visions of beauty by Heather Kravas - interview with Petra Zanki Mar 21, 2017

by Petra Zanki

When Heather said that much of her aesthetics comes from times when she hung at the concerts and in the gritty punk scene in nineties, she got me fully. There is a lot of irrational romanticism in that, but I don’t need much to connect, if the words and ideas, said and unsaid, are right. 


Aside irrational romanticism, while thinking about what would be the common thread in Heather’s works, I thought instantly of visual hues of her performances. Seeing it as B/W monochromes, in the aesthetics of punk zines from one side, and minimalist monochromatic canvases on the other, Daniel Zezelj’s comics’ strokes, (as harsh as that, as honest as that), also came to mind. 


Both as in a vision, less as in a thought, brightness - the blending of all colors, and dark - in absence of them all, come in flashes at once: the realization that everything that contrasts, clashes to bring harmony. (The tiny flash: notice the letters against this sheet.)


Most of my life I have been struggling to understand why would gray zones matter for the beauty. “Not everything is black and white: there are lot of gray zones in between.” You must have heard it too. You must have heard it and stared blank in darkness, kind of getting it, but not agreeing with it, understanding that intensity and beauty gravitate towards extremes. 


These are the snippets of talk we had in the lobby of On the Boards one Friday morning:


P: In the sense of aesthetics, what is it that you look for in your badass uncompromising work?

H: The work needs to be personal and hinges on a slightly obsessive-compulsive tendency. My task is to use this impulse and occasionally reject it. It is often a struggle with acceptance. In 2000, I made a performance called “self-obliteration companion”.  I had rented hours of studio time in NYC to make this dance and all I seemed able to do was fall asleep or cry, cry or fall asleep - making stuff and hating all of it. At a point, I realized that the napping and wailing pretty much was the work, so my job then became about creating the conditions where I could share this process with other people.  The choreography was about creating the frame more than the material.  A lot of my work is about figuring out what is most at stake for me in the moment and then illustrating not the work itself but the conditions of making it.


P: How do you work, how do you choreograph?

H: I have no idea how to make dances. I am always amazed how people are moving bodies in space, the way choreographers think about space and kinetic invention.  I try to do it sometimes and it always feels inauthentic. Sometimes I think about my dances as sculptures, or even two-dimensionally - dots and lines, like in Bridget Riley paintings. Or even as sound pieces - just rhythms and textures bumping up against one another.  I am interested in how things function sonically and sculpturally.  Those are the things that I enjoy playing with and learning about.  I try to trust that my desire will arrive at something unique.

I can’t figure out right now if this piece is more of a grid, or a spiral, or if it is a relationship between two places. 


P: I noticed that your dance phrase patterns continue until they get exhausted. Do you usually work with dance drones, like music drones?

H: I like drones. And sometimes I like how a dance can dissolve through exhaustion.  This work is not merely pattern based, I want to know how it transforms. The performers are amazing dancers and humans.  They have been so generous through a process where I continually ask them not just to learn choreography but to be willing to throw everything away.  I want to believe I can make something that isn't stuck.  There is something in the work that tries to challenge definition.  But I don’t know if it is a crazy weird quilt or a chain of events or a kind of combination.  My last work was a chain of events, and “a quartet” was like that too, this one is different. 


P: Your work is very funny. Do you know that? I saw your eyelids choreography in “dead/disappears”, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

H: There are always a few people that key into that element in my work, and I like that some people relate to it in that way. I just watched a late '70's Richard Pryor comedy routine that he performed in Long Beach. It was heavy. Everything he was talking about could have happened yesterday. There was so much violence in it and self-deprecation. It was funny and super not funny. That’s usually where comedy exists. I am interested in it and teetering on that edge.


P: You said your background is in ballet and Grotowski. How do these two connect in your work?

H: My teacher in Pullman, Washington, was a ballerina studying to become a psychologist who had landed in some alternative theater practices in San Francisco in the '70's.  The theater exercises teach about going deep into one's imagination but with a real rigor.  The Grotowski exercises lead to improvisation and these experiences were weird but made me feel very alive.  It is the relationship to practice that I think was so compelling about ballet.  I think the ways ballet is linked to my work now has to do with how I use language.  I use it as a kind of building block or sign.  Also, it is precise and that mirrors the precision I strive for in my work. Without precision, my choreography is awful. 


P: What is specific about visions of beauty?


H: This work is a kind of mirror of a previous piece, “The Green Surround”, a solo for nine women.  In "The Green Surround", the performers were always together, always doing the same thing - peeing in unison, holding “tendues” in unison.  People repeatedly said: “Oh that is a piece about women” and eventually I thought I should challenge that observation.  I guess I wasn't sure that the piece was "about women". So, I set out to do the same thing with men. At first I had a concept that it would be an inversion of “The Green Surround”, but then I rejected the idea, as I am pretty contrary.  We now have eight men and one woman in the piece. I am not spending a lot of time thinking about the gender of the cast.  I think it is in some ways a companion to that earlier work, but more in the way that the performers relate to the structure.  With "visions" the dancers are working to manifest something.  In a lot of my other dances, the structure is the authority.  Here, I think the structure is impossible without the people making it.


What the work is about? The work is about itself.  I heard it very beautifully in an interview with composer John Adams. He said something along the lines of "All my work is absolutely about itself and it is simultaneously political - about the world and our struggles to exist within it."


To embrace and to be delicate about what the piece is "about" in partnership with this cast has been a very powerful process.  My pieces can have a lot of anxiety in them and there is always something that might look authoritarian, and there is also–


P: An anger?


H: Anger, yes.  But I am not interested in anxiety and authoritarianism right now.  These conditions are too present in our daily lives. We don’t need to go to the theater to experience more anxiety and authority. So right now, I am making the piece without understanding everything about its structures. The performers are really helping me do it and I am letting them help me do it and that feels unique to this piece, though certainly not a unique endeavor.  All performances risk "failing" in terms of their reception.  Something about "visions" requires me to make and make and make and then let go completely.  Without the letting go it all seems false and makes me sad.  So, this time I am risking my control to see if the structures can transform beyond expectations.  It is super tricky.  Maybe impossible.


P: And for the end, what specific words come up for you when you think of this work? 


H: These days I often find myself in the position where I don’t know what to say.  I guess I don’t have words and I want to honor that space where we can be with each other neither agreeing nor disagreeing but existing in a space that can contain everything.