Abby Zbikowski is a Bessie Award winner choreographer who makes work under the company name Abby Z and the New Utility along with core members Fiona and Jennifer Meckley. Her movement lexicon prioritizes pushing the body beyond its perceived limits and challenging futility with exhaustive effort. Abby’s works are feats of extreme physical and mental discipline that integrate forms from the multiple cultural value systems that have informed her aesthetic sensibilities. Abby Z and the New Utility has been presented by the Abrons Arts Center, the Gibney Dance Center, and the Movement Research at Danspace Project. For Fusebox 2018, Abby will present abandoned playground, an evening length performance lauded as “exhilarating” by the New York Times. Fusebox curators Ron Berry, Anna Gallagher-Ross and Betelhem Makonnen talked to Abby about the unanswerable questions that compel her to make the work that she makes.
Ron Berry: Could you tell us about your process, how you think about making a dance or a performance?
Abby Zbikowski: I think my work is always in process, even the finished product is process. And process is also practice in my work. It’s driven by what we can’t do or what we don’t know and are trying to figure out both on my body and on the bodies of the dancers I am working with. The why I make work … it’s always coming from the same place. It’s always the same reason, but with each piece I am getting a little closer to understanding it. If that makes sense?
RB: Yes, yes.
AZ: It comes from the same philosophical and existential questions of, “What is this?” ,“How do we understand this?”, “What else is out there?”, and “What don’t we know?” Like we have these systems, and not to say aesthetic norms, but we have these different lenses in which we can look through art and movement and dance. What happens when things fall outside of already defined systems? And in that, I am questioning what people assume about me and what kind of baggage I bring to the system. I am always working with a meta-critical narrative riding sidecar to the actual making process. I danced for a while for Charles O. Anderson, whom you are also presenting, in Philadelphia, which has a different cultural and aesthetic information than other regions. Working with Charles, doing Afro-fusion and Afro-modern, opened me up to train with some contemporary choreographers like Vincent Mantsoe. From the beginning, from when I started to understand my body, these were the forms I was being versed in. There is not a lot of shape in my work. It is very much a constant vibration, and this constant sharing of energy, of the ground, and the space. There is a throb, a distinct heartbeat in the work that I see is connecting the forms that I trained in. But again, it is going off into these other directions. I think something interesting about my work is the tension of these colliding readings on it. The work is open to a lot of interpretations on purpose, because I am interested in bridging. It is wanting to engage people. It is wanting to engage audience members to the same capacity that the dancers are dancing and communicating and telegraphing to each other. And dancing and rhythm has a lot to do with that. You know, it is the body talking.
RB: That’s awesome.
AZ: So in a rehearsal, I am operating with the same question with each piece, but coming at it from a different viewpoint, lens, or written language. In a rehearsal studio, there is something unnamed driving me that I have always struggled to put into words. abandoned playground is very precise and very intentional in what it is. The language is not just coming from me and where my body is currently, but also from the dancers that I am working with. They are so valuable to the process and total collaborators in building up the lexicon of physical material. We establish the physical vocabulary and then thread it together to construct the work. The process is never ending for the performer and the work is never done. It can always be clearer in terms of energetic qualities and intention. You are also working towards not being overwhelmed by the relentless physicality, working towards efficiency without losing power, without losing drive. And over time, it is not just the mind reminding you, but the body itself building this constructive system, this way of understanding the information. I feel like my dancers themselves are rerouting that tension, that anxiety of doing the work, their physical practice and their physical performance.
Anna Gallagher-Ross: Yes, it sounds incredible the way this deep physical engagement must have a profound effect psychologically on all of you as an ensemble.
AZ: Yeah, and I am not doing the work and I don’t think there is any way I could be in the work. There needs to be a stabilizing force and someone who is not going through it, who is rousing the troops and identifying moments that might be going off track due to emotion or anxiety. It kind of feels like a life coach, beyond just directing the physical acts, more like mind over matter. Everyone is capable of so much, it is just that we don’t have the time or space to discover what that thing is. This work took a long time to make. I have been working on it for three years.
RB: You mentioned that in some ways all your projects are kind of asking similar questions. Could you talk a little more about that or if that is even something you can fully articulate or if it is more of an intuition or a gut thing? Or is it something more specific than that?
AZ: Yes, so right now I am trying to write a description for the next work I am planning. And I noticed that in order to propose a new work, I can't help but rewrite my artist statement, because I feel like my artist statement is the proposal for the new work.
RB: That’s great.
Betelhem Makonnen: I feel you.
