An interview with Simon Ellis
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  • June 26th, 2018

Simon Ellis, Author of Some Things About Dance

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52 MIN
In this Episode

Simon Ellis is the author of the Leanpub book Some Things About Dance. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Simon about his path from sports to dance, choreography and the way it affects all of our lives, from getting into and out of elevators to national policy, his book, and at the end, they talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author.

This interview was recorded on February 21, 2018.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to the Frontmatter podcast in iTunes or add the podcast URL directly.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Transcript

Some Things About Dance by Simon Ellis

Len: Hi, I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Frontmatter Podcast, I'll be interviewing Simon Ellis.

Originally from New Zealand, Simon is a dancer, choreographer, writer, and academic based in London, and a senior research fellow at The Center for Dance Research at Coventry University.

Simon has a particular interest in the limits and possibilities of collaboration and choreographic processes, and he is currently doing research on the ways our screen culture is changing dance practices. He also is a co-editor of The International Journal of Screendance, which you can find online at screendancejournal.org.

You can read Simon's own website at skellis.info and you can follow him on Twitter @simonkellis. I would also highly recommend checking out his videos on Vimeo at vimeo.com/skellis.

Simon is the author of the Leanpub book, Some Things About Dance. It's an intriguing book comprised of self-contained chapters or "things" that cover a range of topics of interest to people who care about dance as an art form, and at the same time will be of interest to people curious about dance and how it can challenge and inspire.

In this interview, we're going to talk about Simon's background and career, his professional interests, and we'll talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published writer.

So, thank you Simon for being on the Frontmatter podcast.

Simon: Such a pleasure, Len.

Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up, and how you became involved in dance?

Simon: I'm actually a New Zealander. I don't know how much you know about New Zealand, other than Lord of the Rings, but the kind of culture, I think, for men, is heavily based around rugby and highly physical sports. So I got interested. I was playing a lot of rugby, playing a lot of sport, and I got interested in dancing because I saw a film - this was back in 1984, maybe 1983 - that made me think I might quite like to try that. It was a film called, White Knights - a trashy, terrible, terrible film.

I went to a university in the south of New Zealand called Otaga University, where it was a physical education course, it was part of that degree. They made us do modern dance in the first year. And so that was a way for me - you might say it was an acceptable or comfortable way for me as an older teenager for finding a way into dance. That's how I made that shift, you might say, from thinking about being physical or an athlete to a dancer.

Len: And what did you study in university?

Simon: It was a degree in physical education, particularly in an area called kinesiology. In fact, my bachelor's degree and my master's degree in physical education were completely toning mechanics, so mostly physics-based stuff.

But a curious thing happened. While I was doing my master's, I visited Melbourne. I walked into a dance school, a conservatoire, and they were having auditions there. And I thought, "Why don't I have a go?" And so I ended up auditioning on the spur of the moment, and changed careers from being effectively a scientist, to someone studying dance and practices of dance.

Len: Skipping ahead a little bit, when we were talking before this interview, you mentioned that you have a PhD, which was something I didn't discover in my research. What was your PhD on?

Simon: I did my PhD at the University of Melbourne, and it's in dance. I have what's called a degree or a PhD through practice. So you might say half of the degree was looking at practices - in my case, practices of improvisation - and the other half was a slightly more conventional written output or written thesis. But my PhD was actually presented in - you'll sort of date it, certainly - but it was presented as a DVD-Rom.

Len: When you auditioned for a conservatoire and you are accepted - what changes in your life? I mean, is it nine to five? Is it secen days a week? Are you constantly training? I'm just curious about getting to know the life of a dancer.

Simon: It's intensely demanding, physically demanding. It really is nine to five in the studio. We did a little bit of kind of theory subjects, but mostly we were working in the studio. Certainly in terms of change, I stripped a lot of weight in that first year, that's for sure. I mean, it wasn't that I was unfit, but boy it was demanding. It's like an overdose, a three-year overdose of systems of training and thinking about the way we inhabit and experience our bodies in dancing.

Len: Do you have different teachers that teach you different styles? Do you spend a few months learning one type of dance, focusing in? Or do you constantly have a number of things that you're doing at the same time?

