Yara Travieso and Belinda McGuire in Conversation
Yara Travieso, opening the 2018 Walking Distance Dance Festival with her work “La Medea”, and Belinda McGuire, closing the festival with “Solo Works”, first met in the early 2000’s during their dance training at the Juilliard School in New York. On May 11, ODC Theater reconnected the two artists in conversation to reflect on their divergent creative paths since then and the works that will be performed in the festival at ODC Theater this week.
Yara Travieso (Y): I have been really intrigued by your interest in solo work. When we were in school I sensed your understanding of work, material and story [arised] from a deeper focus and mining. Is your interest in solo material an extension of wanting to understand something in a textured, deep way?
Belinda McGuire (B): When I embark on a project I want to do it fully and complete it. I don’t like the feeling that I left something unexplored or that I have to jump ship before I reach my destination.
I think my solo works started as a logistical thing. I needed to get deeper into them and the only way I could do that was in solitude. Being in the role of dancer, choreographer and director, I could be nimble. In order to keep a consistent practice and fully grasp what I was excavating, I needed to do some of that work quietly. That’s harder to do with other dancers.
Y: It reminds me of the way a visual artist or sculptor works — toward a mastery. It’s harder to do with a group. I’ve seen you in your process [practice] this discipline like a painter or sculptor in the studio. It seems different than the way many other choreographers approach work. There’s a meditative quality to the discipline. Do you think that has something to do with it?
B: If you look at the body as your material, as well as the other technical elements of your design, even the things you think are consistent - the paint, the lighting units, your body, these elements which you are intensely crafting — are all still changing. Working solo keeps these changes and shifts closer to me. I am more attuned to the volatility. If you can figure out how to generate your own volatility, it feeds the work in some way.
Y: I think that is the attempt of mastery — someone challenging themselves, working in environments they try to control with extreme discipline. It is a very internal process that extends to an external space.
Belinda, is there a significance of doing the two solos now and bringing them back?
B: I’ve never stopped doing them. Working with them and keeping them a part of my life is part of my overall practice.
Y: If we were to compare them performed today versus 2011, what would be different now?
B: Now there’s more space in the work. I’ve bypassed the point of it being too familiar. My feeling is to burrow in so deep to get beyond that over time. Understanding so deeply and fully that it becomes new again.
Y: So we met at Juilliard but our work is incredibly different visually and in process. We came from the same training institution. What has your path been like since then? How has the training we both had manifested in your work?
B: We had the same teachers and peers and were influenced by those individuals. They shaped me tremendously. I’ve continued to work that way outside those walls. In addition to making my own work and performing that work, I commission other artists to make work for me to perform. One of the roots of working as a solo artist was that here was work in the world I wanted to be a part of, that I wanted to see more of and help other people see more of. So I figured that it would be more difficult to spend a few years with the companies I wanted to dance with than be a free agent doing this creation and commissioning thing. Also, creatively, I wouldn’t only be able to make my own work. I want other provocations. I would otherwise die of artistic thirst.
Y: I feel similar in the way that sameness could feel suffocating. Like I would never have a company and have the work always [involve] the same people. We have complexities drawn out by various individuals and environments and I want to explore all of them.
B: For you, how did your Juilliard experience either set you in the direction you’ve gone or give you something to respond to?
Y: For me the latter. I was more reacting and pushing against the information. I was really inspired by the student body and the environment, which propelled me to great things, especially collaboratively, and I had never really looked at a dance the way my peers looked at a dance. That was eye-opening for me: understanding certain histories and legacies I was a part of by being on a stage and moving. I didn’t previously have an appreciation of that cultural legacy. I got some of that through the school but more through the students.
For me, movement had been a responsive thing to a story, so this exposure brought me another way of seeing the form. I loved Martha Graham growing up and the narratives. Students and dancers in school helped me to consider more conceptual approaches to dances like Cunningham. Blending conceptual dance and narrative storytelling was big for me, maybe even more than the physical training.
I’ve also pushed against the infrastructure of institution and classicism. It became clear that I wasn’t going to do something in a classical tradition. So the training opened my artistic mind of how to combine story and concept and how to dismantle Western tradition and the culture of classicism built around dance and story. My peers were instrumental in helping me see in that way too.
B: How did you start working with your collaborators?
Y: I never work with exactly the same team, but I have orbits of collaborators. Sam Crawford and I have been working together for 7 years now. When we were conceptualizing La Medea, I told him I wanted this third world: wild, bombastic, Latin television special; telenovella meets something much more grounded in classic myth. I gave him the names of two of my favorite bands. He took all that and ran.
Sam’s music was a major part of writing the script and creating the movement. His libretto came first. He wrote it quickly and let that inspire the story, so I wrote the script based on the songs. The way we perform is that the band is live and they score the cinematic thing we create. The dancers live in the film. The whole world was made for camera, shot live.
This version of the show is my favorite, more than the live performance, because you see an integrated frame of the world that develops through the film.
There were so many layers that the live audience couldn’t absorb. It was immersive. The film lets you see the layers: the live feeds; the people watching worldwide; the characters being repeated in mirrors, film screens, computer screens, projection screens; people interacting with tweets and their questions becoming part of the story.
It is really about transmitting the multiplicity embedded in this one mythical figure, and making [Medea] as infinite as I could. I’m always trying to bridge the gap between theater and cinema. Having the band live does that. It’s important in making the film feel we are live with it.
B: I can’t wait to see your show this Wednesday. Really looking forward to reconnecting at ODC.