Jens Strandberg (JS): “Let’s Talk About Love”, tell me about your project.
Jessica Watson Galbraith (JWG): I did everything that I should have, at school I was really good, got really good grades and in University I did really well. Then I left and I did everything I should, I applied for money to travel to Europe, met people, did auditions and workshops but I never really felt like I got anywhere. One of the jobs I did get was to do contact improvisation on a skateboarding half-pipe in Hungary, top fun but it didn’t really lead anywhere. After that I felt like I don’t just want to do anything, I want to get a good solid job as a dancer but it never happened. Then I was thinking; I did everything I should, it is clearly not me that is the problem, it is everything else. I was kind of a bit pissed off with the whole business. Plus when I watched dance pieces I was like; what is that? I don’t like that… what is it? You know this idea of movement exploration, finding a new way to move, it just felt one could do that a million times over but in the end it is always just another way to move.
It was not until I met International Festival (Tor Lindstrand and Mårten Spångberg) who talked about: what a dance piece could do and how the methods of production determine the politics of a dance production, that I felt like… now I get it, now I know how I want to work.
I was living in London where I had a job in an office. I was having a really good time, getting well paid and going out all the time. However I still wanted to fulfil my ambition of being a dancer. I applied to do a piece in a performance festival but I had zero access to any resources. I had a revelation that there is no way to make a good dance piece; someone is always going to hate it. In London they think it is good but in Australia they think it is boring and in Europe they think it is conventional and so on. Instead I thought, I will use what I have access to and make a bad piece. TI had a motor for making a work; make a really bad piece and use all the things that I think are really bad that are a part of dance production. I decided to work with the Celine Dion, as that is by far the worst music made, and especially amongst “culture people”. It is mainstream, she sounds like a crazy woman shrieking all the time and it is all about love. When do you see dance pieces about love? Terrible idea. Because I did not have a studio or money to pay anyone, I asked all my friends to take part, who were unemployed dancers that had other jobs. Also another no-no. These conditions were important.
I was looking at the things one has to do in order to make a piece, wanting to make a “dance piece” with dancing, that would be performed on a stage. I wanted to problematise the part of the process that you don’t normally concentrate on. For example, who you work with. Normally, you work with someone because they are good but that was not important, as long as they were willing and available they were fantastic. This meant that if I was going to work with these people that were busy I had to travel to them and work with the little time they had to give. I worked with different people in the evenings over a period of two or three months in all sorts of places.
What I did was that at the end of every rehearsal I filmed a short dance we had made together in their living-room, kitchen or bedroom and dubbed a Celine Dion track over the top. We usually had dinner and hung out, talked and shared information about auditions, workshops, life in London, really very girly stuff. I really liked that. I made 50 videos and uploaded them to YouTube and my blog. The production of the piece was tailored to YouTube. The piece was not just one piece, it became 50 pieces and 50 dinners. All dances were in unison and there was nothing interesting about what we were doing, but I thought the process of making a dance piece, sitting down talking, being in all these different locations with people I didn’t know that well was great. I even held an audition were I invited everyone to my house, cooked dinner and everyone got the job. All the elements of production I was using, were really unprofessional and not really heading towards are slick dance production. In 2006 everyone was hating Youtube, it was considered really tacky. I didn’t make up the dance material myself, I just copied material from dance movies. In the end it turned out to be really great and empowering. There are a lot of different aspects to it, which I thought was really good, by deciding not to make a dance the “normal” way, and by only using what I had available it turned out to be something completely different but ironically it was also completely the same. But a much more efficient way of producing dance. Much bigger in terms of output, with a lot of videos, meetings, dinners. Not only a polished 45 minute show.
