The Force of Curiosity

Writer Irene Borger interviews choreographer Joanna Haigood

In each issue of the Reader we intend to include at least one piece in the voice of an artist. Here we've chosen to reprint writer Irene Borger's interview with choreographer Joanna Haigood, from Force of Curiosity, Borger's interviews with past recipients of the CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts. It is published here with Borger's permission.

Haigood is a leading practitioner of aerial dance. (Those who attended the 1999 GIA conference in San Francisco may have seen Jo Kreiter's lyrical performance at the host event. Kreiter danced with Haigood's company, ZACCHO, for years and considers Haigood to be her mentor.)

We selected this interview not only because of the clear rapport between Borger and Haigood, but because Haigood's story illuminates the many forms of support that make a leading artist's life and work possible. Her performances spring not only from her incredible talent but from a constellation of grants, fellowships, friendships, collaborators, residencies, and curators who believe in her. While Haigood clearly benefitted from her MacArthur Fellowship and Alpert Award, many other significant kinds of support are credited in this conversation — a residency and commission from Jacob's Pillow, curators like Sam Miller, collaborators such as Linda Tillery and Diane Farlatte, research opportunities, and presenters. Her story points to the variety of ways grantmakers can contribute to the nurturing of artists.

Joanna Haigood
Interview by Irene Borger

May 31, 1998

Site-specific choreographer Joanna Haigood lives in the outer reaches of Marin County surrounded by wildlife. Her garden, a study in paths, is filled with fragrant trees, chickens, and squirrels. We sat on the floor drinking tea and began by talking about Haigood's project, Invisible Wings, scheduled to premiere at Jacob's Pillow in August 1998. We looped back to the project a number of times, interrupted only by rooster cries.

In 1992-93, I was creating a piece for the Pillow based on the life cycle of butterflies as a metaphor for human growth and transformation. During one of my site visits, Sam Miller, the director at the time, spoke to me about how important it was for the Pillow to establish long-term relationships with artists and that he'd like to do that with me. I kept scratching my head and wondering, “what else would I do here? As a site artist, had I not exhausted my possibilities with this present piece? What do I know about this place?” A few evenings later, I went to make a phone call on campus. After I had been on the phone for about forty minutes, all the lights went out. It was close to a new moon and there was a looming blackness in the woods. No one was around. My cabin was a good distance away and a little wave of terror went through me. But suddenly I was overcome by a rather peaceful feeling and I remember saying to myself, “you don't have to worry here, ever, this is a sanctuary.” I wondered what that meant. I then became totally relaxed and let all the remarkable energy that's there enter me and I wandered around in the woods, happily, for an hour. Completely invigorated, I got back to my cabin where I started reviewing some promotional materials that I'd asked for about the Pillow. In one piece, down towards the end, one line stated that Jacob's Pillow had once been a station on the Underground Railroad. The sky opened. I realized then and there that the piece I was creating about butterflies and transformation was really a preparation for the work I was intended to do there, Invisible Wings.

I began to understand why Jacob's Pillow touches people in this extraordinary way. It was, in fact, a sanctuary. The Carter family (the family who homesteaded the property) were farmers who were also community activists and very spiritually minded people — they took great risks to help others toward freedom. There is the farming itself, the nourishing and the regeneration, from seed to plant to food. And then Ted Shawn arrived to celebrate life through dance. I believe that this history is lodged there in the land and in the architecture. These memories are still resonant.

I'm interested in how you develop your movement vocabularies. When you do your research, let's say in In Steel's Shadow and Invisible Wings, how does movement start to arise for you?

Well, In Steel's Shadow had a very clear vocabulary. It was derived from work done in a canning factory, the physical actions used in operating certain machinery and the assemblage of parts. Its parameters, in terms of movement exploration and development, were defined by safety.

Were you drawing on what Walter [Lister, a machinist who had worked at the site] described to you or were you inventing or imaging movement?

It was a combination. Walter had an incredible collection of photographs that we would review while walking through the building [the present-day Theater Artaud, where the machine shop used to be]. He would describe what each machine did and who operated it. I also referred to pre-WW II posters that promoted the worker and glorified their role in the community. Some of the movement came from simply carrying out tasks, like bringing the crane hook in. Often I would just ride the hook and observe the inherent movement patterns.

