INTERVIEW // Kaia Gilje and Paige Fredlund: Breathing with Objects

Paige Fredlund, Kaia Gilje, SELF PORTRAIT

The work that the magical duo Kaia Gilje and Paige Fredlund practice and perform can be put into a hybrid of non-literal descriptions that match their qualities, intentions, and curiosities: that of archeologist, avid collector, ecologist, fascinating organizer, object fascinator, superb listener, focused baker, pattern-maker, creative inventor, inventive observer, honest decision maker, and human respecter and engager. They are experts in all of the above perhaps not all of them literally but definitely in the quality and care that they do their dance-performance art making and performing. They are brilliant researchers, practicers, and performers and you may have seen them perform in their own work as well as other artists’ such as Panoply Lab’s, Lindsey Drury’s, and Lorene Bouboushian’s to name a few.

I had the joy to interview them recently with each of us spread among Berlin, Montana, and NY. Even though I’ve only seen them perform once in July 2013 at Panoply Performance Laboratory (PPL) during BIPAF, to this day I’m still amazed and very curious about their work together.

So what do they do? How does one describe something so esoteric and nuanced in a way that can be understood? Perhaps it starts with desire. Kaia explains:

            “Many of our shared interests or obsessions survive long periods of time, others die off. Arranging objects in different formations like rows, spirals, stacks, or breaking them apart into clouds. Creation of new movement patterns, and an interest in sewing them together and layering them into repeatable patterns [are some of our sustained interests]. [We also have] an interest in movements of the head that make us really dizzy and disoriented. These are some things that have survived for a while.”

Paige and Kaia were very generous to tell me about the scores they’ve created that have provided a foundation on which they have built their shows. One score, for example, is the Rows Score:

One person along with everything they came with enters the space and looks at and touches everyone in the audience, then they return to their belongings and start to pull everything out and break things apart, placing all of these objects into rows on the floor. After this, that person removes everything that is on their body including every article of clothing and the dust particles in their hair, continues to put those things in rows and finally the person lays on the ground face down as the last thing in the last row, where they lay for some time in silence. 

Kaia created this score as an act of improvisation – she performed it solo several years ago at a Generator performance at the Woods. In a meeting soon after that event when she and Paige had decided to perform together, Paige instigated that Kaia inscribe what she had done as a score – thus giving birth to Rows Score. This score started as a defined seed and grew and oscillated over time in many experiments that later included more performers as well as audience members, and different ways of categorizing, shaping, placing, and relating to the objects.

Sarah McSherry, Lorene Bouboushian, Kaia Gilje, Lindsey Drury, Paige Fredlund, Photo by LAURA BARTCZAK 

Kaia and Paige also create movement patterns (dances) which seem set in themselves but not in terms of when they happen, or how long they happen for, or even which ones they decide to do, depending on all of the factors in the performance…this they do because they are curious about movement. Only two times in the past four years have they presented a set of fixed movement patterns, a process Kaia refers to as sewing patterns: Once, at a benefit performance for the Woods, on the body of Laura Bartczak, and last summer, the two of them performed each others’ patterns in Melanie Maar’s former loft. This commitment to fixed movements may or may not be the direction they are going in; that is yet to be determined.

In spite of their backgrounds in dance, they primarily have been performing together with objects and concepts. Their movement decisions are improvised in relation to the objects in the space as well as in observation of each other. Here’s Kaia’s written memory of part of the Bipaf performance they did at Panoply in July 2013:

            “Paige started by using the tape from the previous performance to secure her arm to the pole. The weight of her arm tore the tape from the pole. She found a bungee cord and tried again. I go “eek” because I am afraid it is going to spring open, so I tie the bungee hooks together with string. She is doing steps. I took string and attached her head to the little bell hanging from the ceiling at Panoply. Then I took another string and attached it to her hand and brought the other end outside, out the door and down the side walk. I found an empty juice box and tied the string to it, like a handle. Cut the string. For a long time I stood there holding it and allowing myself to be moved slightly as Paige's movements tugged the string. After a little while I trace and arc with the string by running across the street and just clear a parked car. I go back and forth a couple of times. One time a motorcyclist is trying to get out onto the street, so I lift up the string for him to go underneath. Then I go and stand back by the tree.  At some point I tug on the string a little bit. I am making very little eye contact with the people watching, but know that they can see Paige and that I cannot. I do have a little thought that the string might be attached to a sensitive part of her. I feel for slack in the string. But at a certain point I start reeling in the string and bring myself back into the space. I don’t remember seeing what Paige was doing. I think she started taking off her clothes and placing them on the floor against the wall. I begin to cut up my yellow shirt. I cut it into little pieces and make a cloud of it, part on the wall and part on the floor. Paige goes upside down on the wall, wearing only her golden unitard. She is shifting her weight and perhaps doing some patterns. I take off my clothes and place them nearby. Then I take off my leotard, and drape myself over the heater. Paige starts slowly sliding down the wall, and worming through the objects. I make patterns with my head. Paige does a jumping pattern. I look at people upside down and move my feet a little bit. Then I get down off of the heater (slip slip and fall). I don’t remember how we ended.”

