The Intimacy of the Choreographic Process: A Conversation with Molly Rose-Williams and Molly Heller

words by Jill Randall | images by Eric Gillet, Marissa Mooney, + Tori Duhaime

The opportunity presented itself, to bring Molly Rose-Williams and Molly Heller together to connect and dialogue about artmaking and process on January 17th, 2019. While I know them from separate aspects of my own dance life, Rose-Williams and Heller finally got to connect with each other at a post-performance gathering in Berkeley, California, last fall. That initial meeting sparked the idea for this conversation.

These two artists both draw me in with their curiosity and their appetite for the choreographic process and the performance experience. This conversation mirrors the generative process and pathways of their choreographic minds and highlights the intimacy of relationships in both artists’ work, the dynamic interplay between improvisation, structure, and intersubjectivity with performers and audience members, and also their diverging relationships with time in the creation of their latest works.

We started with a warm up of sorts – a word game and riffing off of each other. I shared a word that came to mind when thinking of them both as dancemakers. Each person responded with a sentence, and then the other added on.  Rose-Williams is represented below in italics, Heller in bold.

Curiosity…Curiosity is a superpower. Curiosity is always present. Curiosity is an invitation.Curiosity is magical thinking.

Digging in…Digging in is physical but also spiritual, emotional, intellectual, artistic. Digging in is all about time, and time is on your side. Digging in is a felt experience. And the felt experience doesn’t always leave your skin very quickly.

Revealing…Revealing is an adjective and also a verb. I say of course, but how much? We reveal by what we say and what we don’t say. Lately I have been thinking about revealing, and I want to retreat.

Attentiveness…Attentiveness is a gift. To the space, to one’s self, to the people you are with, and to yourself again. Attentiveness is a balance of pause and action. Attention with intention.

This transcript below is an edited version of our conversation.

Jill Randall: Can each of you describe your current project?

Rose-Williams: I am working on a show called MIND THE GAP, with my sister. She’s a circus performer. We both grew up doing circus, but she pursued it professionally after high school. She moved to Quebec City, formed a company, and then the company moved to France. She’s been touring professionally for 6 years.

This is our first big project together, though we have done small projects. It’s mostly exploring our relationship and our twin-ness. We made it in 2.5 weeks with a residency at a circus center in West Oakland (Kinetic Arts Center). The intention for the show came from recognizing that there is so much we want to learn from one another – we lived parallel paths until 18, and then completely different lives on different continents. Our relationships to our bodies are totally different, and our creative processes. How can we create a process as an opportunity to share what we have to offer and continue to investigate the process of individuating? The first 18 years we pretty much had a sense we were one person.

The show emerged really organically from this process….what does it mean to be us individually, what does it mean to be us together, and what does it mean to be two artists working together with immense respect for what the other does? We have a shared language of our life together but not really a shared language around our creative work.

Heller: Did you discover a different kind of connection or reconnection over the past two weeks working together?

Rose-Williams: I think I gained an even greater appreciation for the complexities of our connection — as individuals but with this bond that’s really intangible and powerful and hard to explain. I have never had the experience before, working with someone, where I felt that we were so complementary. The show feels ridiculously complete to me. We have spent an entire lifetime balancing each other out, and that also happened in this process.

Heller: That is rare to feel that kind of satisfaction…that whole, that balanced.

Rose-Williams: Super deep and challenging — interpersonally — but absurdly easy in terms of the creative act of it.

Randall: Molly (Heller), how about your project, Heartland?

Heller: I am also thinking about finding ways to come back to the individual. Heartland stemmed out of total necessity and survival: a breakup, of a marriage and a partnership, of 15 years. Whether you recognize it or not, there is a kind of oneness that gets formed inside of partnership. Having this last year to come back to myself, back to when I was 18, has been really revealing in ways that I wasn’t always ready for. I needed a space to feel resistance, tension, and pain. So Heartland stemmed from necessity.

I was born in the Midwest, and I’ve spent a lot of time there throughout my life. I question what that term means culturally, geographically, the sense of warmth I feel when I’m there….a giving part of the country. Heartland: being the expansiveness of the sensations and associations…the physical spaces of the heart. I am literally researching the heart; how the heartspace moves, how it charges with other people, how it shuts off, its feeling states. And how I move from that place.

I was here this summer in the Bay Area – working with Katie Faulkner – and I started going out dancing at night by myself. I would go out to these really confined spaces and practice. Being with the feelings of total vulnerability, isolation, and alone-ness, but also empowerment. I started to notice a language emerging that was confined, resistant, and tense…it felt BIG. I felt huge in tiny spaces. I started to develop this kind of language within my work. I showed a section of it in October here in Berkeley and then started to work with 3 students at the University of Utah (where I am a professor). I premiered an iteration in November. It had this large 7-foot tree of tiny glass fragments (by the amazing Wendy Wischer), and from different light and angles, it looked like an exploding heart. I have been working a lot with light and how light creates release.  

The next iteration of Heartland is this pop-up event February 10th – Valentine’s week – “come be our date.” Come experience a heartfelt performance that happens amidst people. People move and groove and three solo performances happen. Within and amongst people. I am playing with proximity and what it does to the heart space.