In the new piece, Invisible Wings, there's some of that also. I'm working with certain objects that will determine vocabulary, like ladders and various architectural structures, but a lot of the material comes directly from cultural practices of the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands, where slave culture is still evident to a certain extent. I'm drawing directly from those resources. Music. Dances. And stories. For instance, there are many folk tales about slaves transcending their dark conditions by flying away. Some people say they are metaphors for how people spiritually and psychologically transcended their situation; other people believe they are absolute fact, that people literally flew away from the fields. A recent theory proposes that [these accounts] were metaphors for suicides among Africans trying to make their way back to the homeland. The last part of the piece focuses on these stories.

I'm thinking of the spiritual, “I'll fly away.”

Yes, this song is featured. And I am moved to tears every time I hear it sung.

Could you talk about the way you work with a collective of people gathering tools?

I mostly work with a team of collaborators on projects, people who offer expertise and talents in specific areas that help bring the vision of the project to life. I could, by no means, create these projects by myself. I feel that my role is to define the vision as clearly as I can, to organize the vision and to keep the vision intact during the process. But many of the artists and community invest their own talents which inevitably influence the shape and dynamic of the project. I do, however, insist on a certain aesthetic. I'm a great believer that the place itself is the strongest element and that it is important not to add any unnecessary scenic or movement vocabulary.

At what point was it clear that you were going to use language and story in this piece?

The practice of storytelling was carried over from Africa and was evident in slave culture from the very beginning. It was an important tool for teaching life lessons, for passing on information, particularly since literacy among slaves was forbidden by law. As for the stories in this piece, I didn't really decide to include them. They were supposed to be there.

When you were doing research, how did you begin to imagine the piece?

I am just beginning to work on the performance elements — almost three years later! I have collected so much information that it's been very difficult to figure out what is important to include. During my initial site visits to the Pillow I kept a diary of who I met, what we did, what I learned. I did a genealogical study of the Carter family — something I'd never done and an enormous task in and of itself. I catalogued a lot of information and began to create a resource library of books and films. I took pictures of gravestones, and chimneys with odd spaces. Then I went on a couple of research trips to the South and to the Library of Congress and the Schomberg. I realized quite early that I couldn't create a piece about the history of the Underground Railroad without studying the history of slavery in this country, its conditions and repercussions — the Middle Passage...the list grows daily. Needless to say, I'm overwhelmed by the task of creating something that reflects all the layers of this extraordinary story. I can imagine taking ten years to develop this piece.

It's been an amazing process that's had a profound effect on me. I've started, for the first time, to understand certain personal behavioral patterns and those of my family that relate directly to this history. For many people in this country, this memory has been cut off on a conscious level, and for many reasons. Nonetheless, it's living and breathing through our behavior, our attitudes and it has had, undeniably, a damaging effect on our society. I know that this country is ready for a change, but it is very difficult to make change without understanding the source of the problem.

It sounds like something happens simultaneously during your re-investigation and re-animation of a site; there's a psychological transformation as well.

Most definitely. It's something that will last forever. It's changed my life. In some ways it's given me back a part of myself.

Has the Red Hook project had repercussions as well?

I've been commissioned by Dancing in the Streets to make a piece for Red Hook next year. It's on the Brooklyn waterfront and is a very beautiful place in terms of its position in the landscape. It lies directly between the Verrazano bridge and the Statue of Liberty — with lovely unobstructed views and beautiful waterfowl reclaiming their original habitats. Red Hook used to be a very active port until the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was built, which basically cut it off from the rest of the borough. As ground transportation became more standard, the port died, jobs vanished, and the community started economically, physically, and socially collapsing. Sometime during the '60s a large low-income housing project was established. Between 15,000-18,000 people now live there, predominantly African-American. There are very few amenities in Red Hook. Residents have to go out of the neighborhood to take care of most of their needs and the community has had to fight hard battles to keep toxic dumping out of their backyards, often unsuccessfully. Red Hook is famed for its violence and drug trafficking — and to me, it is no wonder. Red Hook is a forgotten neighborhood, an area that had been ignored because no one wants to go through the trouble to address the problems.

What is the effect of bringing the histories to the surface, what are the politics of it? I mean the metaphysical politics for you?

Studying what happened here in this country [during slavery] made me aware that a devastating blow to our society has been glossed over. What's going on in Red Hook feels like part of the consequence. After my initial visits to Red Hook I noticed an increasing sadness and anger in my attitude toward our social system — I found it difficult to accept the inequity, the negligence, the total disregard of responsibility. I felt very drained after my visits — disillusioned. I was really reluctant at first to take this project on. Maybe frightened is a better word. I didn't think that I was strong enough emotionally to engage in such a complicated project, at least at a level that would be meaningful and lasting. This is not like dealing with history once or twice removed. We can't close it in a book. This is a present-day crisis — it's a crisis that affects all of us, whether we want it to or not, because it reaches across community lines.

