INTERVIEW: Choreographers Magdalena Jarkowiec and Abby Zbikowski
Of all the ways we can create new territory for ourselves as dance-makers (costuming, lighting, venue, subject matter, dancers) producing movement that is really novel to ourselves and our audiences is the most time consuming and challenging. Abby Zbikowski’s abandoned playground (which I had the pleasure of seeing during Fusebox 2018) did that. As a choreographer myself I could tell that some truly strange labor had gone into that achievement. I left feeling really curious about that labor and Abby was gracious enough to let me in on it. The conversation below was conducted via phone and email and has been condensed and edited. – Magdalena Jarkowiec
Magdalena Jarkowiec: I’m so excited that you want to talk because I saw abandoned playground at Fusebox and I had all these questions about it. The thing that struck me the most about it was that it just seemed to be so ITSELF. I saw all the things that were in there that we’re not used to seeing, like the sports arena feel and the basketball-ish costumes, but it didn’t feel about those things to me. I was curious if those athletic-world elements were there just because they’re part of your aesthetic language and your sensibility or if it was a little more deliberate and explicit, like you were really trying to put those elements in a space that we don’t usually experience them in.
Abby Zbikowski: I think that I experience the world so much differently than other people because of the dance that I’ve been exposed to. It’s not so foreign to me to have that kind of athletic aesthetic inside of it. But deep down, yeah, I think I intentionally did it because I want people to see that dance is a vehicle that all these things can live inside. I think that sports and dance, in all of their different incarnations, are just different delivery systems for a lot of the same things and that’s what you were able to see.
MJ: Yeah, the work had this really natural singularity. It didn’t seem to be saying, “I am this or I’m different in these ways.”
AZ: I see so many through-lines in people playing sports and in people doing all kinds of dance practices. I like that you said “singularity” because I’m also not trying to dictate just one way for the dancers to be inside of the work. I can’t tell them how to psychologically be inside of it…it’s homegrown in that way. It’s this culmination of experiences that has brought about this kind of second skin. The dancers all have their own maze that they’re inside of and they all have their own methods for solving it.
MJ: When you speak about these through-lines in sports and dance, are you thinking of the bodily relationship of the dancer to the movement/ the athlete to their pursuit or are you also thinking about why people are compelled by the spectacle of it?
AZ: Both at the same time. I am trying to layer a lot of things and give people a lot of opportunities to get inside of the work in terms of how they wanna understand it. We don’t compartmentalize…we are ourselves. We know how to code switch when we go into certain settings but there are certain things you can't cut out of yourself that become your signature way of organizing your body in space, even in simple tasks like taking the laundry off the line as quickly as possible.
When I’m working with dancers I want to tap into what each individual body and psyche are up to even if it’s subconscious. The process for abandoned playground was just giving the dancers physical tasks to solve and then asking “OK, what do you know?” “What is that?,” “What else is that attached to?,” “What is that instinct attached to?,” “Is that something you’re born with or something that was conditioned into you?.” And then I ask myself: “Is there a through line between all the performers?”
MJ: How do you generate movement? When you say you gave the dancers “tasks,” what do you mean by that?
AZ: abandoned playground is a long piece, so movement was generated in a lot of different ways. Some of it was from me and some of it was from them. If you’re asking about something that I had them generate…we used basketballs a lot in training. Even just getting a group of ten people together who haven’t touched a basketball maybe since elementary school but are all very physical and very capable…and they just didn’t know that they would be able to throw and catch a ball. Actually some of them had some deep emotional scars from it not being easy for them as kids….
MJ: I have some emotional scars from that…
AZ: Yeah, it was about figuring out how they could organize around what they do know and harness that for something as simple as catching and throwing in a particular fashion and then finding follow through and figuring out…What’s your back doing? What’s your core doing? What’s your pelvis doing in the space?
MJ: So when you watch them do this task you’ve given them, are you watching what’s happening and seeing if there is movement that you can take from that or are you rather asking them to investigate what their bodies are doing when they’re doing that specific task?
AZ: It’s both. I have a desire to make things as transparent and exposed as possible…to not hide the labor of getting from point A to point B. So inside of what they were doing I would come through and complicate it…almost asking them to do the opposite of that instinct.
