Getting to Know Nicole Harris
Sam Mullen: You have a lot of choreography that is now being performed by other company members. What has it been like to teach the choreography to each dancer? How does it feel to see your work being performed by each person/personality?
Nicole Harris: While we all come from different backgrounds I think one thing that is universal within Monkeyhouse is that we are all interested in seeing how a piece changes as it is performed by new bodies with new personalities and experiences to draw from. Our goal is never to have someone mimic the choreographer but to find their own voice within the work. It's why almost every piece is choreographed in collaboration with the dancers and you'll never quite see the same piece twice.
Some pieces, when they acquire a new performer, stay within the same movement vocabulary and the changes come out in tone and texture. Other pieces add, subtract or replace phrases based on the needs of the new performers. Some pieces retain their concept or story but it ends up being told in a completely different manner.
I was actually just talking about this last option with Caleb last night. One of the pieces I have restaged for this show is a duet that was originally performed by Caitlin Meehan and Nikki Sao Pedro-Welch. (For this show it will be performed by me and Sarah Feinberg.) The structure of the piece is largely one phrase that gets repeated and manipulated over and over with a final section of partnering between the two characters. In watching Sarah learn and develop her version of the piece I thought I would love to take the same structure but allow the dancer(s) to create their own phrase as the base of the movement instead of just adapting my original phrase - as Sarah and I did. When I first took this piece out of hibernation I had thought that it would be an interesting one to add to the series of duets Caleb and I have been performing, only the vocabulary of the original choreography is completely different than the vocabulary that comes out of where our two movement backgrounds meet. But the integrity of the piece won't change at all if the choreography of that main phrase is completely different.
Karen talked quite a bit about restaging Firk II with you and Olivia so I'll skip that one. The last piece I restaged for this show is a solo I created in 2011 with Caitlin Meehan. I have actually taught this piece to two different dancers (Caleb from Monkeyhouse and Julien, my student at the Groton School) in the last few months. In both cases it was much more of the first method I mentioned above. The choreography, which was originally created through improvisations with Caitlin, has become now a set series of gestures. However, the piece is entirely about the personality and idiosyncrasies of the character in a very real and relatable situation. So, despite there being a written list of gestures that defines the structures, Caleb and Julien each had drastically different (but equally amazing) interpretations of the piece.
SM: You have two duets with both Caleb and Sarah. What has it been like working on the duets with each person? Are the duets similar or completely different from one another with each specific person? Have the similarities /differences impacted rehearsals at all (tough changing from one character/emotion to the next or, if they are similar, is it the same character being continued over into the next story)?
N: Yes, since the show is largely about relationships there are quite a few duets. You and Olivia have two as well!
All four of my duets are pretty drastically different. It's always possible to draw comparisons. Both of my duets with Caleb are about relationships, although in one the relationship is just beginning and the other doesn't end well... We also have props that make our duets more like trios at times.
Sarah and I have a similar partnering vocabulary in the two pieces, so they are definitely alike in that way. However, one is fairly linear in its storytelling and the other is rather abstract.
Like any Monkeyhouse show (or any show with many choreographic voices) this show requires a lot of mental elasticity from the performers. Even just in these four pieces I jump from an overview of an entire relationship in which I am left alone at the end. Then I am the one who does the abandoning and we explore what it means to trust someone. The next piece plays with rebound and reaction and how two people intentionally or unintentionally impact one another. And finally I am one of two people who has to learn where baggage, insecurity and mental illness can fit into establishing a new relationship. That's a lot of emotional roller coaster - and I'm in at least 2 other pieces that aren't duets...!
SM: You have quite a few props for your pieces in this show! What has it been like working with vastly different elements, i.e. a very special, large umbrella vs a much smaller light source in total darkness?
N: It's interesting because the props all come from very different sources. The light, which is used in Elyssa Berg's Irradiance, was something that Elyssa had been playing with in Musings for months. Caleb and I were asked to dance in that particular piece and the movement entirely came from prompts by Elyssa. So while we did play with the light (and we are always entertained by the patterns it makes on the ceiling while we're performing) it was something that was directed from the outside.
Similarly, the idea for the umbrella came from an outside source. Karen, who built the beautiful umbrellas as the start for a project that eventually became the Dictionary of Negative Space, brought them in to Musing almost a year ago and led a series of improvisations around the idea of the umbrella being a security blanket. When Caleb and I proposed the idea of building a duet Karen suggested that those improvisations might be a good place to start. We definitely never would have come up with Voetstoots without Karen's suggestions or her umbrella! So, the umbrella was given to us from the outside, but the movement it generated came entirely from the two of us and our interpretation of the idea.
The hardest part of the umbrella is that from a storytelling perspective it isn't supposed to be easy to keep the umbrella under control, especially once we are dancing together. However, like most things, practice makes better - so the longer this piece get rehearsed and performed the easier it is to encourage the umbrella to do what we want. So we have to constantly remember what it was like in the early days and try and keep that feeling in every performance.
SM: You are always so busy working on new adventures for Monkeyhouse. Can you tell people about all of the exciting things we have coming up?
N: Oh yes! We are simultaneously building three large events at the moment. The first is this show, of course. Then on April 13th we will be performing with Karen for her I-ARE residency showcase at the Dance Complex. And on April 27th we will be out on the Malden Community Trail co-hosting the very first Malden Dance Mile with OnStage Dance Company as part of ArtWeek 2019! Everyone should keep an eye out on our social media and here on the website for more information about how you can be involved with all of these exciting choreographic adventures!
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