Simon: I guess it would depend on the conservatoire. In most western countries, there would be a focus on ballet and contemporary dance, which was what it was like for us. Then you would do allied subjects. We did six months of flamenco, and I did six months of tap dance, and some classical Indian dance. And then we're doing partnering work.

We're also learning about choreography, about making. That's quite an important thing in dance- unlike studying painting or any subject where you are working with materials, in dance you're both the material and also the person, often, who's making those materials. So you sort of develop a strange relationship with your body.

Len: I've got some questions I'd like to ask you about choreography, but before moving on I guess I'd like to ask - I mean I'm sure this happens to you all the time, but imagine you were speaking to someone who didn't know anything about contemporary dance, who perhaps maybe had an image of people dressed in black on a stage moving about gracefully. How would you characterize the work? How would you characterize modern dance to someone who didn't know about it?

Simon: It hasn't become a less challenging question as I've got more experienced. I think the way I would answer it now is t,hat like any discipline or any art form as well, there are people interested in expanding or pushing what it might be. I think of contemporary dance as being a way of testing the limits of our imaginations as dance people. Testing the imaginations or testing the limits of the imaginations of audiences.

Sometimes we're dealing with ideas very directly, and you might call it slightly more conceptual dance. Other times it's just really about the physicality of the body and a slightly more aesthetic pursuit. That's a slightly woolly answer, and it's tricky because contemporary dance itself is an incredibly broad area. So it's really hard to sum it up in a very precise way.

Len: One question I have related to that is, my experience with modern dance is, I'm always driven to interpret. I want to interpret what I'm seeing, and even silently in my mind, I want to put into words what I'm seeing and what I'm experiencing, as though I'm writing an essay about, what does this mean? I'm doing some hermeneutics. Is that something that you're preoccupied with yourself when you're choreographing a work? Or is it sometimes yes, sometimes no?

Simon: It's a really good question. I guess different art forms certainly have a different relationship to the way in which meaning, or the potential for meaning, is conveyed. I would suggest that in a lot of contemporary dance, the comparison I would make is more like a music video - a traditional music video where often they're quite jumbled or they're quite abstract. Some do, but we don't tend to look at music videos as something to understand. Certainly there are exceptions to that. It's much more about the way in which the images play across our eyes, the way in which the sound is working for us - that it creates an overall sense of something.

Some of that work might be interpretive. But I tend to think much more about - like a wash, like something that I'm starting to get a feeling for what's going on.

Len: It's a curious thing about art and interpretation that people, for example, might be confronted with an equation from theoretical physics, and will not be offended by it, but when it comes to things like modern dance, when it comes to things like abstract art, like a Rothko painting or something like that, people are often offended or hurt. It's strange that they're hurt or angered, and this can be expressed in various ways, including dismissal and things like that.

If you were speaking to someone like that, whose natural reaction was to be unhappy in some way at being presented with modern dance and say, "Well why don't you just do ballet? Why don't you just do flamenco? Why don't you just do something normal?" What would you say to them about what you're up to?

Simon: Well one thing that comes to mind is that a lot of these things are about what we're used to looking at. If I take the example of the recent film Three Billboards a film that Frances McDormand is the lead actor in, there's been criticism of it in different ways. One of the criticisms - spoiler - is that the ending is incredibly ambiguous. It doesn't prescribe what it is that we should think or what it is that we should know has happened to these characters. There's something to me about watching that film which reminds me of the value and the importance of things in a world which is increasingly instrumentalized - that when we do this, this happens. When we do this, we get this from it.

So there's something about situations where we're confronted with ambiguity or openness, which I think are incredibly vital. They're even more so, particularly even more so as we're living in a so-called "digital world," but also in the way in which AI or the way in which software and the way in which programmers are shifting the way - they're constraining the way in which our lives are experienced. So there's something for me about the value there that's really important.

I didn't really answer your question about people getting frustrated. But I can have a go at that if you'd like.

I think that this comes back - you made the comparison with ballet. Of course ballet's got a rich and long history. And there's something about, you might say, the status quo, or hegemonic things. The things that we're used to seeing, and the way in which they are in our culture - we don't seem to question them in the same way.