MJ: At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’d love to hear about a specific kind of task you gave the dancers and the specific way in which you might exaggerate the demand of the task after they’ve reached a certain point with it.
AZ: There is something called the Shayla phrase because it comes out of something that the dancer Shayla did. That material came out of her basketball phrase. The original movement phrase was basically her tricking with the basketball. The question was: How is your body organizing around this basketball? The ball is in continuous conversation with gravity, and the body is adjusting to make the ball do the thing. So it started off as a stripped down pattern of around 15 counts that we then exaggerated….
MJ: So she kind of invented tricks to do with the basketball?
AZ: Yeah, it was a phrase. So I was identifying the spatial pathway of the ball…finding this focus of interest in terms of space and then from that point we just kind of increased the volume of what the body was doing…just kind of turned up the volume of how the body was approaching space and growing from there in all directions like – What if your arms move and it’s not just your hands? How is this trick extending to the center of the body… like how can you make it full-bodied from the center of the body instead of it just being the hands and arms being involved? How does that connect to what the rest of the body is doing? And then we’d add more complications. Like, OK, every time your arms go back you have to jump, and you have to throw forward and you have to land at the same time. And then we figured out a way for that coordination to happen and how to find power in that because that gave a really defined rhythm to it. And then we started to try and travel it a little more side to side. So it started from just that and once we made it bigger we were kind of able put some unexpected mechanics in it.
MJ: That’s just a really fascinating way of arriving at movement that has not been seen before. Also I think a lot of times when you’re making movement there’s an instantaneous decision about whether or not it’s good and it sounds to me like in this process you’re letting there be space to try to practice it into being good. So the first time you do these tasks it’s like a disaster but you leave time to see what it can become.
AZ: Yes. That’s why I feel like I can’t be in the work because I really have to stay grounded in letting that space happen, in my coaching and my eye and my sensibility, and then figuring out, OK at what point is this not going to work? And it’s actually pretty rare that things just have to get fully thrown away. Because there’s always something…even if a section is not verbatim in the material, the experience of having practiced it still feeds everything else. Like the failure feeds it all. The trial and error builds a kind of an arsenal of possibilities and tactics that we can try.
MJ: I think that’s a big challenge with choreography: how to get outside of your own habits and the choices you’ve made before or choices you’ve seen. So to start by establishing a relationship between not just the body and space but the body and space and an object is really cool. I really get what you mean now by “tasks.” You’re adding these layers on that totally aren’t organic. Instead of doing what the body wants to do, you put something on top of what was already there.
AZ: Yeah. And then it takes a lot of time to hold on to the integrity of the initial phrase. The dancers would always all go back and figure out, OK what was step one of this again? So that they could be sure that they had preserved the spatial integrity of it. So it didn’t just become the sensationalism of the physicality. It is such thrashing, dramatic movement that it could go really far away from what I’m interested in.
MJ: Do most of your dancers come from a similar kind of training background?
AZ: No, no [laughs]. They’re all coming from way different backgrounds. Some are coming from having a really studio jazz/competition kind of background and some are coming from a more traditional modern dance practice. One of the dancers, Fiona was a synchronized swimmer and has some modern dance but in no way is she a ballet or modern dancer. Jen comes from a background in hip hop and majored in dance in undergrad but she’s also just a very physical person. So it’s figuring out ways to invite all that information in. I think I was just going on instinct for a while, and didn’t necessarily know how it would all turn out. I just had to trust that it would get there and that the differences would be beneficial.
MJ: I could see that people were coming from a lot of different movement practices, and I was wondering how that all becomes one language. Do you spend a lot of time with folks trying to learn something that isn’t native to them or is it more like things come into the circle and get transformed by everybody’s ability to do them?
AZ: Well what I offer is always what nobody can do. It’s almost like a Merce Cunningham impossible score in a way. It’s like: yeah this is how the task is defined and we’re going to practice it into existence. And then the layers of meaning will come out through the process. The fact that the physicality is so difficult equalizes the playing field in a way. Even though people have had varying lengths of working with me, there is almost a clean slate for each piece in that nobody knows what’s gonna happen.
MJ: Part of what I thought was cool about abandoned playground was that is that managed to be engaging without pandering. I didn’t feel like there were gimmicks. In certain ways there were a lot of conventions that we are used to seeing in postmodern concert dance. There was a lot of silence, there wasn’t a story. The movement was abstract. So I wanted to know how all of those elements feel to you and whether you engaged with those things really deliberately or whether they’re also just a part of your vocabulary so of course they were there.
