Salt Lake City-based artist Molly Heller brought her recent work very vary to Berkeley, California, in December 2017.
Two performances were shown at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in the intimate Studio 1 performance space.
very vary is an evening-length dance work directed by Heller. The work includes collaborations between six performers, music composer Mike Wall, and visual artist Gretchen Reynolds, offering a “pop-up book” exploration of 14 chapters. Examples of a few chapters include: “Things we do well,” “Something is not quite right,” “Bee’s Knees,” “You’re gonna grow up to be,” and “Band of Animals.” The ride of the work moves us through tales of memory, fear, acceptance, and worlds that are both real and imagined. Heller’s dimensional work merges text, confronting interactions with audience members, humor, whole body dancing, and intimate solo and duet moments. Like the act of turning a page in a book, each chapter of the dance reveals a distinctive yet complex feeling and story. Heller’s purposeful casting of the dancers, and her deep relationship with each artist throughout the past year, adds layers of care and specificity to the work. The movement palette is ever-changing, transitioning between highly physical partnering, slap stick narratives, jarring bodily suppression and release, and delicate precision of the hands and feet. Heller orchestrates these shifts through her direction, intentionally moving between bold intensity and subtle moments which contain whispers of vulnerability.
After the Saturday night performance, the majority of the audience stayed for a 45-minute conversation, facilitated by Bay Area choreographer Katie Faulkner (Artistic Director of little seismic dance company). This transcript captures some of the post-show conversation, offering a glimpse into the process of making very vary and of Heller’s artistic curiosities. Heller is an artist who thoughtfully and carefully selects her language, with the same care as crafting and making a piece of choreography. Language offers clarity to the artist, collaborators, and audience members alike. In addition, by hearing from the dancers in this post-performance conversation, we truly gained a sense of the engaged nature of the collaborating artists, from idea to final performance. Performers in the project were Florian Alberge, Nick Blaylock, Yebel Gallegos, Mary Lyn Graves, Marissa Mooney, Melissa Younker, and musician/composer Michael Wall.
The following transcribed conversation captures the sense of embodiment, risk, patience, and deep commitment by all of the artists involved in very vary.
Katie Faulkner: Thank you so much for staying. I know that Molly is looking forward to this conversation.
I thought for the first minute we would do something unorthodox. I know that a lot is resonating in my body right now. I thought we should take a minute to let things settle and to think of what images are indelible and/or what sensations you might be noticing in your own body. For a moment, let’s allow the work to resonate so we can bring our bodies into the conversation, noticing whatever images or thoughts arise.
(One minute of quiet in the room. The group sat reflectively with many eyes lowered and engaged in the opportunity to think back on the past hour and the performance experience.)
KF: Thank you!
I wanted to start by asking you, Molly, what was stirring in you at the moment you decided to embark on this project? Was there something driving you internally or something about the moment you were living in that felt catalytic? The work feels so dancer specific to me, and it makes me wonder what was it about these 6 people that felt pressing for you, prompting you to bring them together and to source them in the creation of the work?
Molly Heller: The performers, first, for me, were the impetus to make something. I had worked with Marissa, Nick, and Florian on other projects, and I knew Mary Lyn, Melissa, and Yebel through their work with Ririe-Woodbury, a local company in Salt Lake City. We had little chattings after their performances or after attending my own work over the years, and they expressed interest in working with me. I took that seriously. That mutual interest in inquiry and questioning created the desire to bring the ensemble together. I usually don’t work with larger groups, so bringing together 6 people felt like a real challenge for me in many ways. I say that because the work I’m interested in making is quite intimate, personal, and sourced from their biographies. And it takes a lot of ENERGY and care as I attempt to understand their stories on a very deep level; I end up doing a lot of processing myself.
Thinking about these 6 people – each of them are so POTENT, specific, strong, and subtle in their own ways. I love their individualities and their ability (and willingness) to be openhearted, like in the space tonight. That was primary for me. Also, this was my first time making an evening length piece. Prior to very vary, my work has been in the 20-30 minute range, and often part of a shared evening of work. A mentor recently said to me, “You need to have your own evening, and give yourself a year. Create a piece that really has a sustaining quality.” I listened to that and really valued that advice. So, we took over a year to make very vary.