And again, one of the things I think about contemporary dance - it is one of the things that frustrates people - there's no doubt about it. It's trying to challenge and trying to play with the way in which we perceive and inhabit the world. It's almost - there's a challenge implicit in its nature. And that of course is going to deter people. It's going to frustrate people. It's also going to enlighten and enrich people's lives.

Len: It's curious. This reminds me of a conversation I had with someone once about poetry. It's an old friend of mine who had a common understanding of what you do when you encounter a poem, which is, you try to discover the meaning in the poem.

When I explained to him that when you interpret a poem, you're bringing that interpretation to the poem - I was studying English and he's like, "What is there to do? There's one meaning of the poem. It's what the author intended, and that's that. How can two people write different essays about the same poem and both be right?"

I talked a little bit about how it's what you bring to the piece yourself. And he said, "So it's made up? It's just made up?" He happened to have built his own house, wnd I said, "Well did you build your own house?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "So is it just made up?"

I was wondering if there's something specific to dance -? You were talking about it a little bit. But at least people are generally familiar with poems from grade ten English. And words present them with something static that they can look at and perhaps recall, or they can look up the meaning of a word. But a gesture or a movement in dance, they can't can't look it up, there's no reference.

Simon: It's a complex situation in a way, I think partly because we are increasingly living, you might say, "disembodied" lives? So our relationship with our bodies is, in some circumstance, kind of traumatic. It's something that we train. It's something that we try and organize. It's something that we get out of bed. Our body is something that we're just constantly doing something to, or avoiding having something happen to it.

And so there's something for me there which is - that change in time means that when we're looking at, in this case, people dancing, there's a degree of abstraction or a degree of uncertainty about the way in which something, or things, might come into meaning. It's slightly tricky language, I appreciate that.

What I mean by that is that, unlike a word - even though it's arranged in a poem, words have specific meanings. Although in fact, there's also incredible ambiguity in meanings with words, which of course is partly what poetry tries to do.

The thing about dance, I guess, is that - I'm not sure if it's unique to dance, but it's certainly this idea that me as a choreographer - that it's not that I am trying to tell you something. It would probably be far more efficient and productive for me just to tell you those things in words.

I think it's placing some things in the space or on the table, that make something possible for you. That's a pretty important idea, because it means that you sitting next to someone else who has a whole different set of experiences, is going to be noticing things differently. That would be something I advise, certainly, as people starting looking at dancing, or looking at art in general - is, what is it that you're noticing? What is it that you're noticing about the things you're seeing, the things you're hearing? But also in your own mind, what is it that you're noticing? So it's much less about interpreting and more about noticing.

Len: Moving from, perhaps, the abstract to the concrete - what was your first public performance like? What was the experience like? I just imagine - under the lights on a stage, probably with other people? What's that type of performance like?

Simon: You mean as a dancer, not as a choreographer?

Len: Yes, as a dancer. I'll you ask you a question about choreography later.

Simon: It's quite a while ago now. I think maybe this has persisted, there's something kind of altered about it. A little bit like you're aware of yourself in a very different way, as if there's a version of you looking at yourself on the stage going, "What the hell am I doing here?"

Part of the process of learning to perform is getting used to that feeling of being watched. One of the things I mention in this book I've written via Leanpub, is this idea of inviting being seen. That takes a long time - to get used to the idea that you're welcoming being watched as opposed to, "What if I make a mistake? What if I do all the kinds of things that tend to go wrong in a cluttered mind when you first start dancing or performing?”

Len: Is it competitive?

Simon: Well, the short answer is yes. The longer answer is that one of the things that drew me to it was I had this idea that it wasn't competitive. I was playing a lot of competitive sport, and I got tired of that competitiveness. So I thought, "Surely, dancing is not competitive?" But, I guess like any situation where the opportunities are far fewer than the number of people wanting to pursue those opportunities, there's going to be competition. I haven't had too many nasty experiences though.

