AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIETTE MAPP by Sabina Holzer
Juliette Mapp is a dancer, teacher and choreographer based in Brooklyn, New York. She has danced for many choreographers like Deborah Hay, Vicky Shick, Stefanie Skura and also John Jasperse Company, with whom she worked for nine years. Juliette received a „Bessie“ Award in 2002.
She teaches throughout the world, and in New York City she regularly appears in Movement Research, Dance New Amsterdam, Trisha Brown Studios and Hunter College. She also makes her own solo and group dances which have been presented throughout NYC. Juliette was an MR Artist in Residence (’04–’05).
Juliette taught for three weeks in fall 2007 in Tanzquartier Vienna. She gave training sessions in the morning and did personal physical coaching in the afternoon during one week.
I followed the training and also had a one-to-one treatment.
In her classes one could feel a strong classical and modern background, yet she was combining these techniques with postmodern approaches of Body Mind Centering and Skinner Release Work. There was time to talk and exchange during class, there were dance phrases and times of exploration and improvisation. Always connecting the physical work with an open and joyful mind.
I was intrigued by the deep insights and wide range of physical work. As Juliette was sometimes telling stories of her life during class, I wanted to know more about the way her teaching relates to her artistic approach, her ways of moving through the world outside the studio.
corpus: Could you talk a bit more about the tension with regard to dancing and being a dancer you mentioned before? Mapp: It is different now. I think back that my relationship of being a dancer was a struggle because I liked it so much.
Juliett Mapp: I struggled with the feeling, that it is indulgent and selfish. My mother is a political activist. She has been doing a lot of work with emigrant families, who come to the United States and have no resources. She is a real fighter, she is the spirit of change. And she is a real big personality in that way and a intellectualist. Her relation to art was pretty conflicted: especially the idea that art is out there but not really accessible for everybody. Particularly dance, she felt, was just happening in an isolated population, and it was difficult for her to really appreciate it. Me myself, I also had all these other big ideas, which were also a sincere interest of mine when I was younger, like being a woman doctor. Now I feel more linked to it by what I do in my dancing. But at that time I did not understand that there was a bridge between these concerns and dancing.
Also in the United States dance is very much on the outside. There is not any validation of it from funding sources or the cultural ministry. Here in Vienna, there are posters all over about the Tanzquartier. The environment is very nice: there is a coffee machine, there is a shower. It makes you feel that it’s important what’s going on here.
This does not really exist in the States. Where I teach, in „Movement Research“ which is a very special place with a strong history, one has to take the garbage out oneself and there is often no heating. There is no structure around to support it. You have to come up with that kind of motivation always yourself – which is not necessarily a bad thing … But it makes a difference if nothing around you is reminding you that it is important to be a part of the cultural field and making art is a valid thing. It does not really exist in the United States. So you have to come up with your own reason: whether you do it for yourself, or the community you are involved in.
Dancing and teaching
I also really enjoyed performing very much. Performing was always this other extreme transcendent experience. Even more than being a dancer, I considered myself being a performer. Recently I am not so attached to performing anymore. Maybe there were things attached to it which I needed for being a dancer. But now I feel I don’t need it anymore. So that is an interesting change.
What ended up happening is that I started to teach. I basically followed an invitation of a couple of friends and colleagues of mine.
I always felt dance was so special to me, something which I loved deeply in a very private way. The idea of talking about it seemed as if it could compromise the experience. But when I started teaching I realized, I am not going to lose dancing through teaching; I’m going to learn more.
I started to think about teaching the way I thought about dancing. Which means to feel about teaching the way I feel the presence of my physical body while moving. So that class was not only to teach a couple of movement sequences and phrases, or saying your pelvis should be like this and this. I like to be responsive to who is in the room, responsive to feel what is a necessary thing to bring in or take out. I used to have really strict structures when I started. A friend of mine said: „Just teach what you know.“ I talked to my Alexander teacher and she said to me: „Yes! And then soon you start teaching what you don’t know!“ And then I thought: „Oh that’s the ticket. That’s what I want.“ That became my inspiration until now. And I had a great possibility to investigate in my teaching during a period with a great group in this place called Movement Research.
I wanted to create an environment that was not about the hierarchy of dance class, but the possibilities of exploration. That also affected my choices about not going in one specific direction or any of the techniques or modalities which I have explored.
corpus: In your class it seems to me you bring together all these different approaches of BMC, Alexander Technique, Skinner Release and Feldenkrais. It is very clear and detailed information which you connect to the flow and momentum of dance.
Mapp: I never studied Feldenkrais. But for sure Alexander Technique, Skinner Release, Kinetic Awareness and Body Mind Centering have been really very important. Those are the big 4. Alexander I studied for 15 years. Skinner Release I studied with Joan Skinner intensively. Body Mind Centering and Kinetic Awareness I still take as dance class.
Having it all there to embed yourself dancing
It is a constant negotiation: hopefully there are not too many ideas, but enough that you can connect to one thing. But if you want you can use it all. There are different opportunities to design things. And different things work for different people in different moments. Sometimes I love imagery, because it is different for everybody, and everybody can connect with her own imagination and uniqueness. But I also like to work with the body and the bones.
corpus: Yes, in an anatomical way.
