Tomorrow through the 31st, The Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City will present Karen Sherman’s One with Others. This work is an evening-length trio that questions how things can fit or hold together and the constructions necessary in being one’s real self. The work premiered in 2013 at DC’s Dance Place and features striking achievement from artists both on and off stage; Karen Sherman performs with Joanna Furnans of Chicago and Don Mabley-Allen of Minneapolis, with lighting design from Carrie Wood, and technical prowess from Janet Clancy, both of whom are from NYC.
Based in NYC from 1988 to 2004, Karen Sherman now lives in Minneapolis and works out of both cities. Her work is noted for its visuality, rigor, and wry social commentary, while her adventurous approach to performance and bucking of dance orthodoxy have won her recognition from artists, audiences, and critics across a range of disciplines and aesthetics.
In anticipation of the work to come, the following is a conversation between Karen Sherman and Anna Marie Shogren, a Brooklyn (and Minneapolis)-based dancer and writer, who has worked much previously with KS and, also, peripherally with this work.
Anna Marie Shogren: In the voiceover, in the very beginning of your solo you say, “I don’t want to be so personal for nothing…”
When we first talked about discussing the work, we talked about how I had worked with you for so many past projects, and that I still feel like I have a lot of questions. There is still a lot of mystery about your decision making and your composition, your thinking behind everything. And then that line rings. As an artist I do feel like I have an ethical thing about wanting work to be generous; that if you are taking someone’s time you have to give them something back, something that you worked on. But, I also think there is a line that has to be drawn, you need to be protective of yourself as an artist, not be too vulnerable to the ferocious audiences. I am curious if you have a feeling about how and what you want to share within a process, because it seems, and maybe I am wrong, that you have guidelines for yourself about what you share and what you don’t.
Karen Sherman: I think a lot of my work is really personal, but, I think this piece risks a little more. Not autobiographical, but something like that. I was really interested in biography when I started, not necessarily my own, but just the idea of that. And I think because this piece isn’t really about anything else, it’s not drawing from … say, like with Copperhead, which really drew from someone else’s experience; the Manson family women. This piece really drew from the group experience, the trio. And, I was really interested in Andre Agassi and David Foster Wallace, and I thought a lot about their stories. But my interest was really in a feeling of commonality, in their struggles really being common struggles. I think, in this piece, there were ways all three of us are in it, or, I think it’s really interesting for me to think about whether that ended up happening or not happening. And that line, ‘I cannot stand here and be so personal for nothing’, to me he’s not saying that as a resistance, it’s not a manifesto, it’s not, ‘here’s whats not going to happen in the piece, and I’m telling you that at the start.’ That’s not what he is saying, it’s not what I am saying, it’s not what I am saying through him. It’s actually, ‘I really am going to be personal, for nothing, and I don’t necessarily like that, but it’s my fate.’ It’s a very French, and it’s great, that Claude who does the voiceover, is French. But it really is, “this is the deal, this is the transaction.”
AMS: And like a request of the audience, too? Like, please meet me at the table?
KS: I don’t know if it’s a request. To me there is something really defeatist about it. Like, as the audience, you are coming in at the end of the struggle. Even though, with the action that is happening at the same time, with the bouncing, it is mid-struggle, I mean that whole wall bounce choreography, it’s like attempting and failing over and over again at this thing you know really you should stop attempting, but maybe you’ll, maybe I’ll get it right. And, I think there is a point in the pros and cons list section, something that I sometimes write. Oh, I think I write it in the pros column, maybe I write it in the cons column. How ironic that I’m not sure. It says ‘Hide real self.’ I think of it as a pro, that you can hide your real self in a dance or in the performance; there is a way that people can’t see you.
AMS: I agree with that. I mean, I think I started performing as a very shy kid that was like, I can get away with doing whatever the hell I want on stage, because I am quote unquote hiding my real self, you know, but really I can do all the weird stuff that I truly want to do, it was actually both. Because it was prefaced by it being performance, I had a mask, I had a guard.
