“Imagine you are in a dark enclosed space. What comes to you?” asks Stefanie Nelson, the petite, pensive choreographer whose show Prolegomena II, an exploration of literal and metaphorical darkness, opens at the Joyce Soho on Thursday.
Almost two years ago, Karolien Soete ,a visual artist, and Alexander Berne, a composer, approached Nelson with a plan for an interactive installation. They wanted a choreographer to help them create a camera obscura experience. The camera obscura (translated as darkened room) is one of the experimental imaging devices that led
to the development of photography and is still used today. Through this darkened box with a small hole, images can be replicated and projected in exact detail, only upside down. For example, outside the camera obscura a person might be standing on the ground waving their hands overhead, but the projected image from the camera would be of the person hanging upside down and waving their hands beneath their feet.
Prolegomena by Stefanie Nelson: Photo Courtesy of Stefanie Nelson Dancegroup
Fascinated to play with gravity, light and perception, Nelson agreed to work on the project.
Research began. The artists asked people in their various locales (the United States, Belgium, Italy) to enter dark enclosed spaces and ponder. Nelson turned the lights off on her students in Italy (she teaches there every summer) and her dancers in New York. Soete holed herself up in an arts studio in Belgium for two months while painting images on walls. She also built a life-size camera obscura and it really worked. " We had a collective storytelling through cyberspace. We got anonymous responses to our questions on a website that Karolien set up,” Nelson recalls.
“Last year, Triskelion Arts invited me to do a show, so I approached the collaborators and asked if we could do a more traditional version of all of these ideas we had been working on, a piece based on our research over the year. Ideally we wanted to have a box on stage and get the audience to watch from inside out, and outside in -- two different orientations-- but, we couldn’t find a space that would allow us to build a life size camera obsucra and keep it up for the run of the show. We couldn’t break box down every night and rebuild for the next day. We haven’t done the installation yet.”
But Nelson and her collaborators did create Prolegomena, and this weekend New York audiences will be privy to an even deeper exploration of darkness and light through choreography, music and live painting in Prolegomena II.
“When did you start choreographing?” I asked Nelson, who laughed, admitting to not being very clear on dates.
“I danced for Anna Sokolow’s Players Project for seven or eight years, through when she died. It shaped me. Her work was brilliant, but it was so anti the way my body wants to move, and the kind of things I wanted to do. Jim May, (who worked intensively with Sokolow and now recreates her work) is brilliant. He has a great mind, is a wonderful mentor and is great at giving feed back to younger choreographers. I loved my experience with them. They taught me to be very clear and concise--to say what I had to say and make my point. But I love somatic movement and being all over the place. It is very anti their aesthetic. For the first years, as I was choreographing, I had Jim and Anna on my shoulder in a way that was restrictive. What I wanted to do was so different. I felt like I was fighting against myself all the time. You can ask when I started choreographing, and I will say a long time ago, but I really started making work I liked in 2005. I was in Italy and it freed me up.”
Prolegomena by Stefanie Nelson: Photo Courtesy of the Dancegroup
Nelson goes on further about her work in Italy, “Being in New York, you have so much expectation of yourself. Everybody in the community knows you. You can go somewhere else and be anonymous. There isn’t so much to lose. You can take more
risks. The European dance scene is more risky anyway. It is a way to find yourself.”
I ask, “It seems like when abroad, you have the space to breathe? ”
“It is always a challenge, (in New York) the pace that you have to work at,” Nelson mentions, “and the ticking clock and seeing the dollars signs go and feeling like, yeah, you want to talk for three hours but you’ve got to get something done in two hours because you rented the space for that time.”
“ (In Italy)I had space, I had collaborators, I got paid, and it was about the process. Isn’t that beautiful? I wasn’t worried about promotional anything. I wasn’t worried about fundraising.”
I spoke to Nelson as she had just completed her season at Triskelion, and was ruminating over the next phase of the Prolegomena project. “It is a good piece, and I am trying to figure out how to make it a great piece. Like Crystal Pite’s Dark Matters, that piece was a big resounding yes to me. I want my personal response to my own work to be 'YES'."
To Find Out More About Stefanie Nelson Dancegroup at The Joyce Soho
Prolegomena ll - Performance Schedule
Thu–Sat at 7:30pm; Sun at 2pm