Tess Dworman, photo by NICOLE SCHNEIT.
I met Tess Dworman to interview her at the café at BRIC in Forte Greene near BAM and the Mark Morris Dance Center. It was one of the first beautiful, sunny days in May this year where everyone was making excuses to be walking outside. Chatting with Tess for a little over an hour with sandwiches, coffee, and a voice recorder on the table was just as delightful and pleasant if not more than catching some precious rays. Tess has a very easy-going way about her; very relaxed and positive and not taking herself seriously at all. She smiles and giggles often and sees the world through a humorous yet oddball lens. Performance artist and childhood friend of mine, Anya Liftig, had introduced me to Tess in the Summer of 2013 when she was performing one of her first versions of macromen at CPR, later to be performed in its most advanced version at NYLA in the Winter of 2014. In these two years, I had the luck to see Tess Dworman’s work several times including macromen at CPR and NYLA, a version of Stay at Home Prism that she collaborated on with Laurel Atwell at Outpost in Ridgewood, NY, and Liftig and I: Experimental Dance Television Hour with Anya Liftig at CPR again. We had exchanged a few words here and there over the years but this was my first time to sit down with Tess and really get a better idea about what makes up her work and personality.
Talking to Tess is refreshing because she doesn’t try too hard to impress or articulate herself or her work as hyper-intellectual or theoretical. She presents it in plain statement and is very upfront, honest, and light-hearted in her descriptions. I was intrigued by how important humor is to Tess both in her work and in her life. Because she is a dancer and in her own pieces, she says her dances are “usually about dance and being a dancer.” But it’s not as simple as she states it. Her dances also poke fun at phenomena and society whether it’s exploring theatricality in macromen, the Sopranos on TV in Stay at Home Prism, or the current world of yoga in Liftig and I: The Experimental Television Hour.
But the foundation of her work seems to be about the experience of being a dancer and what the body can do and how it feels to be on stage:
“It’s this abstract autobiography. Being the author and the subject at once makes it about the act that I’m doing. It is the natural occurrence every time I make a work. It tends to be about dance because dance language comes up. The language is in my body.” She says with a smile, “Concepts don’t really go out beyond myself. Katmandu, earthquakes, and feminism aren’t in the forefront [when I’m making a work] but it’s definitely there. I’m interested in the physical textures of joints and muscles and what’s possible for me. It’s just like a kid: exploring what the body can do.”
In Experimental Dance Television Hour, Tess said the rehearsal process started with her keeping her arms inside her shirt and wriggling around making an “organ dance.” To keep her 16-minute solo in this work interesting, she admits that she came up with a gimmick, which was to wear a shirt that had two artificial arms with hands hanging down from it. “The arms added a bizarre illusion – I love optical illusions…A lot of dance is illusion of weight and strength and gravity. I was just sussin’ it out. The arms were a shameless gimmick but relevant to the choreographic material.”
Yoga was also a big theme in Experimental Dance Television Hour. She began with a morning ritual on stage right of stretching and having breakfast, of course abstracted to be more skewed and layered. Then at center stage there was a TV first playing images and films of Anya Liftig and then later showing a group of people all dressed in white clothing in the fresh mountains of a Zurich-like place doing yoga together. The voice-over and the images coming from the TV program were again not quite yoga but a sarcastic, twist on the practice. Tess joined in with the not-quite-so yoga while watching the TV. Her movements were half recognizable and half new, a highly creative way of combining contemporary dance, performance art, and yoga together in a droll swirl of ritualistic movement.
Tess Dworman, photo by ANYA LIFTIG.
Again humor comes back into play: “It’s funny. [I was abstracting yoga.] It’s such a bastardized thing at this point. There are brands for it and clothes for it. It [comes from] an ancient thing people [have done for centuries] and now look at it. It just makes me feel like you can do that to anything. Now it’s a crazy corporate version of itself.”
