In anticipation of this year’s Festival of New Dance, I had the opportunity to speak with Montreal choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz who will debut a new version of Chorus II on October 7 at LSPU Hall. I caught up with Kleinplatz over Skype on a grey Saturday morning in Portland, to hear her story of inspiration behind the piece, and to learn about her creative process.
The seed of inspiration for this show originated in Kleinplatz’s memory of her grandfather. “To me he was like a circus strong man,” she recalls, “he was short and incredibly muscular – and he was gruff.” During prayer, he would make a tiny, almost unperceivable rocking motion called davening – common in Jewish prayer but manifesting in other religious practices as well. While Kleinplatz describes her relationship to spirituality and prayer as “pretty non-denominational,” what compelled her in particular is that as her grandfather davened she perceived a vulnerability under his tough exterior, which otherwise was rarely visible.
Kleinplatz describes davening as a social action. “You’re just doing it, it’s automatic,” she says, it’s not an expression of emotion. Kleinplatz became interested in investigating the coming together of two things: the action, which is in some ways very neutral, and prayer, which is not neutral at all, but embedded with meaning.
She notes the change she perceived in her grandfather while he prayed – the emergence of vulnerability – was contextual. It came out of knowing him over time, and it was subtle. In choreography, she’s interested in the small change occurring within the body, amongst dancers who are dancing, and in the theatre between the dancers and the public. “We think about the world changing or what we want the world to be and we think about giant change,” says Kleinplatz. “But I think change can happen in small increments and these small increments are valuable, and important and special. Being able to see these small vulnerabilities come out is really special and I feel privileged to be able to see that in people anywhere at anytime.” She is interested in what that does for the dancers performing it, for herself as an artist watching, and what it does for the public. “I think it can be quite disarming and I like the idea that something falls away a little bit and we’re all more sensitive and vulnerable.” She adds, “I mean that would be my ideal, I don’t know if it always happens.”
Kleinplatz uses physical techniques to investigate the unknown. While working on this piece, Kleinplatz directed the dancers to shake their bodies for up to an hour at a time while also infusing the breath with shaking. To generate the first units of action, Kleinplatz proposes the dancers do a simple, repetitive action which she explains would “exhaust the body and lullaby the mind.” Repeating an action in this way can be likened to repeating a word over and over again until it loses its meaning and becomes new, both to the dancer and the person watching the dance. The physical action thus becomes an abstraction it stops having a specific framework or meaning, or the meaning can change. It’s in this place of unknown where Kleinplatz feels most compelled to explore. Perhaps it’s like breaking down movement into bare physical units, excavating action for meaning. Then, like pieces of Lego, reassemble the units to create a whole new lexicon. Kleinplatz describes the process as “a physical shift where the musculature of the body changes and the brain goes somewhere we didn’t expect and this opens up potential for other things to happen.” As a choreographer, part of her mission is to invent something that does not already exist. “The unknown is a thing I value in choreography. If I commit to it, it will lead to somewhere new,” she says.
Kleinplatz admits her own brain never fully shuts down. But by inhabiting a simple repetitive movement over a long period of time she starts noticing things. “It has a specific timing, I can play with that timing. It has a specific dynamic, I can play in that dynamic. It has an energy, and I can play with that too.” She notes that dancers are used to seeing their bodies from the outside, and judging their bodies. For instance, they know their anatomy – where a kick is supposed to be, or a plié. “I think in contemporary dance there’s a real shift to move outside of the known…once you’re in the unknown you don’t have a frame to judge it, you don’t know what it’s supposed to be and I think that’s really useful,” she says.
To generate material for this show Kleinplatz created a list of simple movements — right arm to right, left knee to floor – and asked the dancers to link them while embodying a neutral spirit. While in these early stages she says, “it was my job to give them a set of instructions, and the rule – first thing, best thing – whatever you do just keep it.” She continues to explain that at first, “I’m not looking at it, I’m not judging it. I’m in the space of the unknown, it’s not my job to fix it, it’s not even my job to say it’s good.” As the work progressed and more material was generated, Kleinplatz and the dancers worked together to add and eliminate actions to each sequence.
She says it’s ultimately an exploration of what is necessary in what they’re doing, and what is unnecessary, “not in a sense of judgement, but in a sense of right now it needs this thing.” She adds, “I know it’s working when I get this feeling in my guts, something feels electric, and I trust that.”
When Kleinplatz first started developing Chorus II in 2011, she was working with a cast of six male dancers, and one male multi-instrumentalist. But for four years prior to this, she had worked exclusively with women. “I had created this world of only women so I wanted to see what it was like with only men,” she explains. The new version of Chorus II set to debut in St. John’s will be delivered by a mix of genders for the first time. “I’m a different person now, I’m interested in different questions, and I want that to be part of the work.” She goes on to explain, “for me a work needs to be able transform and respond to a present moment in time. For it to be alive rather than a butterfly pinned under glass.”
Part of what spurred Kleinplatz to change the piece is how she felt unsettled by a particular reaction to the original all male version. As it was shown to audiences, she sometimes heard a comment from women ‘I really love watching men dance because they’re so strong, or their physicality, or…’ and she said it became more and more apparent that the dance was at risk of having a specific value to presenters or the public because it was only men. “I don’t want to support the idea that a male body dancing is somehow more unique or special than a female body,” she says. “Any body dancing a dance is special.” Rather than engage in a dialogue where people might feel attacked, she instead decided to change the work.
And in 2016 the mixed gender cast of dancers makes sense, it’s a different world now. The way we collectively speak about sex and gender has changed – it’s no longer set in a binary. Kleinplatz suggests change permeates every aspect of the work. “We’re rehearsing now and there are new people in it, and everyone’s perspective on the work has changed. Plus our bodies are different than five years ago, our friendships, our families, and our economics,” she says.
It’s hard to know how moving from the original all male show to the new mixed gender version will affect the meaning produced within the piece. Particularly considering the story of Kleinplatz’ grandfather, the forever strong man who let his guard down during prayer and how this vulnerability inspired the original production. I think of how little boys in our culture are told to toughen up and hide their feelings, they can grow into men who are unable to freely express their emotions. For me, these roots are in patriarchy: men must avoid traits associated with the feminine such as softness, tenderness, sensitivity, for to do so is emasculating. Kleinplatz responds that while expressing vulnerability is a different question for men than it is for women, she believes people in general – men and women – have trouble showing vulnerability. “For me, that’s a really important question: The right to be vulnerable as people. As women too.”