Our Processes, Seen by the Outsider

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Welcome to Forcier/Norman: Behind the Scenes!

The Who and the What?     While Tracey Norman and Marie France Forcier have been at work this season on what goes between and Scars are All the Rage, their respective pieces for Forcier/Norman, they invited Arts Writer Mark Mann to observe a few of their rehearsals and reflect about his experience. To preserve Mann’s outsider’s perspective, the creative intentions behind Forcier and Norman’s works were not discussed prior to those rehearsals.

The Why?     The initiative was launched to create an archive of those two creative processes, but also to demystify “how contemporary choreography is made” for the general public. It is also meant to provide insight to dance artists about how the uninitiated might perceive the creation process.

The Where and the When?    On this site, we will periodically share Mann’s written observations following the course of our processes, from late August 2014 until the works’ scheduled premiere on March 12th 2015. We hope you enjoy his astute and sensitive writing as much as we do!

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The Possibility of Dance

March, 2015  Mark Mann Response #3 to Scars are All the Rage Rehearsal

Choreographer: Marie France Forcier / Interpreters: Justine Comfort, Molly Johnson, Louis Laberge-Côté / The Citadel, Toronto

Recently I fell down a hole on the Internet and at the bottom of it there was a video of a man getting his head chopped off. I should say, vigorously hacked off, for religious and political reasons. I’m sorry to bring it up, and don’t get me wrong: Scars Are All the Rage is nothing like that. But the two performances do have a few things in common. One, they both show the extremes of what an ego is capable of taking from someone else—their humanity, their life. And two, in both you end up wondering: Why am I watching this?

I realize that seems like it could be a harsh statement, in reference to a dance, but I just mean that the performance of harm—physical harm, sexual harm, emotional harm—is disorienting. This dance is about looking at something that you would not otherwise want to see. Scars Are All the Rage raises some deep questions, not only about the nature of abuse, but also about what we expect a performance to do and what dance makes possible.

Violence is easy. People love to watch other people fight and hurt each other, in any medium. It’s exciting and generally uncomplicated. But abuse achieves its end through entrapment—at some point the victim is tricked into choosing some part of the action that culminates in violation. For that, they experience a false but unshakable sense of complicity and guilt.

This is terribly murky and uncomfortable territory. It’s the land of secrets, where the ground is poisoned, and it’s where your dance takes place. Why do you take us there? I suspect that if you know it exists, then ultimately you just have to bring some vision to it. But also I think dancing this material makes it possible to go there, where another medium might fail.

I often see dance as taking the experience of an unconscious enactment—the situations we keep creating, the feelings and settings we keep replaying—and bringing some agency to it, and some inspiration. To me, Scars Are All the Rage pushes this principle to its limit.

Going back to my dark moment on the Internet, let me be honest and say that no one forced me to watch that beheading. I said I “fell” into it, but truthfully I made my way there. Even if I felt surprised by my choices to follow the links, a part of me wanted to see it. And that’s what was so disorienting about it, because the killer was alive inside me while I was watching him. The evil was in me.

Scars Are All the Rage creates a similar effect. Maybe it looks like it’s about evil, but it’s actually about humans. I expect audiences will be as rapt as I have been watching the run-throughs, but they probably won’t relish the reminder that abuse courses through our species and we just hate to think about it. It’s hard to negotiate with all the feelings this show awakens.

 

Breathing with Animals

January, 2015  Mark Mann Response #5 to what goes between Rehearsal

Choreographer: Tracey Norman / Interpreters: Jesse Dell, Beth Despres, Brittany Duggan & Sky Fairchild-Waller / Studio 103, Artscape Youngplace, Toronto 

The big change between this rehearsal and the last one I attended, of course, was Jesse dancing in place of Marie France. But for me personally, another big change was coming into the rehearsal with a strong feeling of familiarity for the work. I was thinking this morning about how we usually only see a piece once, and so watching a performance is often like meeting a stranger for the first time, sharing an intimate encounter, and then parting again forever.

It’s one of those cliches that thankfully actually happens sometimes: you meet someone at a party or sit beside them on a plane, and suddenly you just connect. You speak your mind, and they do too. Your own thoughts seem clearer, and you surprise yourself with how much you want to say. The words come to you so much more simply and truthfully than they usually do. But no matter how much unexpected honesty you discover in the encounter, in the end, it doesn’t really amount to much. All that’s really shared is just a moment… next to nothing. At best, a performance is like that—surprisingly close but shockingly brief.