KS: Yeah, well you know that everything that happens in the performance is true, but it’s not a documentary, and things change over the course of you making them, so your not dancing your memoir. This piece isn’t a memoir, but everything in it is true.
AMS: The show is pretty thick with sculptural, functional, worn items; design goes through and through. I was just curious about what you did during the Fusebox Festival workshop that you lead about transferring different media through dance, transferring work with certain media onto different media?
KS: Well, I think it took me a long time to realize I think this way, but often when I am making a dance I do other things as an escape from the dance. Sometimes it’s because I want to do something else, like downtime things, or I want to do something that is more tactile and more actualized than dance because dance is so abstract. I mean it’s abstract in that it only exists when you are doing it. You have to have people, if it’s a solo, you have to have yourself, and be capable, and able, and physical up to par to rehearse, Then everybody has to to show up, on time, and you have to have a plan. I love all of that about dance, how hard it is to manifest, and how inexact it can be. Like, you are aiming for one thing and then something else happens, and that is really incredible. But, I think sometimes I crave, more static, tactile processes. So, often I am doing other things for that reason, like building stuff or making music, because it is more fun. Actually making dances, a lot of the time, isn’t very fun for me, making dance material. So I do these other things because they give me more pleasure and because I am less invested in them.
AMS: Thats what I was going to ask. I mean, I love to draw because I feel like I can’t figure out how to place any artistic seriousness in it, so I am very pleased with my work even though it is pretty terrible.
KS: Yeah, well I think I have that with some things more than others, most things I feel like I am pretty forgiving with myself about, including dance. I mean, I don’t really consider myself a dance artist in this way where I am like, oh, I have to make this most amazing choreography. I don’t come from a trajectory towards dance, so I don’t have that kind of ego investment in it either.
AMS: And dance is so expansive, that is just one path?
KS: I make dances and that is the world in which I work. I identify as someone who makes dance but I also don’t feel that dance has to do everything for me, and also I haven’t often thought of myself as, necessarily, good at dance. I mean there is a lot riding on it, but not everything is riding on it for me in that way. I think sometimes in the past I have tried to make carpentry things where, I didn’t have many tools, so I didn’t really have a way to make the right size piece of wood for this thing, so I would have to figure out a way to go get that piece of wood or buy that piece of wood, and have it cut, and all of that is so logistically involved that I would just blow it off, and be like, oh fuck it, now I’m not going to make the thing at all. I think, although I don’t consider myself a wood worker by any means, there was still this idea that the thing I wanted to make was so specific in my head or at least this one element of it was so specific that if I couldn’t do that, I just wouldn’t do it at all. So when I started making things for this show… I always sort of tell this story about how I used to go down into my basement, with a glass of wine, and I’d grab this piece of wood and this piece of wood, just scrap wood that I had. One of the pieces was a piece of backing board that I had used for another project for somebody else, so I had been drilling into all of these stacks of paper, and that piece of wood was the wood I had underneath it all.
AMS: the door?
KS: No, one of the thigh pieces. It’s a hole saw. Yeah, there is like a drill hole and then another hole around it, like a ringworm sort of look. That’s how it marks on the wood. So I just grabbed that piece and another piece and sort of just stuck them together with this hook, and then realized this is the piece, this is the dance. I wasn’t invested in an identity as a woodworker so I was able to work with this really shitty material that allowed me to realize something about the dance that I wouldn’t have been able to get to if I had been trying to be more anal about it, or have these really beautiful pieces of wood, or have these exact things all figured out in my head and then try to manifest it in an object. So there is a way I can be more exploratory, or more exploratory than I can be with dance, exploratory without worrying about making a product. And, I think what happens for me, too, is that on some level I am working on the dance all of the time so the background systems are running, I am creating on some level. It’s finding its outlet wherever it can find it’s outlet. Most of the music in this piece is stuff I made, but some of it is stuff that I made a long time ago and it happened to fit for this piece, and some of it I made just for the piece. This goes for the text as well.
I think of them all as being languages and so they are all trying to help say the thing. None of them can say the thing on their own, you need all of these things to say it, and it’s probably still not getting said, whatever it is, but they are complimentary approaches.