As you may have noticed, the work has a quality of IMPACT. I love that forcefulness, where there is not always a preparatory moment for movements. For me, that is a reflection of how my life happens – it is one happening after another happening. How do I have to shift in that madness?
A year ago, I was grappling with not feeling included in the world. I wasn’t locating myself in academia and in my personal life. My biggest question or proposition for the work was, “How can we include ourselves in our individual worlds? And what are those moments when we are not included, and how does this feeling create an ‘ajarness’ of energy, or of the body?” So I didn’t necessarily start with a concrete concept, but I began with a lot of questioning on a personal level. And, spending some real in-depth time with each of the performers before we even started moving together. I sort of interviewed them – what they remember from childhood, the things that still stick with them….”I wanted to grow up to be like this…” And all of those things that we make up about childhood too – all of that memory play that is not linear. Then we worked towards the present – how do you see yourself in the world now? How do you locate yourself in this place and at this time? And, we did some future intention setting too…what do you want to try on as a person and as a human? What do you want to try on as a dancer that you might fear or resist?
One example is with Mary Lyn. In her social space, she shared with me that she is often read as quiet. She asked if she could practice being loud. So the dancers gave propositions of ideas to try on, like a new coat of identity. That’s what the ending of the dance is about – what it is like to be inside of someone else’s material…is it yours, is it theirs? Where is that middle space where things maybe align or maybe they don’t, creating (again) an ajarness? And this way of thinking about POTENCY. I wanted to play with this pop-up book structure. I love pop-up books and the imaginative component of their structures. When you open up each page – it is its own entity with its own dimension and its own story, but by the end it begins to create meaning. So I thought of very vary as pop-up book scenes, vignettes, or happenings (I mainly referred to them as happenings). And by the end, you are hopefully left with feeling. I wasn’t interested in overly dictating that ending feeling, but maybe some sort of release, even a little bit of acceptance, or the idea of befriending yourself. All sides of yourself.
Mike and I have worked together before on several projects. We were interested in the live performance and the real resonation from the piano and from the trumpet…FEELING it in the body and space. Mike and I have worked together over the year to develop the score. So our relationship became another partner for me, absolutely. And a way of heightening moments or turning down moments.
KF: I did wonder, thinking about the biographical/aspirational/personal nature of the content….how did you move into the physical from the stories and dreams?
MH: It was really different for each performer. I was certainly ruminating on our individual conversations/interviews. I also approached it from other [often nonsensical] avenues….we found and watched videos together that they remembered to be impactful in their lives (music videos…a karate video). We would then find words or moments from those videos; mapping out a list of ideas/images. We started making material from this list, first from a very literal place.
Then, I questioned what it might feel like to move away from representation. And, what theatricality in the body felt like for each person and how this manifested in relationship to our literal approach to our list. This approach created a lot of phrase material for use within the piece. What gave way to further depth and nuance, was their relationships to past/present/future [from our conversations earlier in the process] while doing that movement. So the material didn’t stem from literal re-enacting of childhood memories, but from that consideration in their bodies of what would create tension or complication….like when things don’t quite line up, or when they must be negotiated. I would direct and tease this out…and that would create differing tones and variances. The coaching was never directed at creating theatrical effect, but in allowing the real effort of the movement to transfer and express through the whole body [including the facial muscles].
Nick Blaylock: Molly’s work is often confusing. She is so good at being absolutely clear, but at the same time it is completely open! This is why it took a year! Constant conversation with her. Layers….everywhere.
Mary Lyn Graves: A lot of times we would do a movement for an extended period of time. In rehearsal, like punching for 3 minutes at a time. And see what happens physically, emotionally, to the movement itself. Or doing it in a group. Every time that we would find a thing, we would find a new layer to discover.