There are a few poems I’ve read repeatedly, a few books I’ll read again, maybe once or twice, and of course songs I’ve listened to a thousand times and will go on listening to. But dance is harder to know in that way. Videos are good, but dance feels to me more like a live medium. (Some people admire movements that are made to look effortless, but I like the effort, and I want to be in the room with it. I like to be aware that real people are dancing, and real bodies are moving.) Not that yours is a dance I’ve come to know, exactly, but rather a process. Or maybe what I’ve experienced in visiting your rehearsals is more like an environment, one that you initially constructed out of your aspirations and abstractions, and the choreography is like a time-lapse sequence, fast-forwarding your intention through all these stages of evolution to make it habitable for dancing bodies. A conscious weathering. Or to put it differently, it’s like you had to take your intuitions and break them in.

At any rate, that’s a very long way of saying that I enjoyed returning to the space you’ve created in this piece, and the changes I observed were more about wearing in than making over, even with a different dancer. The piece felt clearer, more focused and more decisive. The details stood out more distinctly, the elements were firmer, the emotions more direct. The most accessible moment, I think, is when Beth tries to break through the group and they encircle her. That’s when the piece makes the plainest sense to me, as an outsider, and it’s hard not to see the rest of the work through the lens of that exchange. I think the most important moment is when Jesse rises from the ground haltingly (though I can’t articulate why I think that), a phrase now stretched out from what it was.

I also like when Jesse and Beth lie down together, maybe just because it happened so close to where I was sitting, right at my feet (a perspective the audience won’t have, of course). But I’m also just happy they settle down for a good long look at each other, as everyone clearly wants to.

Anyway, these are a few impressions, but the strongest impression is the texture of the dancers’ animal-like curiosity for each other. There’s a security in their collective relationship (affirmed by how they held Beth—a trap, but also an embrace) that means they can really accomplish something they couldn’t separately.

They’re really working for it, and you feel this in how the piece pulses. I liked how the dancers came in and out of flow of the dance, slowing to a walk and then launching off again. The piece expands and contracts repeatedly, and this creates a very palpable sense of breathing. I felt I could breathe along with it. My attention synced very well with the moments of energy and rest.

Above the Fire

December 2014 – Mark Mann Response #2 to Scars are All the Rage Rehearsal

Choreographer: Marie France Forcier/ Interpreters: Justine Comfort, Molly Johnson, Louis Laberge-Côté/ Location: hub 14, Toronto

I’m going to wander around a bit here with this response and not worry too much where I step. It’s the only way I know to get in. The funny thing about being a writer, for me, is that I sometimes think I have the least faith in words of anybody. They don’t seem all that needful, or ever really true enough. The body never lies though, right?

My body was wincing at your rehearsal on Monday, and making little sounds of shock and denial, and I think I even put my hand in my mouth. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that this piece is terrifying. I mean: it’s going to fuck people up. I’m glad you’ve decided to go all the way into it, and honestly you can’t be serious and then gesture vaguely at this material. It has to be full-on. I’ve been craving scarier performances, more uncomfortable, and this delivers. But, like, shit.

In Tracey’s piece, the energy passes between the dancers through their eyes. In yours, the power transmits through the hands–Your dancers have to let their eyes die in order to perform this work. I love watching hands; they’re like little people. They get nervous and talk too much. They hold onto each other. They can’t keep secrets. My sister spent a summer dissecting human bodies, and she said cutting hands was worse than cutting faces. But our wonderful, charming hands also carry the terrible burden of fulfilling our desires. We have to touch. Maybe some poets would feel things with their wrists, but most of us need our fingers to do the work. And so our hands are cursed to become awful, squirming, grasping, pinching little beasts.

And worse than that too, they become demons. Your piece explores possession. The hands entrance and capture, grasp and hold. Justine’s face caught in Louis’s grip is an image that will stick in my mind. Have you ever held a kitten in your hands and felt a thrill of destruction? Or when you like someone so much you just want to smash them, because they’re so fucking cute. (Like that scene in Punch Drunk Love, c’mon, I’m not crazy.) Well, we’ve all got that howl of power in us, lurking in our love. “The trilling wire in the blood,” Eliot wrote. I used to think I knew what evil was, because I saw the devil smiling in my mind too many times when I was young and high on religion or full of drugs. But that was just fear. Now I think the dark side is a normal part of us that sometimes gets broken off, and, feeling abandoned or alone, goes away to do things on its own.

I saw a gesture at that idea of fragmentation in the transition that Louis and Molly undergo before they become fixated on Justine. There’s a period before they inhabit the abuse when their movements are shaky and disjointed. They quaver drunkenly, disoriented, like the air above a fire. At that point they’re still multiples of themselves, carrying at least some of the confusing complexity and mixed feelings, making them spin. It’s hard work to shed all that perspective and find a single-minded focus for desire. But they do, as many of our sad species do. What happens when they get there is definitely worth looking at, and your exploration of it so far is pretty fearless. But what happens when you come back from there? When you re-integrate the parts of you that need to empathize in order to survive? Is it even possible? Abuse and trauma are a nightmare, but at least they’re coherent, because the world they belong to is so limited. The real horror is returning. Trying to make sense again.