Tess is sweet and a little shy in nature. She’s aware of the surrounding world and sees problems in it, but her dances aren’t heavy and frantic. She finds a way of saying that there needs to be changes in society while having fun in the studio and with her dancers and delighting the audience as well. It seems like Tess and her collaborators all share a similar sense of humor, which she says is “their strongest foundation as friends. We share similar tastes and preferences.” Specifically referring to her macromen team of dancers Kyli Kleven and Caitlin Marz, who formed a trio with Tess, and composer Steve May who is also Kyli’s boyfriend, Tess said, “We speak in a short hand to one another. We don’t have to be super articulate with each other. We just get [what each other is saying]… I was also familiar with how they improvised. Working with these friends is a good thing in that sense. Caitlin and Kyli are very patient with me. It’s very hard to choreograph oneself into a piece. I was the worst at remembering things cause my brain was in and out of looking at it while I was doing it. Also it’s very strange to be in a position where we’re all doing the same thing and learning it at the same time and I’m the one who’s supposed to be the one who knows how to do it the right way because it’s my idea. I’ve gotta figure a better way to do that…They really believed in the whole thing. It was like family.”
Speaking with Tess, I learn that she is blessed in many ways. Her parents are very supportive and taught her valuable skills about leadership and management while she was growing up. And Tere O’Connor, the very successful choreographer, is her mentor and helped her a lot to get a strong footing in the NY dance scene. As a result, Tess says she doesn’t need to apply for performances when I ask her. Luckily she is always invited and she is very grateful for this. A show at Aunts led to one at Dixon, then Judson Church, then NYLA, etc. Because she has such good management and leadership skills on top of her humorous and fun-loving personality, she attracts friends to do projects with her and has never held an audition to find dancers. This isn’t to say that Tess doesn’t put in the hard work. Of course she does and she cares a lot too. She rehearses just as much if not more than any other choreographer and she’s always pushing herself and trying to understand her work and her world better.
“My own work is never really in the front of my mind when I start the work. Even when I’m done with it, I really have to dig around for what the psychology was around my choices and what was motivating me. [I think] where do all these things in my brain come from, will they always be there? I’m starting to study meditation so that I can actually maybe become more aware of what’s going on in my head. [When it comes to] art making, I’m becoming more familiar with what it is that I’m doing when I make this stuff. I absorb a lot of performance that I see from a lot of people that I like. I think it’s impossible not to. For the first few years I was here, I was really influenced by Luciana Achugar’s work. I still am. It’s a really physical way of moving that I totally am compelled by and really relate to. The way she talks about movement, I really get it.” Tess is a good example of an artist who’s stars are aligned to give her great success but she doesn’t rest on her laurels or take it for granted. She’s very passionate, sincere, and hard-working and gets her work out there, and a lot of people admire her unusual and quirky artistry.
Tess also admits that Tere’s work influences her a lot mostly because she does it a lot. Tere O’Connor had taught her at the University of Illinois in Champaign during her last year and they quickly built a mentor-mentee relationship as well as choreographer-performer one as she still dances for his company in NY. He encouraged her to make the move to NY and was an angel to her introducing her to people, telling her about auditions, and asking her to perform for him. She says, “I was working with Tere at the same time as I was finalizing macromen. I was criticized in The New York Times that I was very influenced by Tere and it was just interpreted in a bad way…I admire [the way he directs] and it works really well. When I’m working with him, I feel like there are so many options of what I can do. There are so many interesting choices available and there’s no judging. There are many things happening at the same time. He communicates the feeling of multiplicity really well. [You’re encouraged to] confidently make a choice. Try this. The piece moves around. You try a bunch of things out and when something is working you pay attention to it. If something is not working, you just throw it out. He even takes out good points and he says ‘Ok let’s have a funeral procession for that section cause we have to move on.’ He makes quick decisions and quick cuts. He stays really fluid with it and knows when to stay with something for a while. When something needs more attention, he’s a really good fine-tuner and I need to get better at that.”