Len: I'm just curious - my last interview for this podcast was with someone who had been pursuing a potential career as a professional ice hockey player. And like other people I've known, he at a certain point had to just decide it's not going to happen. But it's never easy to confront that. Is there a similar thing when it comes to becoming a professional dancer? Does everybody have to face a moment - those who don't make it? I guess I'm kind of answering my own question.

Simon: Yeah.

Len: But is it similar to that?

Simon: Well, I think the thing to say here is that, if you're a man dancing, certainly in western contemporary dance or western ballet, then your chances of becoming a professional are very high compared to the number of women. That's just simply about how many young women want to be dancers. I think, like any situation, if you care about something, you're committed to something. And the confrontation with the possibility that you might not be as good as you think you are, and that maybe you're not good enough to make a career of it - that's always going to be a confronting situation. I don't think that's about competitiveness in the sense of person-against-person - but it is about the kind of things that are available to people, the opportunities that are available to people.

Len: You mentioned, I think, programming and technology, and I probably bungled my representation of your research in the introduction. But you are working on screen culture in relation to dance. I wanted to ask you about that.

Simon: What's interesting about dance that I'm alluding to, is that for the most part it happens, you might say, in the flesh. It involves people in the same room either watching or doing. Something has gone on in dance - and you can probably trace that to the beginning of YouTube in 2005 when the amount, the quantity of dance online just exploded.

So there's a strange scenario, and you might call it, for dance, anyway, "The elephant in the room," whereby most of the way in which people consume dance is via screens. You may even say at an undergraduate level, most of the dance that people are looking at is on screens. Even those are works that weren't necessarily made for screen. They might be recordings of stage performances.

And that's a curious and you might say a provocative shift for an art form that is inhabited, or that inhabits our bodies and is about the sort of possibilities of the human body. Part of my research at the moment is looking into that shift, that seismic shift that's happening. What are the implications for dance now that people are consuming and looking at and producing it from screens? What does that say about our culture and how has it changed the way in which we understand dance and think about dance?

Len: Shifting the topic of conversation a little bit, I wanted to talk to you about money.

Simon: Finally.

Len: What's the funding situation like for modern dance in the UK? I guess I'd like to ask specifically - if, say, you've come up with an idea, and I'm not even really sure what to call it, for a performance? Do you call it a work? Do you call it a choreograph?

Simon: Choreography, all of those three are going to work. A performance, a choreography, all -

Len: Okay - if you've come up with an idea for a work, it's going to cost money to put it on, including perhaps paying yourself, paying other performers, paying for costumes - things like that. What do you do to get that funding?

Simon: Okay, so the question is, what do most people do, and what do I do? What I do is slightly different than the norm. But certainly, the usual way, and it's highly competitive - particularly in Britain there's been quite long-term austerity here.

Austerity is an ideological term for squeezing money out of places that the current government doesn't care about. The arts, generally, is certainly one of those areas. That means that more and more people are competing for fewer and fewer financial resources. It's mostly public funding. Here it's called Arts Council England, that is, in the UK.

You propose an idea, and you have to get support on board from presenters or venues that are willing to show the work. You pitch for a certain amount of money. And that can be a small amount of money, up to ten thousand pounds, or it can be a lot of money, if you've got a larger vision, you might say, of the dates [?] places to tour it. Does that makes sense?

Len: Yes it does. I've got a question I'd like to ask you about that in a little bit, with respect to the way funding can get very personal.

But before then, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Brexit. I've been doing this on this podcast whenever I interview someone from the UK. I lived there for a few years myself. So, I get to say it's particularly interesting to me.

Specifically I'd like to ask you how the whole Brexit thing has been affecting the arts community, in your experience? Are people concerned about changes to funding? About it getting worse? Are people concerned about things like traveling and putting on performances in other countries?

Simon: I think - for one thing, the European Union funds the arts. Access to that funding will disappear. I think that will probably hurt organizations in the UK more than individual people. But that might sort of - dare I say it? - trickle down that kind of funding. I can't believe I just said that.

That's going to change for sure. I think the bureaucracy involved in traveling from the UK to the continent and back, and the bureaucratic demands of setting up dates or tour venues or that kind of thing - I'd imagine that would change and increase. That will get more bureaucratic. Of course, most artists, most independent artists - they don't have large organizations behind them doing that kind of work. So that just basically increases the little work, the administrative work, the work that's not really the job you're supposed to be doing. That increases that kind of labor.

