Glitter in the Gutter: Catherine Cabeen and Kristina Berger Make a New Duet

This Thursday, Catherine Cabeen/Hyphen present Give Me More, a world premiere, at Theater for the New City. The three-part work explores “the relationship between conditioning, consumption, and self-worth.” The evening-length work about desire, and how it shapes us, begins with a duet called “Glitter in the Gutter” and is followed by two other sections exploring consumer consumption, gender roles, and personal agency. Featuring Cabeen and Kristina Berger, the first section tracks different chapters in their lives as dancers and deals with the desire for different identities as time goes on. According to Cabeen: “It points out that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side,’ but that when you get there, it may turn out to be astroturf…”

Candice Thompson engaged the two in an email conversation about their dance lives leading up to this moment and how mining their experiences resulted in a rich, and hilarious, collaboration.

{ DIYdancer }, Candice Thompson: How did you come up with the concept/narrative for Glitter in the Gutter?

Catherine Cabeen: This work emerged out of my first meeting with Kristina in 2014. We had met in a coffee shop to discuss pedagogical approaches to teaching modern dance techniques at Marymount Manhattan College, where we were both working at the time. In our discussion, an urgency arose around how to communicate both the divine, ecstatic bliss of choosing the life of a dancer, and the unrelenting struggle that runs parallel to it. We found that, though our professional paths were quite different, we resonated with one another quiet deeply around our incredible love for dance and our humor about the gutters dance has dragged us through. I can’t remember who actually said it, but in this conversation, as we tossed around different ways to help the students we work with not get too caught up in either pretty perfectionism or self loathing, one of us said, “how can we help them to experience the glitter in the gutter?”

CT: So it began with a great title…

CC: My mentor, Bill T. Jones once said, “naming things is the intention to make things.” So, the piece was really born in that moment. Several months later, we began to schedule “creative residencies” once every few months, which consisted of weekends together, during which time we would hang out both in the studio and around the dinner table. We actually had no intention of ever performing the work when we started. We just both knew we needed to make something together. It was a wildly satisfying and fun process. I realized I had never made something without a deadline or intended audience before, and it was fantastically liberating.

CT: Can you give me a brief summary of the differing careers that have led to material for this work?

Kristina Berger: At age 18 I ran away with the Circus…

CT: Literally?

KB: Yes! After auditioning for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus I was offered a job as a showgirl: Feathers, fishnets, GLITTER, oh yes! I toured the country with Ringling for about half a year and then decided I needed to “express myself” and get back to that concert dance passion. As a scholarship student at Jacob’s Pillow, I was introduced to and fell in love with the incredibly powerful, honest technique of Lester Horton. Moving to New York in search of more Horton powers, I was invited to join the Joyce Trisler Danscompany by Regina Larkin. But after two years it was time for a change: I left NYC to go on a National Tour with The Kennedy Center’s production of The Nightingale Ballet. I was the modern element, dancing the role of the GLITTERY mechanical nightingale, barefoot, in a lime green tutu with many sequins everywhere.  Upon returning to NYC in 2001, I started taking class at the Erick Hawkins studio. I became completely immersed in this technique…fluid, beautiful, crystal clear, with an animal sensuality.

Soon after I was invited to take Company class by newly appointed director Katherine Duke and then joined the Company. Costumes were a leotard only at most, definitely no sequins there! In the meantime, I was touring with some showgirl acts, performing at fancy hotels in glittery outfits, and working with BALAM (Balinese American Dance Theatre). Eventually, I started working more and more in Paris, as a founding member of SWATT Artists Collective, directed by Simon Williams. Moving to Paris for a year we created work together and performed in beautiful theaters with incredible musicians and also occasionally on very fancy coffee tables in gorgeous apartments in the first arrondissement.

CT: Sounds like a dance dream.

KB: Despite all of this creativity and excitement, living in a leaky NYC studio apartment with newborn baby, husband, 5 jobs, and no health insurance was not so romantic.  I knew a change had to be made but had no idea where it would come from.  Through a deeply appreciated recommendation, I moved to Boston with my mini family to take on a full-time faculty position at the Joan Palladino School of Dance at Dean College, where I teach both Horton and Hawkins Techniques and create my own work in collaboration with other wonderful artists. I continue to tour and perform with Erick Hawkins Dance Company, am a founding member of Lake Tahoe Dance Collective, a teaching artist with Tecniche di Danza Moderna in Rome.