Tess is always aware that there’s room to grow and she thinks a lot about how she can improve as a choreographer in specific ways. Rehearsals in the studio with her dancers and their well-being and level of involvement are very important to Tess too. And she always wants the creating process to be a dialogue. She wants her dancers to enjoy the process as a result and she thinks for the most part they do. “It’s good and bad cause sometimes you get stuck or lost and you’re not explaining things very well and I have a hard time accepting that one hundred percent of the time. And sometimes someone is in a bad mood and it’s natural and that happens all the time.”
But to highlight her sweet and generous nature, she uses her opportunities to help her friends too. “I always want my friends to be doing cool projects. I feel obligated – I have to make a project for my friend to be in. I need to let that go and not let it direct my choices. So far it has worked out.” Her friends are successful and busy with their own projects but it seems like they really enjoy time in the studio with Tess so they drop hints sometimes to work together. Tess continues, “When I got the NYLA show, I was freaking out about whether I should show new or old work. I wanted to give my friends an opportunity to show [there so I chose macromen.]” It was probably more than that and I don’t want to put words into Tess’s mouth but perhaps she felt like there was a lot of energy and investigation left to seek out in that work, and that she succeeded at because it’s a very thorough piece about theatricality coming from many different angles. But I personally admire that Tess isn’t afraid to say it how it is and is purely honest and doesn’t try to impress people with highfalutin or made-up facts to make herself or her work seem overly intellectual for example or a certain way.
It’s probably this pure, light-hearted, oddball energy in Tess’s personality and dances that attracts friends and collaborators as well as curators and performance opportunities to her. And it seems like her kind generosity towards her friends brings her a lot of karma as well. Now after her NYLA exposure, she knows many people in the dance world, if not art world at large now, and they know her, but she has always had her group of goofy friends – mostly dancers, and they’ve remained tight over the years. Another way that Tess is very blessed is that she moved to NYC with her dance and music posse from Chicago all at the same time. Kyli Kleven, Caitlin Marz, Steve May, and Tess all moved here and in no time became fixtures in the Brooklyn dance and art scene.
Tess and her buddies quickly got involved in these Rooftop Series in Bushwick. She and Kyli, Caitlin, and Steve would have turns being curated and they were often in each others’ works. Throughout those years, they developed a kind of style she describes as “deft.” She described, “It felt like we cultivated a style of moving. You can describe it as when you’re very careful with picking up things and putting them down without making a sound. Like adults taking ballet class for the first time and the way that they present themselves. This style was in macromen. A little bit of making fun. Humor. The funny choice is usually the choice we went with.” Tess explained that “theatricality isn’t improvised. It’s a very rehearsed, traditional, ritualized way of holding your body and conveying certain things, and representing certain things. It seemed very far from exploration and improvisation. But we did improvise from that form.” I remember they moved through different postures in a triangle grouping on stage right. “The stage was lit like a forest. There was chanting in the music. [The three of us] stuttered through different postures and let them transform, not planning what they were going to be.” But for all the audience knows, this moment could have been set because it was so detailed and definite.
An umbrella statement about Tess’s work is that she uses improvisation to generate choreography and she always hopes to leave open spaces in the performances for improvisations. But interestingly, she stated “I love improvisation in performance but I don’t want the audience to know that we are improvising. My dancers and I do things that look planned, rehearsed, choreographed. There is a real structure there. I don’t want to be in total exploration mode. I’m not interested in seeing performers zoning out in a deeply unknown exploration place. Is it a matter of taste?” she says. “What is this planned feeling that I’m going after? It is recurring in my work. It’s taking on different shapes.” That is very accurate and I was always curious about the line drawn in Tess’s work between set and improvised because yes, it is very ambiguous. Is it set or is it improvised? is the question. And if she sets a lot of the movement, how does she keep it interesting and autonomous for the dancers? The simple answer seems to be comraderie and having collaborators that are not only the best of friends but also like-minded, engaged, and having a good time in rehearsals. She says working collaboratively and listening to the dancers’ suggestions is also key.