I was angry at the dance scene, how it works. Also I wanted to be really interested in what I was doing and none of the normal ways of workshopping a dance piece interested me, so I was quite happy to travel all over London and make 90 seconds of dance that was a piece on its own, a video. I never really used it again but it became this awesome weird “collection”. It was also great to really work. Not being frustrated or feeling like a failure by not dancing and at the same time sustaining my life and having money to eat. It was a funny time, I did not have Facebook. A year later I did the piece again in Berlin, I got asked to do it. In Berlin I did not know many people so I went around asking people if they wanted to be in a dance piece when I took dance classes. I did the same process again and that was great, I met a lot of people.
JS: How was the Berlin dance different? I mean, the first time you did it yourself, driven by a need, anger and lack of resources, having lots of obstacles but turning these obstacles in to advantages, this time someone asked you.
JWG: I got paid a little for doing it and I felt a little bit of a fraud. But it was a commission and it had exactly the same process so it had the benefits of working together and building new relationships as well. For me I wanted to create experiences for dancers to meet and talk to each other. Make other opportunities and different types of conversations. How can one develop other types of productions than just the production of dance whilst producing dance?
Another piece I made came from realising that at 26, I really needed to learn how to cook. So I started devising a choreography that made a dance but also enabled me to learn how to cook. At the same time I had just moved to Stockholm and I also wanted to meet people, how can I learn to cook, meet people and make a dance? Which was what I did. I went around to peoples houses with a recipe, cooked a dinner, sometimes good, sometimes bad and I asked them to make 30 seconds of dance for me that I recorded. In the end I put them all together and I made one video to music of Barbra Streisand. After that I thought: I have got a dance what can I do with this? A friend of mine was running the London Marathon, raising money to save the rhino. I made a papier-mâché rhino did the dance for people and asked them to put money in the rhino. Then gave her the rhino money. It’s hard to do a piece like that in a gallery or museum, as it is all about how you frame it. In a gallery or museum you have be a master of how you talk and write about things. For me it is more exciting to keep on rolling and examine how it is and what it is that we work with, rather than to be confirmed with trying to share it. It’s dance in disguise.
JS: I find the social side of your projects interesting. There are two things that I find very interesting with your project. One the way it literally uses the “living room” and secondly how your projects deal with ideas of connecting public with private, brilliantly showing how it is entangled. What do you see as the advantages and the problems with the work?
JWG: In Berlin, I hardly knew the people I worked with. I met one girl from Russia, a Greek dancer, a gorgeous girl from Norway; people who really wanted to work. I was this hyperactive chatty Australian who after five minutes conversation invites herself to their house to work and asks them to perform in a dance piece. No one would do that in for example banking. I know it is very odd and a bit desperate, but this is what I like with the piece “Let’s Talk About Love” as it highlight problems that otherwise are hidden. It’s generous as opposed to judgemental. Which is default mode in the usual mode of dance production.
There are not enough jobs, you don’t get a job by doing an audition. You get it by who you know or who you sleep with. This kind of hypocrisy of training to be a dancer, learning how to be a dancer and then realise that how you dance doesn’t have that much to do with it is really frustrating.
For me you don’t have to do that much work to make a dance piece, it can have more depth, or a much more political approach when made in one week than if have had six months access to a studio. I find this satisfying but also naughty and quite like: fuck you! Then at the same time disappointing, as you know that no one will ever really appreciate it, except a few people who know the full story because it just doesn’t fit in to the normal communication channels of dance production. I guess I have a feeling that my work, it never goes anywhere… It was great that I got to do the Celine Dion piece again but then I never tried to push it further. By refusing to play the game you are also removing yourself from all the possibilities. This is at least the way I saw it. You can still win but you also fail. For someone that is really competitive, like me, it is better to win than to fail. To make a piece that is “successful” in the conventional sense, you know, it gets a critique in a newspaper and a tour and a budget but all within limited perimeters that you do not decide or control and that have absolutely no relevance to the choreography I am interested in makes it a bit pointless. I prefer to see success, as a survival tactic, where you can decide the parameters and make a thrilling work. So then it doesn’t matter how small it is.
JS: Can one say that it is a survival tactic to be able to set your own conditions within a production?
