My name is Noemie LaFrance and right now I’m a site-specific chorographer. I am the founder and artistic director of Sens -- it’s a non-profit arts organization that stages the public space through site-specific dance performance.
I’m 31. I’ve been living in Williamsburg for 10 years. I love this city and am always happy to return when I go away. Maybe because my adult life was born here. I’m from Canada. I grew up in the country between Montreal and Ottawa.
How did you become interested in site-specific choreography and what you term in your Sens mission statement as “spatial” participation?
Ever since I started dancing, I’ve been interested in site-specific choreography. And I’ve always asked myself why is it that I have to sit in the dark to watch this exciting juicy amazing luscious dance that makes me want to jump off my seat. And I also was exposed to it in my training very early on. I am attracted to visuals that are 3 dimensional, inclusive of the environment that I am in, and real. In the sense that those spaces have a life of their own and have a story of all the people that visited them and interacted with them. I started envisioning people moving in the environment like in a film where you as the audience are inside that film.
What exactly is "spatial participation?"
Spatial participation is the possibility for the audience to affect and be affected by the performance because of their actual physical presence.
How do they affect the performance?
I’m thinking about this experience we had in the cemetery at the Neuberger Museum where I was commissioned to do a piece by the museum there with the MFA students at Purchase.
I asked the dancers if they would stand naked for 5 minutes inside this enclosed cemetery in front of an audience. And look at the audience members one by one in the eyes gently and generously and be with them.
And it was the most amazing experience – very real and profound for me - because I really felt that I had accomplished something that I had never accomplished before and it was a like a feeling of total surrender and unity between the audience and the performers. Like a collective meditation. Not one person in the audience moved.
Did you receive any feedback from the audience?
Yes I did, we talked afterwards. And members of the audience were very delicate about their questions in a sign of respect for the experience. And they questioned what was the meaning. And I explained that there is something different that becomes possible when people are in the presence of people that is not possible when they are not. And that is why there is a power in gathering with people physically. Because at that moment you become engaged in the possibility for something to happen between you and them. And that is the power of performance.
And symbolically there was also that layer of being in a cemetery around people who are not alive, a moving one because we were all returning to the simplicity of our own bodies as a sign of life. Not as a space for judgments or aesthetic value, but more as an energetic space inside the question of who is seeing and who is being seen.
Tell us about your creative process.
I am in the process of transforming my creative process. I have become interested in investigating authenticity more seriously as a choreographer.
I have been in many situations where the content and the production elements of my work are so dependent upon each other that they are inseparable. They bleed into each other in the process of making the piece.
Do you ever find the production element a bit of a distraction?
Yes and no. Yes, because it requires a lot of problem solving and attention and time. And, no, because it’s also stimulating and part of the cause of new ideas.
But now I am becoming more curious about the content itself and about the things that it still hides or still holds. When you gain access to what’s really you and open the channels so that you can share that with others, you deliver a voice that would not otherwise exist in the universe since we are all unique beings. I am reaching out to myself and becoming open and vulnerable to things that I have in the past been more afraid to do.
Such as exploring the movement of my own body and demanding from my dancers that they become available to their own vulnerabilities and to a process that will require them to deal with lots of unknowns, which may include my own unknowns, meaning I sometimes don’t have a clue what I am doing. And that’s what I tell them all the time.
So, then does that make you a method choreographer and your dancers method dancers?
Here’s my method. I am interested in the narrative of dance and it’s not about looking for your past experience in order to connect to a real emotion. It’s more about questioning what you are doing, more as an action. Because it is with the body that we are working. And telling a story with your body is much more abstract than with words. Our bodies tell different kinds of stories.
Like for example, if I try to catch the pencil from your hand and you try to prevent me from catching the pencil in your hand, my whole body is engaged in the story of trying to catch your pencil. And we are engaged in that dialogue.
Now, if I remove the pencil from the game and I still continue to try to catch the non-existent pencil from your hand, I can still be engaged in that narrative of trying to catch something from your hand. And I would say that I am moving with purpose as opposed to just dancing “beautifully”.
