A durational movement installation by Erin Fortier & Lucy M. May

Subtle Technologies, Artscape Youngplace, Toronto, May 30, 2015
Open House, La Poêle 307, Montreal, December 18, 2015


Co-interview on process and performance, December 2015

Lucy May: What guides your choice of movements while performing Aika?

Erin Fortier: My hope is to move with as little planning as possible. One aspect I am exploring as I work through Aika is, how to observe. Working as an experimental scientist for years, I researched circadian rhythms. The experiments were a bit of an exception in basic science in that there were few interventions–I did not administer treatments to rats and observe the effects. I only observed what naturally happened as the animals cycled through their day. I was in Northern Finland for a residency at Ars Bioarctica recently, and it was during the Midnight Sun. Without the influence of visible cues about time, I found myself slowly dissociating from decisions based on the clock. I began to ‘free run’, both psychologically, and physiologically as my sleep cycle shifted later and later. I couldn’t help but view my self as my own subject, and became very interested in challenging myself to observe without effecting, even though this is probably impossible. Aika is a scenario in which I attempt to make that a reality, or at least approach the limit where my movements are naturally occurring without too much intellectualization intervening with what my body is naturally doing at that moment in time.

EF: What guides your choice of movements while performing Aika?

LM: I try to let the movements choose themselves, though I do have a basic movement language that is repetitive, gentle and parabolic. The exact gestures, postures and pauses are otherwise lured from me by the environment, in a sense. If my movements change their direction, texture, speed, or size, it’s in response to something that I’ve run into. The friction of my sneaker against the ground, an obstacle in my path or a sudden awareness of someone in my peripheral vision all might provoke changes. The movements seek both homeostasis and liveliness, are both meditative and awake.

Fatigue and curiosity both also influence me, as well as my desire to be alike or different from you and to go towards, with or away from your patterns.

My dance training, also—and my on-again off-again resistance to this dance training—plays a part in ‘choosing’ my movements. Training has moulded my aesthetic bias. Sometimes I enjoy my body’s ability to make deliberate stylistic choices, but at other times, I imagine that it impedes a more animalistic or ‘natural’ movement and I debate which state better serves the concepts we’ve developed for Aika. Even while I am perform it, I find myself questioning what’s best: a programmed self-awareness of my body or less fussed-with movement patterns?

EF: Can you describe your experience working with a performer who is not a trained dancer? How much–or how little–did my movement choices affect your experience of creating Aika?

LM: From the first day building gesture together, I wanted to be in a position of reciprocity with you and your body. This lead me to receive and replicate perhaps more than invent or contrast. Developing a common language that we could both perform with ease and pleasure felt central to the biological notion of symbiosis. I didn’t know you as a mover, and also recognized that I was entering midstream into your research project, into your dream. Since I also felt sympathetic to the limitations I imagined you might be experiencing because of your pregnancy (wrongly or rightly), during the creation I adopted your movement choices as a template. Your aesthetic and athletic language became a framework for me to work within creatively. I’ve enjoyed investigating its perimeter and reinventing from the palette you spontaneously proposed. I do sense however that this is a reciprocal process… we established fairly quickly our game of synching and phasing.

LM: While we worked and performed in spring 2015, you were pregnant with Theo. In the weeks following his birth, you described to me that some of his gestures seemed to replicate your choreography in Aika. In what ways did your pregnancy and the presence of this other body influence or respond to our research?

EF: From the time we began working, my pregnancy progressed from the imperceptible first trimester all the way up to a few weeks prior to Theo’s birth.  My body took on a completely new configuration, and the positions, torsions, gyrations, and balance that I was able to achieve changed along with that. While it was happening, I presumed these sorts of changes in physical capability to be the main influence on my movements and gestures. As my pregnancy progressed, Theo’s reactions to my body position and movements became very clear. In that sense, I gradually went from dancing as myself to dancing as 2 people.

After Theo was born, he spent his first several weeks repeating MANY of the movements that happened to recur in Aika.  It was not only surreal, but precise to the point that Stephen (Glasgow, Theo’s father, and neuroscientist) and I did some thought experiments about whether it was possible that Theo could decode my movements–to that extent–while in utero. We also discussed whether it could be possible that those movements had been coded INTO him as he developed, as a sort of neural memory or imprint…Alongside this, you (Lucy May) proposed that Theo could have been the choreographer–that he was articulating the movements and I was replicating them. This is another very tantalizing idea–especially considering that DNA and entire cells from the baby migrate into the mother’s brain during pregnancy and take up permanent residence there for life.