Just as Paige is influenced by Kaia’s early work, Kaia remembers seeing three of Paige’s improvisation solos also at the Woods for Generator happenings. Paige describes her early work:

            “When I began to perform my own solos in New York, they were mixed media collages, made up of memories from my life… [One example is] I projected a film of my four-year-old self riding a bike with a green tutu, and appearances by my “galoot” dog and my mom as the voice of the narrator. The dog assails the frame, I crash my bike and the camera looks down on me in an explosive moment of lost temperament. As I projected this film, I danced along side, wearing that same tutu…Those pieces made me feel free and they were one way in which I wanted to present myself...with laughter and longing, most of all. Where my memories were brought me to where I was. It gave me information. I’m not making work like that anymore. I’m not interested in that anymore. Back then it was probably something therapeutic. It was informing me about timing and content; I was gaining performance experience and feeling what it was like to be exposed.”

Reflecting on the recent past, I can also see influences of Paige’s improv collages from when I performed with her (and Kaia) and many more brilliant performers and musicians in the dance opera directed by Panoply and Lindsey Drury, Any Size Mirror is a Dictator, this past Fall at Momenta Art. Paige made very quick and fluid decisions and sometimes they were complete non-sequiturs coming from her own lightning-speed imagination and strong will to just do something and commit to it. Kaia also brought a lot of originality and stunning images to the dance opera.

Paige and Kaia perform dance patterns and they move, but they also create holistic and meaningful images with their objects, and for the most part, their performances are thought-through and discussed. They build off of their own history from previous shows, but for a large fraction, they make their decisions on the spot. And they do all of this with the audience engaged and fascinated. So I asked them, as this is my current research about dance in performance art and performance art in dance, how they see their work as both dance and performance art, and this is what Paige said:

            “Maybe our work is hard to define and maybe that’s what I like about it. I think we’re just trying to use all that is available to us and experience all that we can in our performances… We don’t really know how to answer this question with much precision because we’re still in the process of learning. In Melanie’s loft, for a moment we did choose to do set material and I think somehow we decided that was perhaps less exciting? In terms of which world we are a part of, Dance or Performance Art, I think our work is appropriate for either expectation. For me it broadens both kinds of performance. The Dance is expanded because we dance with things that are maybe not considered danceable, like string or rope, tape and bugs, and Performance Art is expanded because we have presented ourselves in front of people as stripped-down, material-less movers. Also, I think we like to test what each “world” will allow. There have been times when our work has not been tolerated and in fact we were asked (during the performance) to stop.”

A lot of us have had years of technique training in our formative years as dancers, honing skills in modern, contact improv, contemporary, perhaps ballet and jazz, and/or many other kinds of dancing. So I’m always interested in how and when dancers transition into being influenced by performance art. As Kaia explains,

            “For me, witnessing the work of Lindsey Drury and Lorene Bouboushian during my first year living in New York was very important. Witnessing their work made me realize that working under the discipline “dance” should never lessen or control possibilities available to the artist or make any parts of the artist’s person unavailable to them. I saw a performance where Lindsey ran outside a venue and performed a “flocking” exercise with a car on the street. I loved this! Through Lindsey we met Esther Neff and she got us started on our duet work by inviting us to do a show through No Wave Performance Task Force. During the next year both Paige and I were participating in rehearsal processes with Lindsey Drury and You Nakai, Lorene Bouboushian, and Esther Neff and Brian McCorkle. Each of these people exposed us to many ways of thinking, improvising, and performing. I think our experiences with these people helped us consider the huge range of possibilities available.”


Paige had similar experiences as she worked with the same artists that Kaia described above. She shared some of her influences:


“In terms of development, my two strongest influences have been Lindsey Drury and Merce Cunningham. Both taught me funny ways of moving rigorously, both revealed to me what was utterly different, and yet in essence I found more of myself from working with both of them (Merce had died by the time I arrived, but many are still around). In performing with Lindsey and others, I became familiar with various sizes and feelings of the performance art spaces in NY; especially the smallish ones, where audience sits so near you can feel their heat and hear changes in their breath. Kaia and I realize we are lucky to have been invited by places like PPL to begin chalking up experiences.”


I asked them to talk about the audience and if they affect their decision-making or if they consider the audience during rehearsals.


Kaia: “We often consider our actions in terms of what we are giving in relationship to what we are taking from people coming to our shows. We try to tip the balance towards giving with our performances. However, certainly individuals won't perceive this relationship in the same way we have considered it.”


I continued to ask if there is anything they do to reassure themselves that a performance will be strong. Paige said, “If something attracts our attention or obsession in practice, it does not guarantee that the audience will feel the same. Only once an idea has been exposed in performance, though, do we finally gain information about it having any strength at all.”