Mapp: Yes, I like to work on these different levels. I feel like, why not? We are all rich enough people. Our minds are complex enough to understand. My sacrum has this relationship to my pelvis, but also to be able to think „sponges are floating in the hip sockets“. That there are so many entry points in the body and why not using them all.
Our imagination is always there – and so is our concrete intellect able to deal with certain ideas. It it not so difficult to grab this as a dancer, to embed yourself with it, in a way that works for us. My father is a physicist and he is an incredibly curious person. He can tell you how things work. And this is also something I grew up with: Things work in particular ways. There are actual laws about physics. I like to think about dancing with that principle too. But also in a way which is imaginative to the body. How does one respond to gravity? How does opposition in the body work? Where does energy come from? All that stuff, which maybe sounds strange, but actually this is what is happening. These are the sciences of things and it is great to explore them.
Language as an invitation for the body
corpus: The way you talk through the exercises opens possibilities of perceiving the body and the body in space through language. That you say, for instance „rock over“ and not „bend over“. That you say: „witness the dance and the unfolding dance behind this dance“ and not „witness your body moving“. These ways of formulating create a certain sensitivity. If you bring this awareness also to your daily environment, then you start to see things differently.
Mapp: I try to be very conscious about the language that I am using. The specificity about it and what the invitation is from certain words. I try to be very specific when necessary and very general when necessary. I think about the possibilities what language can do, also because of my own concerns what dance does. Trying to find a language which can represent an experience what dance can be for us. Because I would love to be able to use words in a way that is extensive but also in a way that is deeply structured. As opposed to the „I’m-gonna- do-this-thing-and-you-do-it- the-way-I do-it“. There has to be another way. That is why I think language is so interesting.
corpus: How do these thoughts and approaches influence your work as a dance maker?
Mapp: Being a choreographer is more the question of what do I want to share. What do I have and want to say? And is what I want to say important? One has to be ready to expose that. I started to make my own work really tentatively. I made my first solo in 2001.
Actually a lot started with the war with Iraq. I felt I had to bring it into my dance class. It was so much present in our daily life. That became a big topic for me.
Being in New York City for 9/11 and seeing how this is politicized and turned into this reason to go to war with a country that has nothing to do with it. It seemed to be so obvious that there was all that propaganda. You think, it is so obvious. It is wrong. How can that happen? You have to deal with it.
We were poisoned by this tremendous manipulation. From the report of 9/11, from the media being dominated by right-wing cooperations and continual eroding of expression in the enquiry, how things were happening in the government. I do feel that there was a huge anti-war movement really instantly in America and across the entire world. We talk about Vietnam sometimes in the United States and that there was some much going on then. But it took so long until it got into momentum. For me it felt really important to talk about that.
I did that solo. We were at war with Iraq. We had a residency somewhere upstate New York. It was this really beautiful setting. We did research there. Every day I would go and get the New York Times. There is a box printed every day where they count the American causalities from the war. Every day you would see that number go up. While I was in this beautiful place dancing around. So at the end of this residency we did a performance. I had been making up dance material but then I decided to do an experiment. I was just going to sit and count the number of Americans that were killed. With each count I was doing a gesture. I struck down with my hand to my knee. Just sitting on a chair. At that time it was just before 1,000; now it is about 3,000. But even then it took a very long time. I started counting very quiet and it went on and the people in the audience had to sit there. And I was counting. They did not know what. With every gesture I was thinking Susi Johnson, Todd Richardson, whatever the names where which I was reading every day. When I got to 700, this woman in the audience just stood up screaming: „Stop it!“
I had performed at that point all over. We had these performances that John Jasperse and me used to do, where we performed in the audience. But this was the first time where I really felt that what this person in the audience was feeling was exactly what I was feeling. That was interesting for me. She was standing up and screaming and this is what I wanted to do every day. To stand up and scream: „I can’t take this anymore. This is crazy!“
That was a big turning point for me personally. In terms of what the possibilities of performance could be. And then I grasped the bigger picture which was the Iraqi civilians.
corpus: When the war broke out, I was working with Hooman Sharifi. He is an Iranian-European choreographer, working in Norway; an emigrant refugee from Iran who came to Norway when he was 15 years old. He is also very much connected to issues of politics and power. We did a lab together. When it was clear that the States would send the troops we really discussed if we should stop working. We had been dealing with it already in the work, we made an anti-war songs and so, but suddenly one had to think really carefully how to continue. It was a big shock.
What can you do?
Mapp: What can you do? That is a huge question. I decided to address it.
So this goes back to dance class. That I was bringing in stuff about the war, about our consciousness and talking to my students a lot about awareness. And it was interesting because everybody has a relation to it, of course. At least in the States you could not be unaffected. I think in New York most people knew that it had nothing to do with 9/11. That is was some sort of weird distortion happening in the rest of the country. I realized that because we were touring: I saw all these other people, they said „Oh my god, I can’t believe what happened to you in New York“. It was like: „Nothing happened to me. See I am fine. Something terrible happened to some other people, that did not happen to me.“ There was this sense of it all being totally over the top. It was so awful and sad.
