Some time in the 1990’s, two children named Jeffrey and Renée were dancing ballet in separate productions of The Nutcracker. Jeffrey was performing in New Jersey, while Renée was performing in Florida. Years later, these two kids would grow up to be young adults and their stars would align in graduate school at San Francisco Art Institute.
When Renée Rhodes and I started our friendship, her hair was no longer than 2 inches in length. She captivated my interest with her performance-based artwork, utilizing a familiar language of dance that I always assumed was separate from the discourse of fine art. She exposed me to her interests in Yvonne Rainer, Pina Bausch, and Jonah Bokaer. Today, Renée and I jokingly prance around the city of San Francisco, hoping to one day choreograph our own piece for the world to see.
At the start of this interview with Renée for Bad at Sports, we sat down and watched a YouTube clip of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. The clip reminded me of a ballet movement called croisé.
Renée: I think I’m losing my French ballet words.
Jeff: Uh oh.
R: Have you heard of Labanotation?
J: No! What the hell is that?
R: It’s a method for movement notation created by Rudolf Laban. It’s a way of noting dance moves as a graphic score.
J: Have you used it before?
R: No, it’s very complicated. You really have to study it and be trained to properly use it. I’m more interested in the narrative and history of measuring the body in that way.
J: You’re so smart!
R: Are you mocking me?
J: No, but, before we started this interview, I thought I was going to open with, “Renée, your hair is so long”.
R: Oh God. You know what else is long? A Jacques Tati film.
J: Are they really long?
R: No, but there’s not very much dialogue, so it can feel really long, and kind of like a dance. I like how he creates an alternative language out of gestures.
J: Have you taken a ballet class lately?
R: Nope, sure haven’t.
J: But ballet has been a huge part of your artistic practice, or at least, an influence, right?
R: Is this is a prompt?
R: I was taking ballet classes mostly throughout childhood and high school life, and later started using that as creative material. And back to Labanotation, the reason I brought that up was because ballet is another way of measuring how the body moves. Ballet is a sort of geometry when you strip it of its fairytale narrative. It’s about making shapes and forms in this sort of perfection. So I guess I’m not really interested in perfecting my ability to make those shapes, but I’m interested in that sort of quest and narrative. It’s very human to want to achieve formal perfection, and I see that in ballet and that’s interesting, and it’s something I’m critical of, too.
J: I see formal perfection in an Abercrombie & Fitch ad.
R: Damn! Anyway, I think that the idea of making forms and shapes with your body is a way of measuring your own body’s physical terrain. But it’s also a way of measuring the space around your body, or the space that your body is in. It’s a very abstract language, but I see it as a sort of cartography, which is itself an abstract representation of space.
J: Do you mean like Google Maps? Is that a stupid question?
R: No! Yes! I love Google Maps because they make me totally confused!
J: How are Google Maps and ballet related?
R: They both operate on a fixed number of axis points in their movement. They’re both very frontal. It’s more about the grid — working on a grid system, and fixity that appears to be fluid. With projects that I’m working on now, that ballet influence is there in a critical way. I’m more interested in rolling around on the floor.
J: Isn’t that how we met in grad school? We rolled into each other on the floor?
R: Yeah — fun icebreakers.
J: So what project are you working on now?
R: It’s called Navigating In a Whiteout. There’s a lot of rolling on the floor.
J: I’ve never seen a ballerina roll on the floor.
R: (in theatrical voice) “It’s Modern Art, Jeffrey!” Joking aside, it’s a more contemporary form of movement that starts with one simple movement phrase that is permutated along different axis points of the body. It moves from the variation of the movement that’s just in the hands, to the version of the movement that happens through floor work, and then a version of the movement that’s for a body standing.
J: How did you arrive at this type of choreography? Can I call it choreography?
R: Sure, you can. I started the project by imagining myself as an explorer of Bouvet Island via Google Earth. Bouvet Island is tiny and is the most remote island in the world. It’s a place I’d never likely get to in any other way, but I spend a lot of time there! I feel really familiar with the terrain and the topography on the island as if I have a memory of it. That memory is now very visual and cerebral, and I am trying to figure out what my sense and physical memories are of that place. The movement is a narrative about translating mediated landscape — about wandering through that terrain and transposing that topography onto my own body.
J: Whoa, so you’re like explorer and terrain all at once?
R: I think so! When you navigate through a place, that terrain maps itself into your memory and onto your body.
J: How will this project manifest?
R: As a manifesto.
J: Are you serious?
R: No, but thanks for asking. It’s actually a performance for three dancers with four different movement sections, sound, and video. It’s being presented during Scrawl at the Center for Drawing, which has a new monthly performance series created by Mimi Moncier. Mimi’s idea is to present movement and performance-based works that loosely explore the idea of drawing.
J: Are you one of the three dancers?
R: Yes I am.
J: Can you share how you choreograph your work with the dancers?
R: I made all the choreography on my own, before meeting with them. So that’s a lot of time alone in the studio, jumping around, rolling on the floor, and looking for movements that are compelling to me. I’m also spending time with source material, which is the Google Earth footage through Bouvet Island. I think it’s called making a tour in Google Earth. You can save your movements in Google Earth as a data file and re-watch your expedition. In terms of the dancers, I met Laurie Bramlage at a favorite dance class of ours, and Rosa Navarrete at a symposium at Z Lab UC Berkeley where I gave a presentation — or a “movement workshop,” if you want to be more specific.
J: I do not want to be more specific, thank you.
R: In this project, we had a really short amount of time to set the piece, so I wanted to make sure that I had all the movement ready. There wasn’t a lot of time to experiment and change things. It was a process of me demonstrating movement and them developing a memory of it.
J: Whoa, that was a beautiful way of explaining how any dancer probably learns how to dance.
R: (in kid voice) “I’m going to show you this move and you’re going to repeat it over and over until you remember it so we don’t have to use words anymore!”
J: What is “a short amount of time”?
R: We met four times. It really feels like the beginning stages of a project, like it’s in a sketch phase or something. This is atypical for me because I usually spend more time on things. On the other hand, I performed a solo excerpt of it last week in Portland at Worksound Gallery. It felt really good to get it out there.
J: I think that fast paced, “no-time” sense of urgency is actually quite precious, and for me, makes me work really strangely in a super productive way.
R: Yeah, I agree with that. Sometimes it’s good to have limitations so I just don’t go off on every tangent. So now I feel like I have a pretty solid framework for this project that I’d like to develop more in the future. One of the ways I want to develop it more is to collaborate with the dancers more and create a responsive movement with them. Right now, there are some moments with partnering work, and in the future, I’d like there to be more improvisational exploration of what that movement could be.
J: Renée, do you feel like you ever finish anything?
Renée Rhodes’s Navigating In a Whiteout was presented last week as a part of Scrawl at the Center for Drawing in San Francisco on February 8th. You can view her other artworks on her website: www.reneearhodes.com.