EF: In some iterations, the performance of Aika has no set duration. In our performance at Artscape Youngspace, Aika lasted for 3.5 hours. How did you feel about dancing for an undetermined amount of time?

LM: I think it was just 2.5 or did we really go that long?! I was excited to experiment with my attention span, my ability to relax into that (long) moment, but also happy to know that we were both on the same page as to leaving the ‘exit door’ open in case we needed to stop earlier. I remember that our stamina faded simultaneously. I think we both recognized that had we continued to push through that moment, we would certainly have been carried into another multi-hour cycle of movements. The need for water, fuel and a mental break determined how long the performance lasted in the end.

LM: Can you describe why rehearsing Aika on the upper plaza at Place-des-Arts in Montreal was so satisfying for you?

EF: I feel a strong emotional link between Aika and Northern Finland, where I was exploring Saamiland’s beautiful temporal ecology and the unique frequency scales that exist there. I had a preconception that I would never be able to capture the state of mind produced by that environment, and was playing with a lot of very obvious ways to import some sense of the subarctic into the piece.  We danced at Place-des-arts on a hot Spring day, with the sun beating onto the pavement, surrounded by vibrant green grass and the sounds of one crane or another constructing something out of steel.  My expectations were of an experience far from the sparsely populated frosted hills and mossy rock faces bathed in wind and constant daylight.  Somehow there was a lightness, an airiness, that quickly transported me to the same state of mind. The experience was so pure and calming, I was flooded with emotion at the end.  Circadian rhythms are synchronized by sunlight.  Until that experience, all of my work has been sun-centric in a way. Now I consider the qualities of air in my ideas. I revisited a conversation that I had with Saami poet and reindeer herder Oula Valkeapää, as well as a translation I am working on of land artist Leena Valkeapää’s doctoral thesis, and it is all there–the influence of wind on rhythms and time.


Aika_multiplesPhoto of Lucy M. May and Erin Fortier by Emily Gan


LM: Within twenty minutes of attempting to rehearse in the mezzanine at 5445 de Gaspé (a big industrial building with private contemporary art galleries and studio spaces) we were asked to leave. What aspects of our presence in that building do you suppose upset people? How did this contrast with our experience at Artscape Youngplace?

EF: We chose 5445 de Gaspé because we presumed that people working in art would be open to action in public space. In reality, almost all the people who encountered us were very disturbed by what we were doing.  Some reacted with hostility and were quite offended.  The movements in AIka thus far are quite languid–almost Butoh-like.  There are is also a lot of stillness.  Whenever we become distracted by something outside of our movements–a nagging thought from daily life, a concern about how good the movement looks, a negative reaction from someone in the space–we pause.  It is part of trying to observe without effecting. No one really explained why they were upset, but I have a feeling it is related to the fact that we are taking the time to do something very slowly.  And, that we are taking the time to pause and do nothing. It was somehow threatening. At some point I had paused standing, with my head tilted down toward my hand.  Someone across the hall was in the same pose, except they were holding a cell phone.  For some reason, it is a radical stance in the absence of a phone.

The comparison was quite striking with Artscape Youngplace.  The public was not primed for our presence there either. At 5445 de Gaspé, we were told ‘this is a public space, you can’t just do what you want!’ At AY, we were told ‘this is a public space, you can do what you want.’  Quite parallel. Well, antiparallel. At one point during the performance everything except my feet was inside of a wooden play structure. Some schoolchildren came inside, very close to my face, and started to giggle cheekily at the slow hand gestures I was making. It was like a grown up was doing something they could get in trouble for. The only person who expressed a positive reaction at 5445 de Gaspé was the security guard. He seemed to share that sense of delight about meditative movements appearing in a bustling hallway.

EF: Aika had no choreographic score and no dance vocabulary during the research phase. Can you describe your approach in transforming the abstract but specific biological concepts of Aika into movement?