Tess cares a lot about her role as choreographer and her relationship with her collaborators. As mentioned before, her parents’ taught her excellent managerial skills as both of them were in leadership positions in corporate jobs. “I learned a lot from them. I have a good sense of what good management is. I use that when I work with a group of people. I always think, ‘As the leader, am I empowering the people that I’m working with?’ I want people to feel like they are doing their best - that the stakes are high but for a good reason. The stakes are high because they are doing their best and what they’re doing is important. I’d hate to think of someone engaging in a process with me and watching me go off on my journey and trying to follow along and thinking is this it? I like it to be more like a [conversation] - something fun where we’re all learning something. Tere is an excellent manager and boss. I do my best work when I’m dancing in his dances. He gives the dancers a lot of power and enables you to do really good work because he gives you a lot to work with. That’s something I want to do for people.”
As you can see, Tess is very subjective and curious about not just her dancers but also human nature. She states, “There are really interesting cultures in performing that emerge that we don’t address like a person’s personality that one can glean from watching them move around. A lot of times it ruins a dance for me if you can’t see that.” She’s always researching and learning from the shows she sees. Not just dance but performance art as well. “When going to college in Chicago, I knew some people who were at the performance art program at the School of the Art Institute. I would go see some of their shows. That was my first exposure to that. [I’m also] definitely influenced by Anya’s (Liftig) work. I feel like I understand it, I’m really into it. All the eating and making out with stuff, it’s really a campy sort of aesthetic but really sincere. I feel like my work is [doing] the same thing as well.”
A signature of Tess’s is to almost always incorporate elaborate and unusual props. Whether it’s plants sliding around the stage or a big clear couch that is tossed back and forth like a ping-pong ball, they always add to the quirkiness and oddball quality of the choreographer’s dances. Tess is very spontaneous and then very determined when she thinks of props. During the making of Solo for Legendary Children, she was wearing a t-shirt of her mom’s from the 90’s that had hand-painted designs on it. She caught herself staring at the shirt and then decided that she wanted to be in the shirt. Tess found a way to get purple foam prop pieces in the dance that were the same shapes from the shirt. She discusses the props: “The objects always have a function though,” she says. “But also I don’t want too many extraneous things. Now I’m trying to be more simple because it’s a pain in the ass to drag [these things] around.” It’s admirable that she has these must-have visions, and she sticks to them and imagines how she will actually get those things there no matter how hard it will be.
“At first when you’re commissioned,” she says “you want to shoot for the moon, but it is usually unrealistic and impossible.” The commission isn’t big enough and logistics prevent you from reaching your ideal but she usually sticks to her idea even if it’s a compromise like fake plants instead of real palm trees in macromen. I was curious about her choice in using plants in this piece. She said, being delighted by this, “I’ve always loved the look of plants. They have a whole other presence. Plants have a huge presence in contemporary art. They are very trendy right now, which is funny. I think I wanted them in the piece because they create such a distinct atmosphere … or they represent some other place or atmosphere because they’re fake.”
Other themes that re-emerge are costumes. She loves costumes though they are really difficult for her to choose. At U. Illinois, she remembers Tere O’Connor saying that “costumes suck. It’s just a matter of how much they suck.” She didn’t agree with him at the time and still doesn’t. Tess thinks it should be considered just as much as the performance. “My interest in costuming has led me to also think about the behavior and the character and the imaginary place and also the real theater place that the performer is performing in. I used to ruminate on this. This has spilled over to the entire visual world of my dances.”
When Tess collaborated on Stay at Home Prism at Judson Church with Laurel Atwell, the costumes were also strangely humorous but they also served a practical reason at first and then later led to imaginative exploration. Tess and Laurel made these 3 foot long by 4 inches wide sticks that came out of their sleeves and appeared like extensions of their arms. Because they knew they’d be performing in the expansive Judson Church, they needed to make themselves bigger, and louder for that matter. In one section, Tess and Laurel rallied a life-size clear blow-up couch between them, hitting it back and forth with their wooden arms. With each hit there was a significant smack noise. It was another case of “a fake thing that represents another part of our body.” I asked if the sticks were inspired by Kristen Wiig’s The Sound of Music character on SNL and she said laughing “At first yes. It was hard to not think of that.”
