Stephanie Wolf: First of all, how are you doing?
Gabrielle Lamb: I’m doing fine.
SW: Gabrielle Lamb is a Princess Grace Award-winning choreographer based in New York City. She runs Pigeonwing Dance. And like many of us, she’s been self-isolating in her home since mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
GL: I mean, I am in New York, but I don’t see much besides my apartment and Riverside Park and my cat. And so I’m certainly not seeing the worst of this crisis.
SW: But that hasn’t kept Lamb from creating new work.
I subscribe to her newsletter. And there were a few lines in a recent edition that caught my attention. Lamb writes about how, like so many, she’s had to cancel and postpone projects. How the new coronavirus has taken some “beloved members of the dance community.”
GL: …and our future is uncertain.
On the other hand, crises engender ingenuity. In the past few days I’ve started choreographing on my own body, which I hadn’t done in years. Whenever and however this ends, I will have a long series of dances suitable for performance on a 5 by 8 oriental rug.
SW: And it’s those dances, created in solitude on a 5 by 8 rug that we’re going to dig into on today’s episode of UnSequenced — a podcast about the choreographic process. I’m Stephanie Wolf.
THEME MUSIC CONTINUES
SW: So how frequently are you creating these quarantine dances?
GL: So I’ve decided to try and do it once a week. I tried to give myself the structure of doing something weekly because it is hard to impose that structure right now.
SW: Lamb and I connect via video chat to talk about these “Quarantine Dances” and what led her to start creating them in the first place.
Was it just that need for a routine?
GL: I think so. I mean, online teaching has been great for establishing a routine. I didn’t intend to create anything at all because I was not feeling creative in the least in the beginning of the quarantine. But Steps on Broadway, for which I teach, has been doing these virtual Steps Dance Experiences on their platforms. And at first I thought, Oh, I should create a phrase and try and teach it online. And maybe that would help me to get like a more robust following for the classes that I teach. So the first one I created was kind of with that in mind, because my choreography tends to be very, it has a lot of circular momentum. It really depends on me being in the same room to explain to people what happens next. It’s very three-dimensional. And so I thought, let me see if I can create something that’s a little bit different that might be easier for me to demonstrate in a two-dimensional platform. That I had in mind, but I actually haven’t done it or taught it because I kind of got more interested in just the creating process more than the teaching process.
SW: She dances the first work to a song called “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson.
FAINT SOUNDS OF “O SUPERMAN”
SW: A two and a half minute piece that, at times, appears to be an exploration of her extremities – her hands and feet almost leading her body.
And like all of her Quarantine Dances — it is on this 5 by 8 oriental rug in her New York apartment.
GL: I do have a little bit more space than the rug itself. But it just creates this boundary that you don’t really feel like stepping over, like when you’re performing on a stage and you have a marley and then you have that part without marley. You just don’t want to go on to that part. There’s something about, like, different floor surfaces, different frictions, that you feel like staying within that boundary. Or maybe it’s kind of like, it helps to be contained by it somehow. But then after maybe one week of creating and teaching, I decided to get these foam tiles at Home Depot that I could put underneath the rug to make it a little more like a sprung floor, a little squishier. And so now, there’s also that, anything that’s not covered by the rug is much harder.
SOUND OF MOVEMENT ON RUG
GL: I’m kind of glad that I’m being forced to get out of a habit of creating wearing socks, and on marley. Because that’s something that many of us contemporary choreographers are doing at the moment, and I love it. And yet, you give birth to certain kind of movement due to how much friction you have on the floor. And so the bare feet and the oriental rug is something totally different. So I feel like I have to come up with different stuff.
SW: Lamb says, by the second dance, she abandoned the idea of these dances being phrases she’d teach to her online classes.
GL: I have this ornate gold frame mirror, and it was hanging there on the wall. I’ve always thought that it looked really nice with this rug here. So I put it down and I don’t remember how I got the idea to hide behind it, but…
SW: In the second dance, she hides her body behind the mirror… for the sake of experimentation at first.
GL: I was kind of improvising to see what I could do with it and I settled on hiding behind it so that you can’t see my torso. And I can stick out my limbs on either side. So it looks like the mirror has legs. And then when they come around front, I can sort of do a butterfly shape with my feet. And you see the reflection in the mirror and it becomes this kind of weird quadruped. And I decided, maybe for all of these, I’d like to use music that I probably wouldn’t find a place for otherwise, well the mirror’s something a little different, but the third one, the John Baptiste piano one was…
GL: It’s like a standalone kind of piece that I just can’t really imagine… It’s a little bit more emotive than the things I would normally use, so I just decided to be guided by the music for that one. And the space, I think like moving big within a small space, was my main thing to explore there, like how large of movements can I do.