LM: We chose several different approaches together during our creation period. We literally re-interpreted parts of the language used in your scientific writing (‘entrainment’, ‘synchronize’). The ‘entrainment’ that you describe in your research—that process by which two organisms lead and follow one another into a kind of symbiosis (my own reductive and mutating paraphrase)—was one that gave me both an image and a task to follow. The word ‘entrainment’ brought with it the movements of a train (linked cars moving through a landscape), the notion of ‘training’ (exercises), and the softer notions of two beings merging their desires, harmoniously co-existing through compromises, adaptations, befriending and yielding. We used these concepts to structure how our movements related to each other in space and over time.We also created a motif of arcs and parabolas by swinging our limbs and torsos both on the floor and in the air to reference biphasic cycles (the seasons, day/night), the horizon…

We also extrapolated upon the heightened senses that characterize the Saami herders and the reindeer by attempting to heighten our own senses through meditative states, moments of intent watching and listening, working outdoors and in public spaces and Butoh movement exercises.

EF: Several concepts from biology played a role in our research.  What were some main themes that emerged for you and how did you view these ideas in a dance context?

LM: You’d told me that the Saami use the wind to measure time in the absence of diurnal changes of light in the high arctic, and this despite their human need to sleep and wake regularly as we do during 24 hour periods. The Saami process the wind data as either “time to wait” or “time to move.” The reindeer, on the other hand, experience only the annual/seasonal fluctuation in time and do not have a daily circadian rhythm at all. Our choice to make the piece durational was inspired by this inherent discord between the two species, who nevertheless live symbiotically. Our own stamina and attention spans are set against the duration of the piece. The notion of timing also opened up our play of synching and phasing repeated gestures over long periods.

LM: Is Aika necessarily a duet? Why or why not?

EF: Aika was originally planned as an installation involving sound, light, and heat.  The hope is to express relationships among different forces and their particular frequency ranges and characteristics that make them individually voiced, while overlapping to become a cohesive whole.  At some point, we were having a beer together in Montreal, and I felt a strong wave of resonance between us.  My immediate feeling was that the ‘forces’ in Aika should be human beings, and that we could try to somehow embody these frequencies, and embody some other characteristics that I would draw on when describing circadian relationships scientifically.

I guess the answer is, I don’t know.  It could be a duet of robots, a solo for one human and a robot,  or 2 humans dancing with the wind and the sun.

EF: What differed in this process as we relocated our movements from the parks where we rehearsed to the relatively busy and congested indoor corridor at Artscape Youngplace?

LM: What differed was my perhaps my own pleasure. Working outside, the wind and the sun introduced textural qualities to the movement that we lacked indoors. Outdoors, there were endless sources of gentle things to stimulate my senses and generate movement. At Youngplace, there was a lot more noise, a sense of being a bizarre obstacle, and—especially—a lack of wind! The wind in the parks was such an inspiring third party to our duo.

Strangely, I think we were watched and not watched equally in that space as we were in the parks. People at Artscape were busily going about their activities as they were in the parks. Many city people have learned how to tune others out when they don’t wish to interact or be involved. We change our physical orientation and posture, avoid eye contact, deliberately engage in conversations with our friends or fill the void of our diverted attention with other reliably absorbing things like cellphones when we are confronted by alien things asking for attention. I notice this behaviour in myself when I am approaching a homeless person to whom I know I will not give money, when I feel ashamed by this.

LM: In a future iteration, what would you change — like to deepen — delete?

EF: I love working as simply as possible. Partly because it is so difficult to do, and partly because I am trained to do that as a scientist–reduce to reveal.  So, I am always trying to avoid adding things, and to limit to the bare essentials.  In future iterations, I will be looking to delete, in order to deepen what is kept.

The previous indoor performance at Artscape Youngplace in Toronto was very dense, visually and sonically. This was because we elected to perform in the corridors instead of a dedicated room. In the upcoming iteration that will take place at Studio La Poêle, the setting will be minimal compared to that iteration. We will be seeking ways to highlight wind, which has emerged as a prominent and spiritual influence. We will look to do this with wardrobe, and possibly through sound recording and leveraging the ambient sounds of the room.

Another change will be the duration. We were very satisfied approaching Aika as a durational piece that lasted as long as we were able to stay focused. But, it can be a challenge to watch something that appears to be very freeform for very long periods.  This was not significant for previous iterations because we chose not to have a dedicated audience. For this performance, we will stick to less than 30 minutes. We found that it took about 20 minutes or so to get into The Flow, so we will begin the performance ahead of time, so that the invité(e)s arrive once we are in our sweet spot.