties. For me, the main difficulties were overcoming my own lack of confidence and trusting in the initial vision and intention for my dance, “Twinsies.” Of course, there are always little things like managing time, figuring out how to pay for rehearsal space, and negotiating the timeline of developing the piece (how much time can we spend generating material before we have to start editing and putting things together?).
I think what ended up being the most helpful for me psychologically was realizing that I literally had no idea what I was doing. And there is something very freeing in that—if you don’t know what you are doing, you can give yourself license to go with your impulses and stick with what is interesting to you, rather than what you think you SHOULD be doing, or what SHOULD be interesting. I knew that I wanted to create something believably emotional, but also humorous. Kaitlin talked about the boundaries and subtleties involved in humor, and I love it when I see a work that makes me laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time. I think as human beings, we are in that space more than we care to realize. Life can be really tragic and sad, but there are takeaways from that that are hilarious. Laugh or die.
Annie McGhee was very helpful in this process in many ways. She really brought herself emotionally to the table, and we explored some of the less flattering sides of our adolescence together. At one point, we both brought in notes we had saved from late middle school—7th and 8th grade—and we read them aloud together. From this we learned that our experiences had more in common than we realized, and this was instrumental in keeping us on the same page throughout the process. It felt important to me to really examine the internal landscape of the work’s intention, instead of just blindly making up movement. I think above all, it was important to me to make something that felt wholly honest, and I feel good that that ended up coming through.
The choreography in the piece was created almost entirely by my dancers. I would give them improvisational scores, and what came out was magic. They were always blowing me away.
I then did a lot of editing and directing. It’s not the same as if I had created the choreography myself, but I still think it is very indicative of my current interests. I’m interested in dancers as people, in awkwardness, in comedy. Things are the most poignant to me when I am unsure whether to laugh or cry. Comedy is so delicate. It’s all about timing that is very precise, but is hard to prescribe. You kinda just have to have a feel for it.
The piece didn’t really come together until opening night, because that was the first time we had a real audience. It changed so dramatically. It came alive. We really only had two runs of the piece and those were the two performances. And it was amazing, the different reactions with different audiences. I think with more runs we would learn where the sweet spot was—the median funny—but my dancers were feeling it out and making some great decisions on the fly. I had to trust them.
Seeing it with an audience also highlighted for me things that didn’t work. Things that should have been funny but weren’t. Moments that felt like punch lines rather than the kind of nervous, nuanced humor I was going for.
I think the hardest thing about putting together this show, and probably the hardest thing about being an artist, is the ambiguity of art. In any other field you know where you stand, you know if you are doing good work, if you are doing things correctly. In art, a masterpiece and a piece of shit are not very far apart. In this process I wanted to give myself room to not worry about what is “good” and think more about what is interesting and believe that it will come together. But it was very hard to take that risk.
The second piece I choreographed, “Lovesick,” was sort of an insurance policy for me. Since I haven’t had a lot of exposure before in Seattle, I knew it was important for me to come out of this show in a positive light. I was worried that my one piece would flop (which it didn’t, thank God) or that I would be pigeon-holed as someone who makes such-and-such kind of work, which is why I wanted to show range with two pieces. I also knew it would be accessible, which I hoped would ground the show for new-comers to dance. I think watching dance can be enjoyable and entertaining and still intelligent. What I didn’t expect was that “Lovesick” would kind of become a star of its own, but that’s what happens when you cast great performers. I also wanted to dance in my work, and I needed to be outside of my longer piece, so “Lovesick” was a little bit selfish in that way.
There are definitely days when your work is hard to justify. More often than not, I was terrified of failure and ready to throw in the towel, get a 9 to 5 and lead a simpler life. Making a show leads to so many esoteric questions about why you are even doing this and who told you that you matter enough to subject a whole bunch of people to your crazy ideas?!? In the end though I think being part of a larger culture that makes art is so important because that is the culture that is constantly questioning society. The world needs as many engaged people as it can get.
How was Hot Mess important to you as an artist?
Looking forward, this has been important to me because now I know it can be done. I think artistic collaboration can be found anywhere, and I have to believe that I can create that kind of community for myself in my new home. I am also inspired to maintain the connections I’ve made in the Pacific Northwest and continue to foster a creative dialogue with artists in Seattle. I am looking into ways to potentially bring Seattle artists to Virginia, and am definitely planning to return to Seattle and work with my friends and peers on projects in the future. I feel like, in this era of increasingly global communication, the idea of cross-country collaboration is more feasible than ever. I’m certainly not done with Seattle and I look forward to seeing how the roots I planted there over the past few years continue to grow and deepen and take on a whole new character in the future.