CC: I moved to NYC when I was 17 to attend the Martha Graham School, but when I was 19, I met Bill T. Jones and ended up dancing with him for eight years. I am incredibly thankful that my dance career started in such a diverse, intellectually articulate, and politically active company. It had a huge impact on the artist I am today. When I left BTJ/AZ (Bill T Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company) I figured I would teach so I took an open evening class at the Graham school to brush up on all those exercises. Janet Eilber, the company’s (at that time new) Artistic Director, was teaching the class. She offered me a job with the company right after class. While it was an honor to dance with the Graham Company, it was not a good match for my personality. At the end of my first season with the company I fell down a flight of stairs and broke my left heel bone, which confirmed the end of my time there. While still on crutches though, Richard Move called me and asked if I would be a part of his show “Achilles Heels.” (HA!) He had faith in me that I could recover in time for the show and that started a 12-year relationship of performing with Richard (we last performed at NYLA in March 2017). His drag impersonation of Martha Graham allowed me to perform all of the grand movements I love from Graham technique while at the same time consciously critiquing the gender representation in her theater.

When I went to graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle (2006-9) I focused my studies on gender representation in 20th century dance history to make sense out of my experience between Jones, Graham, and Move. In Seattle, I also started my own company and I ended up living there until 2013, in large part because of the fantastic support my own work got there from institutions like On the Boards and the Seattle Art Museum, both of which commissioned numerous evening length works. I took a full time teaching job at Middleby College in Vermont in 2013, which was a tremendous gift to my financial stability, but not a great environment for my spirit. So I was thrilled in 2014 when I landed the job I currently hold at Marymount Manhattan College, which enabled me to move back to NYC. In the last few years I’ve been working to re-base my company here and I am really excited to be presenting this show, my first full evening of work in NYC since 2011.

CT: Wow. Ok. You ladies have a combine experience that spans an awesome range of modern greats. So in making this work that looks at such incredible journeys, was it comedic from the start?

CC: Kristina and I laugh a lot when we hang out, so I don’t think the piece could have emerged any other way. That said, I don’t think either of us had any idea what we were going to make when we first stepped into the studio together. We talked about aspects of a dancer’s life (of our lives) that are actually very serious and very painful, such as poverty, eating disorders, injury, substance abuse, etc.  We also talked about our current lives as faculty members and how the rigid structures of institutions both support and grate against creative pursuits. Our friendship provided a way to transform all of this frustration and pain into laughter. Through conversation, we were able to take the long view on the ups and downs of our journeys as performers and teachers, which illuminated the value of even the most difficult passages. By talking about our challenges we realized that we are not alone in them. Our friendship continuously inspires both of us to celebrate our survival rather than lament in our struggles.

As we talked about these things in the studio we would also ask, “what does that look like?” As the situations were transformed into theatrical images, we started to blow them out of proportion to emphasize certain points. In doing so, the work became comedic.

CT: Can you give an example?

KB: Catherine has more experience than I do with the world of academia.  She is a brilliant scholar and artist who has managed to balance the two, and so during one of our wonderful champagne soirées where I would often seek sage advice after accepting my very new full-time faculty position, we started to find humor in our frustration and confusion on how one remains truly honest, imaginative, and innovative while adhering to all the rules and responsibilities of such an institution. Catherine was and still is an incredible oasis of knowledge and laughter for me as we share these experiences.

CC: At one point we were talking about the ridiculous amount of duties that come along with a full-time teaching position. These actually come in the form of committee meetings, emails, paperwork, etc… its really a mental juggle and hours staring at a computer screen but we physicalized it by trying to dance a movement phrase while the other person hands us objects and we have to figure out how to keep going while holding on to more and more random stuff. The task is eventually impossible, but there is a lot of fun in it.

CT: And what is funny about becoming an ‘aged’ performer?