AZ: Because it is an evolution of understanding a little bit more about the body, about possibility, about how people are receiving the work. It is also really interesting how they are not receiving the work. Also, I can’t necessarily say that my work is going to answer these questions or say definitely there is this narrative or this is the thing that I am questioning inside the work. There is a lot of layers and stacked information, that little by little I am getting better at pulling a part and writing about clearly, but I am still trying to figure out ways of relaying the dimensionality of the work through written form. I have lived my life through dance. It is not something I can stop. It is the way I have lived my life. It is a way of life and I know all this can stop tomorrow morning. I take the things that I practiced seriously and I have so much respect for the different forms that have shaped me. And now as a teacher, as a performer and a maker, thinking about how dance has functioned for me, I think about how it can serve people, what I can do for audiences. There is something palpable about the work. It is something that people might have felt before. They might be familiar with various forms of hip hop or maybe even modern dance or something like that, but they’ve never seen all this information interfacing. I feel like the work can actually act like a bridge for people, since I am coming at it from so many different places. I think that they can understand how information exchange is constant, how it is inevitable, and also where similarities lay. I was really proud when we premiered the show this past April at the Abrons Arts Center in New York city by the range in audience members. Everybody was reading into the work from their own perspective. It met them where they were and hopefully opened them up a little.
BM: Hearing you talk, something about how you’re describing your approach to work or how the work becomes into being makes me think of creole. As I understand it, creole languages are not necessarily a mixture where all the different parts are lost but is more like different parts working together. The mixing remains alive as a process that is continually absorbing. It’s ultimately a process to communicate efficiently among speakers of different languages.
AZ: Yeah, that’s really interesting hearing your description of how creole functions. It does feel like my intention in the work. I’m fully aware of different power structures of who I am and how the work lives in this conceptual abstract place in terms of appropriation, that I’m using information from communities that have less access to presenters. I am really aware of all of this and all the possibilities of privilege that I might be experiencing and I think all I can do is talk about them in hopes of drawing attention to parallels between my work and the forms its in conversation with. Also, to show the earnestness of myself and my dancers by so rigorously embodying the work out of deep respect for its influences. And again, this one of those ongoing existential questions for me. I don’t know how not to do what I do and I can’t cut those parts of my training out of my body because that is how I organize. So I am always thinking about how I can address those concerns, as they are my concerns as well.
RB: Well It feels like you’re handling that in a really graceful, straightforward, and honest way and that it’s part of the work. But also, like you say, it’s inextricable from you. It’s part of who you are and it’s part of where your dancing training comes from and it seems impossible to cut that out. It also seems to me that you created your own form as well. I think there’s great value and meaning in doing the work that you’re doing and also being very honest and open about it.
AZ: I also feel like a consummate educator because I am a teacher at the University of Illinois, and I see all kinds of questions. I teach contemporary, composition, and hip-hop too. There is an interesting conversations between my contemporary class and my hip hop class. Things don’t compartmentalize but rather definitely diffuse and transform into this other thing really easily.
RB: I love this and also the sense that there is a part of the work that is related to effort that is related to potential and possibility with the body. The body is the sort of vehicle for that or a container for it. This is an exciting way to think about '’liveness," and a question that I come back to over and over again, “why am I working in a live medium and what are the possibilities of that?” I feel your work really gets to the heart of that. It is decidedly live and taps into what is possible in a live situation, the possibility of failure within that and of the stress, but also of real communication between the people on stage and the audience. All these things are kind of beautiful and thrilling and feel really central to your work.
AZ: I do draw upon these sort of live performance experiences that were so exhilarating and I want my work to always feel like edge of your seat, what’s happening next, take me on a ride kind of thing. Relating it to sports like boxing or wrestling or track or basketball. We actually train a lot with basketballs to just bring new things into the space and get some of the shapes out of the body and find release, propulsion, and rhythm. There’s a real rhythm with a basketball. I also try to conjure the music concerts I’ve experienced that just blew my mind. The drama of something that isn’t necessarily theatricalized, but the focused energy of people committed to connecting to instruments and equipment in order to bring an abstract form into existence is very theatrical.
AGR: And I love this approach, connecting the experience to sports or to a great rock concert. There’s something in this thinking that seems to create new spectators as well as a new kind of choreography. It causes people to be invested and to experience it and see it in a new way, which I really love.
AZ: Oh good. It was for so long that I didn’t understand dance. And I think that again that the work is about all these questions of trying to understand this thing and its potential to communicate and to bring people together. Because people are attracted to things and they don’t know why just yet. People are driven towards things without an immediate understanding of what is speaking to them. And I am one of those people, but I am also someone who wants to grapple with the unknown and am constantly engaging in the process of trying to decode or unpack all those things that are inside of what’s stuck to me.
Photo Credit: Effy Falck