Anyway, after going around and around about it, I decided that it was important for me to take it on — I needed to follow through with the work that I had started with Invisible Wings — bring it home to the present. I started interviewing people in the community, all kinds of people — the local priest, the project's organizers, teachers in the schools, the kids, the man who's developing the waterfront. People were very clear about what they didn't want portrayed by an artist — especially an outsider like myself. They all told me that they didn't want anyone “coming in here and raggin' on the community,” that they knew what problems they had. They said that no one ever focuses on the people who are trying to make Red Hook a better place, they never focus on the things that can help make it better. Then they started telling me their dreams, their visions, and I realized that that was what I wanted to begin collecting, this would be the basis of my work there.

I searched for a site for this piece and was eventually shown a grain terminal by the water. I thought that it would be great to project the community's dreams on this giant structure. It was both a symbol of the industry that is now gone and a powerful metaphor for nourishment and growth. I think this is an interesting and appropriate contrast given the context.

What do you see as your responsibilities in being a site artist?

I feel that my mission as a site artist is to bring light to places and situations that have been ignored or overlooked. I'm trying to give people a fresh look at a place, to allow them to sharpen their perceptions. With regard to Red Hook, I am hoping to give a voice to the more posi-tive side of this community and to perhaps create a bridge between its various factions. My struggle, of course, lies in the fact that I am not a sociologist. I'm not a psychologist. I'm an artist and much of what I do involves learning along the way. I don't come with a giant trunk of answers. I think in a situation like this one it's important not to be overwhelmed by fears but to be as honest and as clear as I can with the people and the lives I'm trying to interpret.

What part does beauty play in all this?

Oh, I love beauty. In Invisible Wings, there's one part of the show where, you know the song “Run, Mary, Run”? Well, I play Mary. A cart and horse come in and suddenly a trap door opens and a flood of people come out. I'm the last one, Mary, and Mary's running and running and finally the choir rises, they're going up the ladders — and then everything evaporates. Someone said, “Joanna, that is just so beautiful, you can't do it. It's too over-the-top beautiful.” I thought, “oh, goodness, what a thing to shy away from.”

When I was looking at the solo pieces, I thought how interesting your use of the aerial is, it felt like ascension. Could you talk about the metaphors of the way you use space?

Dance when I was growing up was pretty much confined to a flat, two-dimensional plane called a stage. When I began elevating movement and images and incorporating a larger area of the site, their impact became significantly more dramatic. Lateral, diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines in space were now available in highlighting physical structures and shaping an experience of a place. The relationship between time and space became tangible.

I tend to layer the environment with many different events simultaneously so that the audience's involvement in a performance is an active one — they are constantly locating or relocating images that have developed over extended periods. The result is that everyone has a different experience — very similar to life, where our perspectives are personal.

I'm interested in what role location or physical context plays in defining meaning. Placing imagery in unfamiliar situations tends to disorient people, like putting a dining-room table on the ceiling. They're often taken off guard and pulled into a fantasy or dream state. Images of flying or suspension usually have a visceral effect on people.

We talked about memory re-invigorating places and making people more aware of them. I'm wondering what are the other things you want for an audience?

I really want the audience to get lost in the moment — to truly see things through a different lens and to experience a place with more acute awareness.

I'd like to go back to something. I think for numerous artists of color, particularly African-American artists, there's a pressure to do work that's identified with community. And certainly many people don't. Your movement vocabulary isn't what I'd think of as African-based, or even visibly from the Diaspora. It sounds like there's some kind of shift for you happening now with the new body of work.

I'm always shifting. Right now I'm focusing on something that's clearly related to the African-American community. The majority of my resources are being pulled from African-American traditions and culture. But I'm not sure what I'm going to be doing in five years. I'm interested in how my work can touch my life in a personal way, like Invisible Wings has, but I also have a ferocious curiosity about life in general. I think that's why I like flying. I don't like being confined. I don't like to be limited to any one method or focus.

When you moved to California, were you making site-specific work?

No. I moved here when I was very young and fresh out of college. I'd made pieces out-of-doors and loved working in different places, but I hadn't developed any theories about it.

What was going on in the performance community and the visual art community that led people doing site-specific work? What was in the air?