JS: But then there is also this interesting part, when the piece or the production is accepted by the institution, when it is given the stamp of approval, which was what happen in Berlin. How do we deal with that? How does that effect the piece? What are the conditions that we then decide? How do we turn that around? The second aspect is: was it ever about the dance? Which I do not think it was, as it sounds like it was much more about the social side of the work, the dinners, meeting etc. The question is then, how is that part of the work sustained and nurtured?
JWG: Facebook. Hehe. The first aspect you asked about, in terms of how the piece changes when it moves into an institution. The first time I did the piece I was unpaid but you can also think of it as a… and I don’t know how correct this is… but I invested shit loads of money in my education, I also got government subsidies to study. So there was already a significant financial investment in me that I was “cashing in”. I think it is important to think about it in that way as well. So I guess you are right that it loses something when it goes in to an institution, but that is why the frame and communication becomes so important. To communicate why it is the way it is without sounding righteous or didactic is a challenge. For me, it definitely loses part of the thrill in that moment. To be able to communicate a complex dance work effectively is another talent.
And then about the dance. I may not concentrate so much on it physically, but I did think about it a lot. Using “mainstream” dance from dance movies and also recognisable disco dancing in “contemporary dance” performances was kind of radical back in 2006.
JS: What I wanted to say was that I think we do work for free all the time, you are even encouraged to work for free, as interns or as a volunteer. One can also extend this work for free to other realms e.g. as a student or general housework and these are precarious conditions to work in. One does not get social benefits, insurances etc. On the other hand when it comes to the realm of art and dance, this allows you more autonomy, more freedom to set your own conditions. What I wanted to ask was, that I think we work for free all the time, but that within that labor there is a power, to building up networks etc. Then the question becomes: how is this network something on it’s own? And how is that network potentially nurtured in to something else? The relationships that were made in that first piece, how did they grew and what other things that came from them?
JWG: I definitely know how that network was nurtured with the dinner piece, where I cooked and ate with dancers, as I am still close friends with all of those choreographers that I met. Amanda Apetrea, Halla Ólafsdóttir, Rosalind Goldberg, Hannah Frostell and Aimee Smith. Making that piece was important at the time and also a very personal way for me to introduce the way I work. I would say that, that “investment” from those dinners has ”paid off” in ways that I could never have imagined. At the same time it is also very near a neo-liberal way of working, being entrepreneurial and adapting to the system. In that sense it is not really causing much friction.
JS: You spoke about your critique to the dance-system. What I would be curious to know more about is what exactly it is in that system that you are critical towards. The way you speak about your project, is as a critic to the capitalist system. Was this ever your thoughts when you were making it?
JWG: Not at the time. It was much more about critiquing the dance system by finding another way to work but still making a dance piece. My world was quite small, I didn’t see it as reflecting anything on a bigger societal level. I was hung up on really believing that if I work in a different way it would become a different piece and parts of the dance system would be moving a little bit in another direction that is healthier and more sustainable. I was at the time thinking that something has to happen, we have to try to do this dance business a little bit different, we can’t just keep working like this or the industry will die. The dance audience out there will die of boredom. All that will be left are old ladies that go and see ballet. I don’t feel that way any more though, I think dance is awesome now. I have gotten over the inferiority complex that I used to have by being part of a marginal art form.
JS: It is also interesting to see how the architecture and the lack of physical space effects the work. Can you talk a bit more about that?