SW: Finding largeness in a physically small space has become fascinating to Lamb. And it’s something she’s thought about with her online classes too — which she often teaches from the same rug. She says she didn’t want to just give a barre.
GL: Transferring your weight is basically what dancing in the center is about. And I feel like barre doesn’t totally do that for us. I just had to stick with it for a while. And then suddenly, I’m getting other ideas for waltzes and petite allegro combinations and stuff. So the same thing with the choreography, it’s like I have to be more… I take bigger steps, and maybe the big step takes me the whole length of my rug and then I just have to change direction. And I have to use levels a lot, which I do anyway, I do a lot of floor work. I mean on the other hand, people always say my choreography is intricate, which it is. And it remains even when I’m trying to dance bigger. So this is, in a way, an ideal platform for intricate choreography too.
SW: After watching the third dance she created, she got an idea for the fourth.
GL: And then when I watched that one, I noticed like, oh, I didn’t actually get up from the floor for like, a minute and a half at one point. So let’s see if next time I could give myself the constraint of still trying to dance big but not letting my butt touch the floor.
SW: Your normal creation process, you’re starting from improvising, you’re filming it, you’re starting to pull pieces that you like. But how is that different when you’re choreographing on yourself versus when you’re choreographing on other dancers and you can kind of do that in real-time?
GL: So I always film improv and it’s time constraining, but I pick out little ten-second portions, twenty-second portions that I like, and I trim down to those. And then I have a whole file full of like little building blocks. And I think it’s kind of like, like I saw an Andy Goldsworthy documentary where he’s building a stone wall. So it’s like, finding the pieces that fit well together. And it’s not necessarily like putting together a puzzle because you found these things that weren’t necessarily, you didn’t intend them to go together in any particular surface, but some of them fit well against each other. And the more I try out different combinations, the more as I’m watching the next iteration, it occurs to me. Oh, yeah, that thing, that thing would go well there, that would be a good path into there. So I think that one, the third one, by the end it was not at all improvised. And then the one that I did this week, the sequence was not improvised, but the musicality was.
It’s been like, four or five years since I’ve performed publicly at all and people ask me “When did you retire?” and I’ve always thought like when they ask me that I haven’t retired. I’m not done. Something else is going to happen. And so it’s kind of gratifying to go back to dancing and to having the time to be both the brains and the body of it. And there’s terrible things going on in the world. But for me, I enjoy working at home. I enjoy making my own structure and as small as the space is, I really like having my own quote unquote studio because I feel so… I never feel like I have enough time in the studio. It’s always a race and here in New York, it’s always like there’s somebody waiting outside that studio. They’re going to kick you out. And you know, you work with a union company, same thing. And so I really enjoy being able to work as much as I want to or being able to like, go eat lunch and then come back and work some more.
And so I would like to be able to take that mindset with me and feel like I have plenty of time, even when I don’t and just be able to rely on the process.
SW: I’d actually love to talk about the future of these dances. When we are all on the other side of this, whenever that is, what do you see happening with these? Are they almost like a time capsule where they’ll exist as is so people can see this as like a piece of history? Or do you see them being performed on a stage or in front of a live audience somehow?
GL: You know I’m not sure. But for one that doesn’t exist yet, I’ve already been commissioned by the Guggenheim Works in Process. They started doing these virtual commissions. So that will be…
SW: Lamb was recently named a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow.
GL: That will be one and I might try to film it a little differently. I might try to take my rug up to the rooftop of my building. But somehow I feel like it has to take place on my rug. So that one will have its platform. For the others. I mean, when I started I just was thinking that it was phrase work and that it could be eventually folded into some new creation. They might get cut up and pasted together in different ways for new works because I always start with just basic phrase work that doesn’t have any particular emotional content or anything. So that might happen.
SW: That’s New York-based choreographer Gabrielle Lamb speaking about a series of dances she’s created while in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find these dances on her YouTube channel.
UnSequenced is a podcast about the choreographic process – produced and mixed by me, Stephanie Wolf. I also reported and recorded this episode.
Joe Kye composed our theme music. Thanks, Joe! And thanks to our Patreon subscribers. We’re in the process of updating that page, to offer you some behind the scenes and extra content. You too can support this podcast at patreon.com/diydancer.
Find UnSequenced wherever you get your podcasts. And thanks for listening!