My plan over the next year is to keep developing these pop-ups, these iterations that happen in varying spaces, culminating in an evening-length in 2020. Duration feels important to me right now.  

Randall: Interesting plays on time here – Molly (Rose-Williams) with 2 1/2 weeks making a piece, but with someone else you have known for 25+ years, and Molly (Heller) exploring for about 2 years and working on different bodies, student bodies, on yourself.

I also wanted to ask both of you about the idea of “learning to become a choreographer.” One of my favorite topics is Carol Dweck’s idea of the growth mindset. I wondered what you thought of this idea and these questions: Are you born a good dancer? Are you born a talented choreographer? Or are you pushing against these notions? You both are artists whose more formal dance training began in college, correct?

Rose-Williams: I taught middle school for three years, and there was a lot of language around “growth mindset” in that community. I found that often the ideas of improvement and growth are talked about with the language of will and effort. Something I have been thinking about recently: what does it mean to be willing? What does it mean to de-center my effort as the driving force for how my life may or may not unfold? And recognizing that my life is partnered with the world around me and the people around me. Everything is ultimately beyond my control, but I do still have agency. When I think about my growth as an artist and choreographer, a lot of it has been through the process of opening myself up and being willing to learn.

Heller: I was making dances before I knew what making dances WAS. I came to dance really in college. Growing up, I was making dances in my bedroom, and I did actually have this imaginative improvisation practice. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it’s my Pisces nature and wanting things to be magical. I do think that some people inherently have this buzz or fire inside of themselves, or a deep curiosity to make. Or how to orchestrate an event, or how a story is told. It isn’t a predisposition, but I do feel (and watch students who have) a certain kind of pulling, of being drawn into making.

But there really is something about trying on modes, methods, ways of thinking and making dances. Inside of choreography, there’s a nurturing of a certain kind of imagination, and methods and structures can help communicate those imaginings. I am highly structured in how I choose to work with my imagination. I love teaching composition even if I know some students don’t want to pursue dance making. It provides ways into dimensional thinking, ways into getting closer to how you feel about something, ways of creating community. Gathering people together to make something – a primer.

Rose-Williams: Do you feel that you have specific structures and ways of working now that you can define?

Heller: I have ways IN that are becoming more consistent. But it always manifests differently. The ways in are about the people….a series of questions I give to almost each group of people I work with.

A lot of my work is about forgiveness. I also keep returning to the idea of the magic of the space. I am very interested in the performance space itself, and the potential of the performance space to be a healing exchange for both performers and audience members.

The heightened state of performance and the heightened state of creative process, gets me a little closer to forgiveness, to love. Love as acceptance. Those things feel like they are more consistent as my foundation for making work. My creative process is about figuring out how I’m thinking and navigating the world (and noticing how this changes). I think it comes down to digging in – being with myself over time.

Rose-Williams: You — Molly (Heller) — were talking about manifestation. Every performance is innately a manifestation. The tone of the intention, or attention to the emergent – always bringing something into being but also recognizing what already is. It is making a cool circle in my head.

Heller: It is the HOW that changes. I have been lately giving myself the task to try not to vary the WHAT so much. I am trying to find freedom within limitation and structure. I am trying this spatially. It seems really simple, but how that happens and with what tone, effort state, or density changes with how I read the room. I find this hard to coach or mentor. Since I was a kid, I have felt an overwhelming amount of empathy for people and my environment. It shows up in performance, my work, and in how I work with others. It is not something that can be trained necessarily, but what I can offer are veins into receptivity. I feel that this is different from connection, because that can feel forced.

Rose-Williams: The way you are talking about your approach to performance sounds familiar to me. Most of my work has been a mix of set work within a larger framework that is flexible. My favorite part about performing is the experience of the performance. The experience of what actually happens in that moment. I have been learning the most about it with MIND THE GAP.

We found this middle ground, with less improvisation, since my sister is not as into improvisation. Every show is so different, but the show has a very specific structure. The rigidity of the structure has actually given me so much space to investigate my relationship with the audience. We did 5 shows last week and have 5 this week. Improvisation and set material, not so much about how much is unknown, but about the scale and aperture. What “grain” of unknown are we playing with? There is no amount of “setness” to not experience a vast amount of unknown in each performance.

Everything is improvisation.

Heller: And vice versa….everything is structure. It is intention. There is always room for spontaneity, play, investigation. I feel the definitions are loosening for me, and feeling less boxed in. And I’m learning about myself,  that I am really averse to risk in life. But, my work is always changing. From the outside it might appear risky. But from the inside, I have planned these structures that make me feel safe.

That play with the audience….your perception of risk and mine. The readability and conversation between audience and performer – I am forever interested and invested in this. You only will know in that moment. The priming for that experience is what I am interested in.

A reprise: Curiosity, Digging in, Revealing, Attentiveness.

Molly Heller is an Assistant Professor in the School of Dance at the University of Utah. Heller’s next iteration of Heartland takes place on February 10th in Salt Lake City. Molly Rose-Williams is a dancer based in Berkeley, CA. Molly will be performing in Dance Lovers February 14-16 at the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco. Purchase your tickets here.

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