JWG: Yes that had a huge impact on the project, as there is only so much you can do in a room that is 4 by 3 meters wide, with a bed and a desk in it. It was also really important for me that I was only working with (mostly ) female unemployed dancers, that had other jobs. When I wrote the biography for the programme I did not write who they worked with or where they had studied, that you normally do, instead I wrote what they actually did. For example if they worked as a secretary, or part time in the gym or as a waiter, which for me highlighted everyones working conditions which is connected to the fact that we were working in our homes, not in studios. Some of the dancers that I worked with were really upset with me for doing this as they thought I was highlighting the fact that they were “failures”. But it was never about that, I was trying to focus on the crazy survival skills that dancers have at a certain age and time in their career, where they somehow get everything to work. Economy, artistic production, social life, travel. I also did not want to lie. It is a way to say, wake up! You are not working as a dancer. People thought that they had to speak about themselves in a certain way that was completely false. There was this idea that the only way to get a job is to work themselves to the bone and pay to fly and do an audition for a company that you know nothing about and that doesn’t know anything about you. Then you don’t get the job and you go home and you continue doing so over and over again. What kind of system is that?
When I did the piece I had no idea of what kind of piece I wanted to make. I just knew I didn’t want to make a work that supported the politics of the studio-made dance work. So the further away from that environment the better.
JS: How has this way of working carried on in other pieces?
JWG: I did another piece, where I was asked to make a performance for a gallery in Melbourne. For this show I had mine and three other choreographers phone numbers, written on a wall. When people visited the gallery they could ring the phone number and the choreographer that picked up the phone would tell them a choreography that they could dance themselves, whilst they were on the phone. The piece was about the transition of a choreography not what it looked liked. When I did this piece I had just signed up for a phone contract, were I could call Australia and Australia could call me for next to nothing. So it was very much related to the resources I had available to me at that point in time.
JS: That process you establish in the first “domestic piece” seems to continue in other forms in other pieces. Can you talk a little bit about the connection and disconnection with your other pieces?
JWG: The way my dance was being distributed became really fascinating, I was making all these videos and people were watching them online, which made me a character. I made a piece “Dirty Dancing Fever” where I made video dances to the soundtrack of Dirty Dancing. Another piece I made was to Mariah Carey’s music. I also made a whole series of lip-synching videos. In these pieces I became this character on the internet and was getting disgusting messages from men and also lots of video responses. I thought it was really bizarre that I, unintentionally‚ became someone else through the pieces.
I was loving having another performance space, a space that I could afford, control and use whenever and however. When Facebook came we could share all this stuff like wildfire. People didn’t understand the whole content of the project, I think they thought I was just a bit strange, but for me that didn’t matter. Many of my projects are addressing how dancers are feeling, dancers’ confidence, which you normally don’t address in a dance piece. Flirting with the power you have as a dancer and choreographer when you can bypass funding and performing institutions.
JS: I don’t have any statistics on this but I am pretty sure that people give up their dance careers at a certain age, which is most likely financially connected but also with time. As you were saying most of your friends in London had full or part time work besides their career. How do you think this is different in Sweden compared to London?
JWG: In Sweden it feels less hierarchical and that produces a different kind of confidence in choreographers. There are not so many people that I went to school with that are still working in the dance, although I know I work in a really unrecognisable way… In Australia they give courses in e.g. finance for dancers who are transitioning out of the field. They also have lots of articles in dance magazines for post-dance careers e.g. how I became a Pilates instructor. I guess that has a psychological impact on how dancers see themselves and their own use-by date. I think in Sweden there exists a tradition of questioning why things are the way they are, so this creates a dance business with institutions that reflects the values of today more than how things were twenty years ago. But I haven’t lived in Australia for almost ten years, so maybe I am not an authority on this subject. I am sure things have evolved a lot.
JS: That is interesting with your piece, as you are taking all those doubts and re-evaluating those as advantages.
JWG: Exactly and thats how I saw them, as a skill instead of reflecting failure; as survival skills. I stopped thinking about these things when I had baby, perhaps I forgot how much fun these projects are. It is good to go through it again and remind myself of them. The fun in the projects is the freedom and to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. I did the “Dirty Dancing” piece again when I was 8 month pregnant in a gallery in Stockholm. The piece is really just line-dancing to “Hungry Eyes”. The dance was copied from YouTube so it works both ways, I can take from YouTube. It’s interesting how YouTube has become a real tool in the dance business, a huge archive we can access so easily.