CC: As we age, both our bodies and our perspectives shift. I am so thankful for the shifts in my sense of self worth that emerged around my 40th birthday. I am finding that I care a lot less what others think of me, and that I have an increasing tolerance for ambiguity. I, and most dancers, really struggle with fear and low self esteem in our youth. Partly that comes from our cultural conditioning as women, but also, classical dance training does its best to indoctrinate young artists, particularly young female artists, into a culture of fear so that they will make a docile work force. Black and white thinking tends to be a common way that young dancers deal with this fear, though ironically the perfectionism that it inspires usually serves to only further constrict them.

When you see through this; all the cultural conditioning, all the training to conform to an external standard, all the limitation that is created through traditions that go unexamined… first you get pissed, but then, if you have made it out the other side, you have to laugh.

CT: But why do you have to laugh…I would love another example…

KB: Laughter is the ONLY universal cure. Laughter is the connective force in our work because of who we are. We are extremely serious about the work we do every day and can get very deep in our discussions and research.  I think dark times (although painful) are often more exciting and interesting, spurring the desire to create. The dedication, discipline, and devotion required to have forged these careers for ourselves is immense.  The strength required by any human to get through this life is immense.

And so….WE HAVE TO LAUGH!

CC: Well you don’t HAVE to laugh… you could curl up into a ball of bitterness and self pity, but thats not the way I want to live. I think comedy is the best way to look at our faults. There is compassion in it. Whether you are rolling your eyes at personal choices, or societal blunders, laughter can liberate you from your reactionary anger, and help start to shift your energy towards creative solutions/evolutions.

The funny thing is that with this expanded perspective comes a lot of scar tissue. Neither Kristina nor I are “old,” but we are experienced, and as dancers we have put our bodies through more extreme positions and obstacle courses than many people do in twice as many years on the planet. Literally, at every creative residency both of us would be injured; injuries that come from years of physical extremes and then some kind of final straw experience. So we worked that into the piece out of necessity, and in doing so with joy and humor, created possibilities for healing through our work.

Coming soon to a theater near you…

A post shared by Catherine Cabeen (@catherinecabeen) on

CT: Is one of you the ‘straight’ woman off which the jokes play?

CC: Well thats definitely not me, I’m gay…but seriously, no. We are both equally off our rockers in this one.

KB: Agreed. I couldn’t possibly be the straight woman, I am too twisty spiraled, ha.

CT: Describe your way of working and the process together in the studio? How did these moves get made?

CC: 100% collaboratively! We did a lot of improvisation around scenarios, and then afterwards would take and compare notes on what felt particularly resonant, true, or funny. Some of the more formal movement phrases were built through a game I learned from Richard Move which he called , “To the Delights of the Exquisite Corpse,” where one person makes a movement, and then the other person contributes a gesture or movement, and the phrase accumulates as a dialogue between you.

KB: It was a true collaboration. Although our career paths are quite different, there is certainly a parallel journey going on. I felt I had met a deep eternal friend after the first few seconds, and that connection only flourished once we got into the studio together. I would say Catherine guides our creative process and that we get excited about sharing each other’s ideas. And we are not afraid to throw something out when it doesn’t work. We both have classical  modern dance training running through our blood.  Add onto that all of the other languages we’ve developed individually, and we share quite a vast and varied  vocabulary of movement.

CC: At every creative residency we would dive into the recent events of our lives in my kitchen, always with champagne flowing!

CT: Wait, so champagne is your thing too? I knew that Kristina must be fond based on her IG handle…

KB: Champagne Fountains forever! Champagne has always been my most sparkling joyous elixir, and indeed an iconic symbol for all divine festivities. I think the first time I came to Catherine’s palais  I was bearing gifts of champagne and it went on from there . Thank you Catherine for jumping into the champagne fountain with me.

CC: Heehee!  I’m actually more into tequila, if left to my own devises. But champagne is such a symbol of joie de vivre, it adds a sparkle to any occasion. Our work in the studio the following day would be a continuation of our conversation, an embodiment of our friendship, and an opportunity to indulge in our mutual desire to create light and joy. It’s been a delightfully organic, therapeutic, and prolific process, one which I hope will continue to evolve into numerous manifestations of this piece, as we continue to age, to ripen, and to laugh together.

Give Me More

January 25th-27th

8 p.m., $17-$20

Theater for the New City

Click here for tickets.

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