I was truly blown away by the support from the community. Blown away. I think we are all really lucky to have had the opportunity to make work in Seattle. The quality of work here is high, but there is also such a sense of support. And people are doing really different things—the community is small enough to feel comfortable, but big enough to find your niche. I look forward to doing much, much more.
After the show, Tonya Lockyer told me that it was a feminist show. It wasn’t that we set out to do that, or that we had any overtly feminist concepts, but I think it was feminist and I’m not surprised. Jenny, Rachel and I are all very aware of the kind of sexism that is still very ingrained in our culture. I think we resist that, and just by being ourselves we emit and promote those attitudes. Making this work is a little bit selfish, in that I desire to show the world that I am not some sweet, perky, blonde dancer girl, but actually a total weirdo. We all have stereotypes to escape. I have a lot of ideas and skills and I want to be taken seriously.
In making this show I got out a lot of urges. Now I have new urges. I still want to explore theatricality, but I’m also interested in incorporating more physical dance, which is something I struggle with. I really admire choreographers who push the envelope of technique, vocabulary and stamina. It takes nerve to ask dancers to go to that place because it’s physically exhausting for them. One rehearsal we were going into the studio as some other dancers where coming out and they were soaked. I thought, I want to do that! I want to sweat!
To Rachel: You’ve just moved to Virginia, and you’ve mentioned that you want to apply your experiences in Seattle to building a creative community in your new home. What do you think is most important for building a supportive creative community? What draws people closer to each other?
Oh man, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. In my experience, building a supportive community has a lot to do with the work that you as an individual are willing to put in. Some artistic communities are larger and more established, like the one in Seattle. Others, like the one I’m encountering in the New River Valley, are more spread out, with fewer collaborators and resources. But even when there is a thriving scene like Seattle’s, the individual movers and shakers still have to do the work to make it grow. I think a big part of building a supportive community is just having the courage to put the work out there, and then trusting that people will respond to it in some way: to borrow a line from the inimitable Kevin Costner, “if you build it, they will come.”
Something I realized about myself during my time in Seattle is that I really thrive in the “building” stage of creating community. I think the ability to sustain an artistic community, to keep the momentum of that initial explosion of energy—that is the difficult part. And honestly, in my adult life, I’ve never lived in a place long enough to know what that sustenance looks like. Maybe I’ll get the chance in Virginia, I don’t know. I’ll get back to you and let you know what I find out.
Rachel Grant is a dancer, teacher, mover and shaker. She received a BA in Dance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2008, and relocated to the Pacific Northwest a year later. She was lucky enough to be an active member of the vibrant Seattle dance scene for a little over three years, and has recently relocated with her fiance to Blacksburg, VA. Rachel’s choreography has been produced in Velocity Dance Center’s Bridge Project 2012, the Seattle International Dance Festival, Evoke Productions’ Full Tilt (in collaboration with Annie McGhee) and in various other venues throughout the Seattle area. Most recently, Rachel choreographed for and helped to produce Hot Mess, which was embraced by sold-out audiences and was one of the most gratifying experiences she’s ever had. Please keep in touch: www.rachelrughdance.com
Kaitlin McCarthy likes dance. She likes to make it, see it, direct it, think about it, talk about it and write about it. She started dancing in her hometown of Ann Arbor, MI before attending Mt. Holyoke College where she graduated summa cum laude in 2009. In Seattle she has worked with a dozen local choreographers as a dancer, created two pieces that were selected for 12 Minutes Max at On the Boards, and produced/choreographed for the show Hot Mess at Velocity Dance Center. She will be making a new work for Full Tilt 2013, May 10th and 11th. Kaitlin also writes critical reviews for the blog SeattleDances.For more information please visit kaitlinmccarthy.com
Jenny Peterson grew up in the Chicago suburbs, spending much of her youth as a competitive gymnast. She began dancing in college, receiving a B.A. in Dance and Visual Arts from the University of California, Irvine. Jenny has danced professionally in San Diego and Seattle, performing with the Pat Graney Company, Khambatta Dance Company, and in works by Aiko Kinoshita, Wade Madsen, Amy O’Neal and Lucia Neare’s Theatrical Wonders. Jenny steadies her time working as a licensed massage therapist and fine art photographer. Her work can be viewed at jennypeterson.com
Interviewer Joyce Liao is a dance-based artist currently living in Seattle. She is interested in exploring the relationship between dance, movement, text, sound, music, rhythms, emotions, sensations and stories. She practices dance and choreographs solo pieces at home and in various spaces, and considers this practice to be the foundation of her art form. Joyce is proud to be a 2013 Flower Season Artist-in-Residence at Studio Current. She recently showed a short dance film at Velocity’s THE BRIDGE PROJECT 2013.