Tremors, Shakes, and Shivers

October, 2014 Mark Mann Response #3 to what goes between Rehearsal

Choreographer: Tracey Norman / Interpreters: Beth Despres, Brittany Duggan, Sky Fairchild-Waller & Marie France Forcier / Studio 103, Artscape Youngplace, Toronto 

It was fascinating to see the run after witnessing disparate parts in development. I realized quickly that I had been formulating my ideas and questions based only on scattered elements. In particular, I had been wondering where these characters were coming from and where they were going. Do they know each other already? Had they shared that space together for a long time?

For example, the way they kept holding their right arms aloft at the beginning felt to me like an external gesture, something imposed from outside. What makes them reach up like that? It made me a bit sad, I think probably because I see that kind of upward keening as a tragic misdirection, at least for people who are searching for attachment. I’ve walked around with one arm up long enough myself, and I regret it. At any rate, that gesture suggests a shared universe, some encoded place that they all knew but from which they were somehow removed.

I was looking for that other landscape—the place of ought, or supposed-to-be—because I wanted to understand the problem the characters are solving. What’s missing for them? It reminded me of the dynamic between colleagues: those relationships that are more important than it is possible to acknowledge, but also more detached than a friendship. I did not feel that any of the dancers posed any real threat to each other, not the way real intimacy technically does. Perhaps because of the continual reconstitution of their connections, they each seem very distinct—free agents, very self-willed, but rather alone. They aren’t running the enormous risk of getting their needs met, but doing something more constructive. They’re building something, but they don’t quite know what it will look like, or what it will do.

From what I can tell, the dancers are all moving out of the realm of enactment. So instead of saying “I need to continually make this situation recur in my life with these same types of people, in order to prove to myself that the feelings I have are valid,” these dancers are actually encountering each other with a real sense of possibility. And also, inevitably, quite a bit of confusion and frustration.

That’s probably a hyper-therapeutic framework, but it’s the sensation that I spent most of my time in the studio untangling for myself.

The feeling of an emergent awakening also made me think of puberty, with its sudden awareness of others, and the arrival of the dark self and all its power. What should I do with it? Therein lies the tension between asserting and offering. Not just needing, but also wanting and giving. Stomping the foot, holding the head.

I think because of the sections I saw before the run, I thought that Marie France was the emotional core of the piece. She does a convulsive rise from the ground, receives support from the others, and then catalyzes an intense series of movements. Those body-shudders gave me the impression that she is closest to transformation. (Maybe that’s a sci-fi trope in my mind? No no, I’m like that too: I quiver when I’m peaking, like a rattling engine.) So I was surprised that Brittany begins the piece, and I had to shift, but then I realized that the equilibrium between the four is almost perfectly even. At any rate, all those tremors, shakes and shivers create a kind of static. Makes the hair on my arms stand up. When our power comes forward, that’s when we feel our weakness most clearly.

Seeing and Wanting

September, 2014 – Mark Mann Response #2 to Scars are All the Rage Rehearsal

Choreographer: Marie France Forcier /  Interpreters: Molly Johnson, Louis Laberge-Côté (Justine Comfort absent) / Location: hub 14 Toronto 

I really enjoyed the rehearsal yesterday, especially the tonal shifts between the first dance you guys were working on and the second and third.

It was really interesting to see the action of serendipity: the way you prepared occurrences that you couldn’t anticipate, but only recognize when they appeared. I liked observing how you ushered in the surprise, and the complicity of the dancers in your searching. Their trust.

So much of the work is solving problems, of course. I don’t know the kinds of thoughts that you have when the phrasing presents a dilemma, but it looks like an action of very careful letting go. Releasing the bodies, seeing what they’ll do.

It reminded me of how solutions always have this quality of recognition. It’s always, “Of course!” The answer was there all along.

I’m really excited about the tension between visioning (wanting) and seeing (welcoming) in a … forgive me for using such pompous language, but I want something with more time and earth in it than “creative” … generative process. I felt the searching and waiting, or the trying and allowing, folded together in a way that made me thankful to be in the room.

Here’s a bit of trauma: while in Montreal a young girl of about 7 or 8 passed by me on the subway platform with three women in their twenties. One of the women turned to the other two, in the course of whatever they were talking about, and said, “Well, she’s a full-time job,” gesturing at the young girl. The girl cried out, in a voice distorted by a speech impediment, “I am not a full-time job!” Declaring, as it were, that she would be less, require less, and that she wouldn’t again be embarrassed by her own human need. (And maybe more optimistically, that she wouldn’t serve as anyone’s excuse.)