AZ: Even in undergrad, I didn’t make work to music because I think that my work is very musical. And that musicality comes from my first form that I ever learned: tap. Since then I’ve engaged in the practice of a lot of African diasporic forms like hip hop and house and West African dance. I studied in Senegal and have worked with a lot of contemporary choreographers from different countries in Africa. And so, not using music was natural. I don’t think, I’m not going to have music because this is post modern dance. I’ve never really felt invited into that space.
MJ: Oh yeah, of course… but it was recognizable from that context as well.
AZ: Sure yeah. And that’s the thing…how does this play across all these different cultural readings? What’s the through-line? For me it’s just kinda like acapella tap or like the dancers are playing a drum with their bodies…the percussiveness of it. Or it’s like them playing a tennis match…that kind of like full-throttle swing. With the next piece that I’m making the goal is to take it outside of theater settings. I think that the work holds up even without theatrical lighting. The spectacle of that kind of physicality draws a focus in any space…even if it’s not a space constructed for people to be watching. There is something deliberate about that but I’m not just doing it to get people’s attention. There is something needed to produce that kind of explosive physicality in terms of energy and psychological space, and that’s what I’m interested in.
MJ: I was excited to see so many audience members engrossed in abandoned playground… not just “dance people.” I talked to a lot of people afterwards and I wasn’t the only person there that was really riveted. I felt that the work was unapologetically challenging in the sense that it was just movement for an hour and so I wondered What is it? What do you think the alchemy is that makes the work so accessible?
AZ: I am interested in my work being legible and accessible to people from all areas of the dance world. I want it to be a meeting ground. But then at the end of the day I also have to push it from what I know. I think something about the work that some people are super engaged by and something that almost freaks some people out and turns them away is that it is so grueling and it is so relentless. People read a violence in that or they read something that is almost unbearable to watch and I have to separate myself from that because I know that it’s not just about a violence or aggression…it’s not that literal. It’s about all these other things that are coming out through this.
MJ: I did hear that some people did respond to the work that way…feeling that the physicality was almost too much. But as a dancer it’s impossible for me to read it that way because it seems to tap into this really driving, primary curiosity that dancers have that keeps them in dance… which is: What can we do here with our bodies?
AZ: And it’s not representative…like the work is not representative of other movement…. it IS the movement in the moment. There are definitely cultural signifiers inside the physicality and inside of my athletic choices but the work is not telling that kind of story. I mean some people just aren’t comfortable seeing people in what they might perceive as distress or pain.
MJ: There’s so much dance that we see that is at that same level of being physically grueling but it’s coupled with this practice of concealing the fact that it’s physically grueling. So that makes the observation of your work being “too much” even more interesting because that’s already there…we are seeing that all the time but it’s just not laid bare… it’s not designed to be part of the experience. Like in ballet, you know?
AZ: Exactly. It’s like…some people like heavy metal music and some people don’t…some people like hardcore punk and some people like easy listening pop music. And I kind of like it all. There is something really grounded and driving about hardcore punk. That’s another one of those sorts of energy streams that feeds the work.
MJ: When we talked about our shared Polish heritage over email you mentioned that you come from a blue-collar family of very hard workers, which is a characteristic commonly associated with Poles. Hearing you talk about your process, about making things that nobody can do and that have to be practiced into existence, I wondered if you see your way of making dances (consciously or not) as a connection to and continuation of that culture that prizes labor and persistence?
AZ: Yes, I think that my work ethic has a lot to do to with my cultural background as a Pole, and also as a Catholic — someone needing to earn their worth. My grandfather on my mom's side has always been a worker, and came out of retirement to continue working into his eighties. Manual work gave him a sense of purpose, and I fully relate. As a child he worked in a slaughterhouse in Troy NY, where he lost two fingers. He joined the Marines at fifteen. After the Marines he was an auto mechanic and owned his own shop, and eventually made his way into insurance and appraisal. He was a woodworker who made intricate cabinets, chairs, etc. selling them at craft fairs and making them for gifts. He built the house my mom was raised in and in his seventies built a two-car garage by himself. When I asked him why he worked so hard, he would say, "I just need to."