Finding a moment that works, means now you have a million other things to work on. You unlock a door, but then you realize that there are so many more doors. You keep digging and digging and digging.
NB: It doesn’t feel overwhelming. It feels complex.
Melissa Younker: Accepting and forgiving yourself – this feels different, this time. What does success look like? It is just finding that true moment when you are really in it. Rediscovering the moment.
KF: That so resonates with my experience watching it. It radiated this robustly complicated, electric, and alive feeling, the way being a human being on the planet feels to me. I don’t think that I have ever seen or felt anything quite like it before. It was actually so validating for me. It somehow legitimized the convergence of my own messy, complicated past, present, and future self which I so appreciated. You and your dancers’ investment in the work is so clear and so deeply felt, Molly.
Referring to this complicated convergence – and as a choreographer myself I’m especially interested in this – how do you navigate that complexity? How do you prepare yourself for this kind of work? Or, perhaps more specifically, how do you prepare yourself to be responsive to the content that is emerging?
MH: Those are great questions. Every day is always changing for me — my needs, and assumed responsibilities, as a director. Also coming out of an intensive year as a professor at the University of Utah, my schedule was always intense. We would rehearse in the evenings after I had already been going for 12 hours. Some days I didn’t have anything more to give. My questionings, rawness, vulnerabilities – I allowed myself to bring those emotions [and physical responses to those emotions] into the room.
I would encourage my body to “think” for a while. But, true preparedness seemed impossible at that point in my life. I often had a list of things to try/do. In a way, when I came in with too many things…this got in the way.
So the preparedness is always the question for me. And when does wellness happen? For me, it is not on a yoga mat. Wellness happens when I can find the rest in the work. A state of easeFULLness. Fully present. And navigating my “volume control”— when to turn up and when to turn down.
MLG: From the very first rehearsal, you explicitly stated that if you are “having a day,” that’s fine. You can bring that in. You don’t have to leave it at the door. This was a gift. But okay, then we are going to put that in the work and work through it and with it. It meant – from the beginning – setting up an efficient way of working and a way to offer it to everyone, including Molly. It created a special atmosphere, and it was really unique.
NB: She never let days like that be an excuse to ease up. Not that she wasn’t patient. It just changed how we would work each day. Molly let it in, but not run the work.
MH: And repetition was important. Staying in something long enough for it to become something else (much like an emotion). That served as an anchor for the work. That kind of revealing, that state of real effort, and real desperation, it allowed us to experience energy shifts without having to analyze it or try to fix it.
Audience members then shared comments, feelings, and images for the next 10 minutes.
MH: Emotions shift…one minute you’re laughing, then you’re hysterical. An emotion is never one thing, and an emotion is never the same thing in the company of other people. What you saw tonight was because of you. This would not have been the same dance without you showing up, that energetic exchange. That is the beautiful part for me; tomorrow’s performance will be a different show. How I think about audience interaction and audience exchange – is that we orchestrate the experience together. That’s the part that has the heart opening component for me. It’s like a confession. For me, it has that exchange, because of you.
To read dance writer Michelle LaVigne’s response to the performance, please click here.
To read more audience responses to very vary through the One Good Quote project, please click here.
Molly Heller is a Salt Lake City dance artist and Assistant Professor at the University of Utah, School of Dance. Her research investigates performance as a healing practice and the relationship between physical expression and emotion. Molly’s choreographic work has been presented in venues such as: Eccles Regent Street Blackbox Theater (SLC), Kingsbury Hall for TEDx SaltLakeCity, Gowanus Art + Production (NYC), Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church (NYC), Movement Research at the Judson Church (NYC), Green Space (NYC), DUMBO Dance Festival (Brooklyn, NY), The Mahaney Center for the Arts (Middlebury, VT), Balance Dance Company (Boise, ID), Boise State University, Westminster College (SLC), Sugar Space Studio for the Arts (SLC), and the Ladies’ Literary Club (SLC). Molly also holds certifications in Pilates and Reiki and is co-owner of SLC’s loose-leaf teahouse, the Tea Grotto. mollyheller.com