This is the episode that directly precedes my notes on your rehearsal. I watched the first part of the rehearsal – when, I think, you were really just making things up and having fun and testing this whole possibility of “cheesiness” – in a sort of pleasurable delirium, absorbing your process and basically just enjoying myself, sensing the risk you were taking and appreciating it.

But then you ran through the sequence in which Molly is manipulated sexually by Louis, and suddenly the experience was very different. I thought of how that young girl’s desire to be cared for had been punished. The way Molly’s hands are at first frozen at her side, that affected me. It directly expressed the way abuse accesses desire. I’ve been thinking quite a bit since watching their duet about the really good things I’ve wanted, like affection or intimacy, from people who’ve traumatized me, in one way or another. Desire is a big dumb animal, a beautiful dog, wanting to be touched by everyone, but still half-wild, dragging us around, until we run into someone who lost theirs…

But is it possible to say that I could relate to Louis’s character in that sequence as well? (Who has ever experienced more empathy than an abuser from their victim? But I also know how an unconscious feeling of entrapment can turn to bitterness and lead to harm. I understand that shapeless anger – mostly self-directed – that wants to consume and destroy.)

What settled in for me finally, in the piece involving children’s music, was a reminder of our capacity for dissonance. How simultaneously tragic and heroic that is. I was glad that they made it across the room, maybe because it’s so goddam beautiful when people have to try so hard. There’s, like, a public-private thing there…. but with that, I think when some trauma gives you this permanent lurking sense of unreality, it’s always juxtaposed with the preposterousness of actual reality, then you’re always a bit out of sync and distracted. From that position, there’s this sense that you could fall off completely if you’re not careful, so you have to make this extreme effort to do regular things perfectly (like have fun!!), but that just makes it feel more clumsy and wrong.

Making home for the unknown

August 28, 2014 – Mark Mann Response #1 to what goes between Rehearsal

Choreographer: Tracey Norman /  Interpreters: Beth Despres, Brittany Duggan, Sky Fairchild- Waller & Marie France Forcier /  Location: Studio 103, Artscape Youngplace, Toronto 

I don’t approach dance with any technical expertise and little historical knowledge. I’m purely a writer. I believe I am most responsive to the way that choreography is like a sculpture of intention. I’m also very moved when humans touch each other, to be honest. I think my heart stutters quite a bit to see it, and it makes me feel alert.

What I saw of the choreography made me think of that sense that you can never understand other people’s relationships. I think human emotions are things that we participate in but that don’t belong inside us, as we tend to conceive of them. They are shared, familiar, accessible. But a coupling is always unique. The arrangement of it is distinct in all the world.

This is maybe why betrayal is so troubling.

There were some movements and interactions that struck me by their non-instrumentality. Not manipulative, but not without desire either, if that makes sense. I found it really fascinating. Perhaps it was just the atmosphere of creation, but the characters really seemed to be exploring each other. I didn’t see that their interactions were overwhelmed by secret, unconscious plans to obtain some private satisfaction, but rather by an air of curiosity.

Actually, well, of course, there was something hungrier than curiosity. The way Marie France’s character focused on the others was very… What? Appraising? Calculating? Acquisitive?

If betrayal (or something like that) is a theme or an action, I think it activates a feeling around which couple to give my attention to. I started to think of the characters’ allegiances to each other, in terms of where they put their attention, and that made me conscious of where I was putting my attention.

In terms of the process I witnessed, I found that the types of sentences you all created when you were discussing and negotiating ideas were unlike anything I’ve heard elsewhere. Of course it’s familiar and useful language for you and it was a pleasure to try to make sense of it in my terms of relating. (Of the conversation after the run, I think I understood about five percent!) I found there was so much conversation about how to make it work, in terms of bodies and energy and timing — the fastness and the slowness — and all the mechanics of space and angles and directionality. All that labour constitutes the dance, in the end. But you were looking for something. It was like you were creating an ecosystem in the hope that it would turn out to be just right for whatever creature you imagined. Is it too hot or cold in there? Will the creature like it, and come visit? Hard to tell. Can only try. Certainly the trees need to be right side up.

There was a lot of laughter, which was lovely and fun and intimate, but also a level of giddiness that might be connected to “the focus thing happening”; there’s a lot of serious energetic exchange in the choreography, obviously, and it felt palpable to me in the playfulness of the rehearsal. The jokes about “crazy eyes” suggested how demanding the work is. I would say that the intense concentration, the way the dancers interrogate each other, is broken or alleviated in places by a few moments of tenderness or compassion, almost involuntary, which were arresting.