Which raises another question. What is beautiful in dance? Which always returns you back to yourself. To your own aesthetic values, which you can’t be the judge of. So what are you going to do about that? How are you going to stop your internal dialogue? I would like to move with purpose.
And it is from that place that I am now approaching my work. I have come to the conclusion that I might be working on something that might resemble an eco-system.
Okay, Noemie, you’re going to have to explain that one. An eco-system?
For Agora, the piece that I currently working on -- Agora is inspired by Agoraphobia which is the fear of entering large public spaces, fear of the crowd, fear of leaving home -- I have started investigating the idea of anarchic unison.
And by anarchic I mean a way of challenging traditional unison in dance, which is usually primarily based on shapes and rhythm. I’m looking for a unison that’s caused through energy, dynamics, direction and... I want to say sensation, but it’s more like imagery.
You can think of it as a society. We have communities inside of which we have families inside of which we have couples inside of which we have individuals inside of which we have an individual’s own divisions. So basically you would be looking at all of these levels simultaneously and separately in space. And you can see them interact in unison at the large level while not in unison on other levels. Like a symphony that if you really listen to you can hear all together or each instrument individually.
For example I imagine a group of 30 dancers moving with the same dynamics, but with different shapes. But it gets more complicated. I am also thinking about the possibilities of an infinite multiplicity of events occurring in the same instant and clusters of people moving through space simultaneously crossing, overlapping, and merging narratives. To a point where you could not calculate or plan or create all the parts that make it.
But you also would not want to leave it up to chance completely. Merce Cunningham investigated chance and randomness in depth and played the odds. I would like to include odds and destiny or fate maybe 50-50, who knows? so that that there is a rule or a system or a reason for certain collisions and encounters and patterns that makes grace possible.
In Agora there are too many things all happening at once that it is impossible to completely choreograph it all. And that is where we come back to the idea of an eco-system. There are rules and systems. There’s a logic. It’s like an equation that just works on its own. Or life in its totality, that feeds off of itself and regenerates continuously. That’s what I am looking into. It’s a question, though, something I’m investigating and I’m not sure if it will all work according to plan.
After you won two Bessie Awards for Descent in 2003, and Dance Magazine named you a "site specific wizard" and one of 25 to watch in 2004, did you find any doors opened to you that had been previously closed?
Of course. It all goes hand in hand. You progress in what you’re doing and more and more people know about your work. And, of course the notoriety and acknowledgement from the press is great in the eyes of people.
I believe our grassroots strength also lays in our audiences’ commitment and passion and appreciation for what we are trying to do.
You've put on performances in a 12-foot stairwell (Descent) and in a municipal parking garage (Noir) and in underground tunnels The Invisible Sins of Fort Adams) amongst other locales. How do you convince people and organizations to let you appropriate their spaces?
I use everything I’ve got. And I ask them yes or yes?
Any particular spaces you are dying to perform in?
The McCarren Pool. Actually that’s where we are proactively preparing to stage Agora, which is an extremely challenging project both artistically and logistically. And also financially.
The space is run by the Parks Department and it’s been abandoned for 20 years. It’s in a derelict but still beautiful state. It’s also gigantic, 50,000 sq. ft., three times the size of an Olympic Pool, which makes for a great space to perform in, but a lot of space to consider doing anything in.
But I am extremely well surrounded with some of the best designers, tech crew and an amazing Producer, Michele Thurz. My composer is Doug Anderson. My costume designer Karen Young. Kathy Kaufman is the lighting designer and Jeremy Lydic is the set designer. The dancers are extraordinary -- Lily Baldwin, Ted Johnson, Elise Knudson, Rebecca Mehan, Will Rawls, Tori Sparks, Nicole Wolcott -- and they are very generous to me.
Tonight, Noemie and her dancers can be seen at the New Dance Space Center Studio performing Bits and Pieces (of my planned Eco-system) at 8pm. Located at 280 Broadway.
Interview by Raphie Frank