I think in my case, and with other site artists I know, there was a great need to break out of old structures and to find new ways to look at space and content. There was also a need to reach larger audiences, different audiences because the dialogue was getting stale. Galleries and theaters were becoming more elite environments — and more and more expensive, which discouraged the average person from going to shows.

Doing site work allowed the artist to come out of the studio and engage the community in the process of art-making. It provided a chance to make art that interfaced directly with “ordinary” life. There was a sense of adventure.

It sounds like going to London was a turning point in your artistic history.

It was seeing the Wallendas that did it for me. They were so graceful — they were dancing in the air. They were dancing. When I saw the Wallendas I knew I'd found my calling. I'd always loved climbing, flying on swings, and being high in the air. Choreographically, it made sense to me to take dance to another level — to create choreography in three dimensions.

I had to learn how to use my body weight and how to balance in a completely different way. Dancing on a 125 foot beam requires a “deep balance,” something like “deep listening,” where every part of you, every cell within you, comes to rest on one point. Errors, as I'm sure you can imagine, are potentially disastrous. It is the deepest concentration I know. This is what I love about this work, that there is really nothing more important than right now, this absolute moment. This is the balance we try to attain in meditation practice. But with the Buddha we sit to reach this balance — in dance it is more of an active place. We take this balance and move it through time and space.

Let's talk about narrative and character.

I've never been one to make dances with “linear” narratives. They have beginnings, middles, and ends, but I tend to work more with impressions. I try to include material that is essential to the situation, something that will evoke a larger picture but not necessarily draw it out.

Intuition is the base of all my investigations. As I get older, I've grown to appreciate the value of it. I never feel like I'm inventing these dances. I'm discovering them. I believe that they are already there and it's my job to translate them into a new language.

How do you choose your sites, or how do they choose you?

They pretty much choose me. Up until recently, dance presenters have not been interested in this type of investigation. The process can take up to three years, it relies on an active participation on the presenter's part, it is ex-tremely labor-intensive, and it is often impossible to ticket the event. Challenging, eh? But all in all, it is worth it.

It's like Japanese companies understanding the need for research and development time.

Yes. I think because I've been working in this way for so long, presenters have resigned themselves to the fact that this is the investment they have to make. Elise [Bernhardt, former executive director of Dancing in the Streets, now director of the Kitchen] has helped bridge this gap. Her success as a producer of site work has helped others see its value in the community and in developing the field of dance.

I'm thinking of your solo work and how, in your evening of pieces, you created tiny short stories. Suddenly you would change clothes and put on heels and there would be this whole other woman and story and mood. What's interesting to me is the number of images that kept coming through in the gestures and how culturally embedded they were. The work I'd seen of yours before was completely movement-based. How does narrative begin to enter your work?

Well, first I think it is important to make the distinction between narrative and character. Narrative describes a story, a history of some sort, and character describes a quality or features of a person, object, or place. In my solo show I was interested in exploring character in greater depth, specifically of women, something I don't do that often when creating larger work — I concentrate much more on developing the character of the place. I was able to revisit the characters I'd created many years ago in this show, and bringing them back to the stage was like putting on a beautiful old dress. They were now well-worn and reshaped by experience and they were more a part of me because I had lived these characters more fully, particularly the Billie Holiday piece — I'd lived “love as a barren land” many times. I enjoyed doing this work very much. As a soloist, even in other choreographers' work, developing character roles was always an area that greatly interested me.

I wouldn't have known that from looking at the bees piece (The keeping of bees is like the directing of sunshine) or at In Steel's Shadow.

It's just the appropriateness of the situation or where or why the work is being presented. The evening of solo works was presented in a theater setting. It made sense to use traditional dance vocabulary and compositional structures. I actually danced! I got to put my ballet training to good use!

I looked at that and thought, “ah, so she's studied ballet.”

[laughs.] Who'd have known it from watching me hang off a clock tower.

Is there something else we haven't talked about that you've been thinking about, curious about, worried about...

There are so many things I'd like to do. Have a family, spend more time in the garden [pause], raise my chickens.

Do you have eggs?

Shall we pack up a few for you? We'll just put them in some Tupperware.... I feel so lucky. I'm the luckiest girl in the world because I'm allowed to be as crazy as I need to be. But I guess I also work very hard — and it pays off to stay focused. For anything to be realized, you have to spend a tremendous amount of time on process and faithfully commit to it. It takes so much time to accumulate the knowledge to create the tools, and then even more time to learn how to handle them. After twenty years of work, I still feel like I'm at the beginning. This is exciting because it's the inquiry that makes life a fascinating journey.