Later in the duet when Tess and Laurel sit on the couch at center upstage both symmetrically on each side of the couch facing each other, they did a hand dance toward each other with specific finger movements that was very choreographed and specific. They both wore French manicure press-on nails. “The whole look of it was inspired by The Sopranos, specifically Edie Falco’s character Carmela and another character Adriana. [These characters] are always super done up with their nails. It’s baffling that it is normal to always have these necklaces, and the hair, and the nails. It’s so powerful.” Tess is refreshing because even though gently criticizing parts of society as an impetus in her work and research, she is truly and passionately engaged and fascinated in these people or phenomena. Giggling again, Tess said that at the time she had a data-entry job which required a lot of typing, but otherwise she would have loved to keep the press-on nails on for as long as possible and walk around with them everywhere.
I was curious about how Tess and Laurel had met since I already knew by now that Tess’s friends who were in macromen go back to early years in Chicago before they all moved to NY in 2009. She says, “Laurel and I met three years ago. We were both chosen by Jen Rosenblit and Tatyana Tenenbaum to organize CLASSCLASSCLASS for a season. We had never met before. It’s a very intense thing to do with a lot of responsibility…Laurel and I got along so well and we did a pretty good job I think. We met through this intense, administrative job and we just remained friends. We would have these three-hour meetings and we got used to hanging out for long periods of time, and that just continued. We fell in friend love.”
One of my last questions to Tess was about whether and how she feels a difference from before she was famous and after she had the NYLA show. She answered frankly, “I feel like I’m the same person. It’s other people that have changed. I can probably write with more confidence because I think people are more familiar with me. I feel more confident because some people have said they like what I’m doing. It’s a real physical sensation of confidence that I can have. It’s a really great privilege. I don’t feel like I’ve really changed. When I first got here, I was astounded by how people didn’t remember who you were.” She said that once she volunteered with someone for three hours and when they encountered each other again a bit later, that person had no recollection. “I thought it was so weird. It happens less now cause now I know more people. I do feel more pressure now. Before the NYLA show I took a moment to appreciate the moment before people knew who I was. [Before] I could do whatever I wanted. Now they have an expectation of what I can make. Before there was a blank slate of what I could do.”
With all this success, Tess sticks to her guns and doesn’t try to be anyone or anything that she isn’t. In some cases, perhaps it’s trendy or competitive these days, to see how experimental one can be about presenting a dance or performance. But Tess is very confident to say, “I have a formal way of showing my work right now. The two-dimensional, proscenium experience is how I’m working these days. I don’t want [audience] on the sides.” She happily accepts most opportunities but sometimes will say no if the performance space doesn’t provide the proscenium quality that suits her current work. Just how she says she likes to see “the personality of the dancer gleaned from the movement,” Tess’s personality matches up very well with her choreography and themes. She has a fluid, go with the flow quality, definitely quirky, clever, and intelligent, enjoying a specific sense of humor, and also fun-loving. Chatting with her, I enjoyed her laid back, relaxed, and easy-way-about-her quality. Words and phrases and ideas and descriptions just roll off her tongue and are usually accompanied with a smile or a giggle as she makes eye contact in a sincere, calm, and down-to-earth way. Quite humble, she is realistic about who and where she is and where she wants to be in terms of improving as a choreographer and director. Her philosophical temperament, positive outlook on life, community-oriented and loyal qualities not to mention her very hard work and great talent have brought and will bring her far. She has arrived, but she is still striving in full force with a sparkle in her eye.
Tess's next show will be on November 16, 2015 at Roulette in Brooklyn.
Links to websites:
vimeo.com/user5785537 (Laurel Atwell)