So dance class became a way to deal with it and also to make some context. How can we have an awareness, how can we find a way of being in a non-violent way of response? How can we channel all these feeling we are having?
corpus: Would you talk with your students before class or after class or how would you adress it?
Mapp: No, during class. Generally I would start class with something about it. Not always, but if something had happened I just mentioned it when we were working on something. Whatever felt present, I would talk about that.
corpus: Did you talk about it that way: „Did you hear …“ or –?
Mapp: No, I was not trying to inform or educate people. I would just say things about how we were hearing information. How we are talking things in. How we are putting things out. How are we dancing. How are we filtering. How we are making choices, like being seen or not being seen. Being in opposition to something, being in opposition to what is happening. I tried to put it on a larger scale. For my students and for myself, too. I mean the United States has done terrible things, slavery and that kind of things. Things which have people united and formed communities. Especially in the arts. When you say: shall we continue, or shall we not continue. People have done this, they have continued especially in the Arts.
corpus: Yes, we also continued. That is what you have to do, because that is what we are doing. Mapp: And if it is what we are doing, then you do make a conscious decision.
I made this piece with 70 people of NY dance community and we all counted. We tried, we couldn’t. It was really interesting: I got this weird review from the New York Times. And it was The New York Times which did the worst report of the war leading up to Iraq. Absolutely poorest information. Total propaganda. The piece got tons and tons of great responses. It was sold out every night. So for me it was really interesting that in the New York Times even then it could not be acknowledged.
corpus: Blind spot all over.
Mapp: If I would do this piece now, it would not happen. This was three years ago and people were not so well informed.
corpus: Then this was before the 2nd election. Did the war and the political situation change the dance community in New York? – If there is still such a thing as a dance community in New York …
Mapp: Oh, there definitely is, for sure. I think there is a consciousness of the war throughout the dance community. I think everybody has grappled with it in their own ways. I had some intense conversations with all those older women choreographers who say everything has to be political now, it is not okay to just go out and make a dance.
I don’t agree with that either. I think it is also important that people make dances for dance’s sake and that people try to investigate. That this has its place, too.
I made a piece not so lang ago about the work and the writings of Agnes Marten with the music of Morton Feldman.
corpus: Oh really? I love Morton Feldman. Today in class I suddenly got this notion, this-is-Morton-Feldman- happening-to-me-again. Maybe because he talks about how one can learn from a more perceptive temperament that listens and observes the inherent mystery of the materials, as opposed to the composer’s interest in his craft.
Mapp: He is amazing. He made this piece for the Rothko Chapel. I had gone there and I got the recording there. The last piece on it is „Why patterns?“. It is just an incredible piece and it fitted just beautifully with the painter Agnes Marten. She is a minimalist, but she considered herself an abstract expressionist. She worked specifically with lines. Her paintings are amazing and her writings are amazing.
corpus: Do you think that the approach of work and the esthetics one chooses are political? Issues like: how you treat the audience? Which kind of body do you represent? What does the representation of the body mean, and in which way do you deal with it? Also in a formal way. And this reaches then to the question: what is the approach to the body, or what is the approach to the work, because it is our daily practice also.
Mapp: This is why I think dance classes are in a sense political. What kind of environment do we try to create when we work? How are we treating the body? What kind of community do we try to establish through our practice and making work? For me it is.
I am interested in a sort of democratization of dance. Which means making space for many different experiences on stage which don’t have to do with idealized shaped bodies. This stuff has been talked about a lot, but for me it is in a way an extenuation of class. Like the question how can we work together and learn from each other and share that with an audience.
But back to your question whether the dance community has changed. I think there is an awareness about the situation. And of course there are dances which I conceive as indulgent and crappy. I have been definitely one of those persons in the audience saying: Can we deal with something here? How about an awareness of the moment we are living in?
Sometimes maybe I look to dance to do too much. Maybe it is okay, if it does what it does. Maybe it does not have to do everything. For me it was important in different moments that I communicate with what is going on. Whether that is with my own experience as a dancer and a performer. Wether it is in class connecting to people, connecting to a community. That in making work really big questions are coming up and everybody surrounding the work has to deal with it.
I feel that dance is still kind of revolutionary. It is still something on the outside. When I think back to these early dance makers … Isadora Duncan – if you think women had corsets on then. If you were a dancer it was basically one step below prostitution. Doris Humphrey, Mary Wigman, Martha Graham. I never had a relation to Graham technique, but the passion about it, and even if I think about the form in itself, it is pretty rooted in the female body. Graham made all those political dances about people and workers. She really deeply invested in her time. And I like to be inspired by that. Also in the Judson era there where these woman who were turning gender roles upside down. Yvonne Rainer. We are all still in relationship to that. And we are, as you mentioned, in relation to all these other forms, and dance continues to cultivate collaboration.
Dance has so many ways to connect. It is relevant to issues of our social-political invironment, it is a delicate, silent partner, who lets things move.
The interview was held in November, 2007.