In comment to this, Kaia said, “We felt really weird and confused after a lot of performances. Though sometimes we felt really good. Something starts feeling strong and then it feels weak, or the other way around. There’s constant shifting within rehearsals and performances. Moments of panic and disinterest and strength too.”


I was also very curious about what their rehearsals are like. They continued to share:


Kaia: “We have gone through many different phases. Often we work alone, but in the same space. Then we exchange with each other when we are ready. Sometimes when we can't focus we spend a lot of time going to the bodega to buy coffee or beer or bananas or peanut m&m’s. One time we stayed late at the Woods and were working on a soundtrack that involved a lot of obnoxious buzzing, and the neighbors reported on us...saying that some naked women were waving sticks and making strange noises in the back yard.... which was not exactly true. Though perhaps they looked through the window earlier and saw us working on Rows Score as a spiral, which did involve nudity, or perhaps they saw the tree we had brought into the studio and kept there for many months...”


Kaia and Paige further explained what they do in their practice and performances when I asked them if they have an overall mission.

Paige: “Yes we have an overall idea/mission, usually. This mission for me can sometimes just boil down to relationships and experiences. For example, we want to know how this movement relates to the cutting up of my shirt and the pile of junk and the string attached to my arm. And for us, perhaps as we build off of each other, we can always trace back to Rows Score because from our objects laid out onto rows, this turned into piles and clouds, things taped to the walls, strings, weight on our bodies, messes, and tangles, and high-lifted arrangements...ruminations on spaces between things, and how things touch. And really, how banal is all this, unless you consider it with a little imagination.”

Kaia: “At Bipaf, we had bugs we collected in a little jar. Paige picked up the jar of bugs and then rejected it and did something else. I took them and released them on the floor. We moved on and began many other actions until eventually we had created a huge pile of rubble (chairs, stuff from our bags, fruit, dirty clothes). I left the space for a while and came back to the mess and found two of the bugs. One was dead and one was alive and they were each in a different place in the room from where I had originally released them.”

Kaia and Paige’s bond is so strong that often where one is found, the other is there or not far. Their friendship began in college where they met at Western Washington University in Bellingham. It was Paige’s second year and Kaia’s first year, and Paige thought Who’s that girl? when she noticed Kaia in a dance class. “She moved with abandon and freedom but also almost stressfully…she was most determined,” she says. The first time they danced together was for a choreography class, and for an assignment they had to exchange movement. Kaia taught Paige her movement and Paige remembers, “I was learning from Kaia and trying to do it just like her – trying to feel the same feelings, and it felt like I was in a new body.”

Kaia revealed that “[Paige’s] focus and curiosity were exciting to me and I found that she was very open to teach what she knew. She had a lot of patience and I came to see that she was excited to see her knowledge interact with a ‘new’ body and that this interaction seemed to give her joy. I was very hungry to learn at that time, I was just beginning to study dance, and found Paige to be a mine of both information and inspiration."

And Paige continued, “Later in college we both became interested in contact improv - and we would practice anywhere we could find space and relative privacy, so we found our way into the racquetball courts at the Y. We must have looked pretty funny teetering and tottering over each other, if you looked through that little window into the court. During those sessions we established a physical camaraderie and sense of trust that allowed us to be more risky with our bodies, for instance in sharing weight.

Their friendship and interest in collaborating together is etched in stone and built to last:

Paige: “My friendship with Kaia is steady, honest, fair. We have had so many long conversations...our range is so wide. It is normal that we ask a lot of questions of each other…assuming nothing, asking nearly everything. I admire Kaia as a whole person, what she thinks, says, and does is important to me.”

And Kaia holding Paige just as dear: “I feel a conversation between what Paige does and makes and what I do and make…in some ways I rely on Paige. I like that. Paige crosses the seams differently than I do and I value witnessing that. No matter what I do or where I am I’ll continue to value that.”

And Paige said more about their work together: “Today, we both have an interest in making visual art and I think, especially now that we are living in different cities, we can take the opportunity to create in other mediums. And/or…perhaps the next challenge is to correlate a way to make things together from different cities. The option is available to us now, and when we are ready.”

I’ll end with a quote from Kaia about what it is like to be “Kaia and Paige” as collaborators and friends:

            “The only thing we count on from the other in performance is that we will commit to the situation as completely as we can. When I perform alongside Paige there is a feeling of my person expanding into another person, while still feeling separation and distinction. We are acting in the same space and time, with the knowledge that we are creating something together, though we may or may not be always able to see or hear what the other is doing. I am always reminded of how much I don't know about Paige, or about what she might do. Essentially we can cover twice the amount of space together, and we have twice the amount of focus and energy together.”

Excerpt from Any Size Mirror is a Dictator at Momenta Art: 2 min. 33 sec.



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