But of course, a lot of this is hypothetical. We don't really know what's going to happen. What's happening at the moment here in the UK is, we're really just watching a car crash happen within the Tory government, within the conservative government.

The infighting which caused the referendum in the first place is really coming home to roost for them at the moment. It's pretty depressing, given my politics, to watch that, and to recognize that the country has been put through this because of those internal politics. But I've probably strayed off your question there.

Len: No, I was curious to hear your position on things.

Is there a culture of private funding for dance performances? I had a friend who was a budding playwright in London in the early 2000s, and I was very surprised about her experience, which she took for granted. What she did was she went - and perhaps it was because she failed to get public funding. I don't know? But what she did was, she effectively went around and found investors. People who would invest in the production of her play as a money making venture.

Simon: Yeah - the idea of philanthropy generally, it's not really big in the UK like it is, for example, in the United States. It's a really curious thing. They're trying to introduce it. It's a strange way to try and introduce culture like that - let's get these, these people who are making a lot of money to corporations to have philanthropic aspects.

I don't know of many dancers, certainly in contemporary dance, who have that kind of support, or private support. I think it's important to say here that the economics of the kind of dancing I do is about loss or reducing the amount of money you were going to lose. We're not talking about West End shows, which are designed to make a profit, and the greater risk is associated with the greater reward, or potential reward.

But in the kind of dancing I do, these are small audiences. 50 people, maybe 100, maybe 200 if it's a larger venue. So really they're projects that are in some way supported by organizations and people.

Len: There's a movement called #MeToo, that you've probably heard of, that's affected various industries. including acting, famously film acting, in Hollywood. Has there been anything happening on that front in the dance world in the UK? Simon: I'll talk about Europe generally. I think perhaps a way to preface a response is that this is an industry that is overwhelmingly, in terms of percentages, is about women. Most people who start dancing and continue dancing are women. As a man in the dance world, you're in the minority in terms of numbers.

But there's a sort of curious thing, which is that men tend to hold positions of power. And by positions of power, I mean they tend to be choreographers, or choreographers of larger-scale organizations tend to be men. So there's a disproportionate number of men in those positions, given the overall numbers of people involved.

And that's a curious situation. It's curious because it means that the way in which power works, and the way in which we work and use power - it means that there are going to be people on the receiving end of it. And if it holds that most of the people in power are men, then most of the people on the receiving end of that power are women.

So yes, there's a very, a very close, a very tight relationship to the concerns of the #MeToo movement, that's going on generally. And certainly I know in Belgium, there's a calling to task of a number of choreographers, of potential kinds of situations where they've been, let's say, abuses of power. I couldn't be any more specific. That, and it would be wrong to be more specific than that. But yes, it's going on. And I think it's going on in a very important and vital way in contemporary dance.

Len: One of the things I was struck by reading some of your work online, and your book, is the way you write about power. It got me thinking about something I had never thought about before, which is the very precise kind of commands one must give as a choreographer. It's different than a drill sergeant.

I mean often it can be like, "You over there in the corner. Do this with your hand now. No, no I meant this, not that. No wait, now I've changed my mind." How do you manage that dynamic with someone on the receiving end? Or is it just very like - once you get to a professional level, you're just familiar with the interaction, and it's not personal?

Simon: Well it's intensely personal. Certainly I can speak from the perspective of a dancer, and as a choreographer. But as a dancer the instructions you're given are both precise and highly ambiguous.

Sometimes it is about precision. That, "You need to have this left side of your pelvis there, and your elbow there," and, "You're a bit late there, and you need to be -" Those kinds of instructions.

But then there's also instructions which are deliberately ambiguous, where there's a sense of trying to elicit something. This is an important thing to remember, that choreography - there's probably the general perception that choreography is done by a choreographer who makes up a whole lot of movements, and then passes those movements on, hands them on to dancers to learn.

Certainly in contemporary dance, but probably even in ballet these days as well, most processes are devising processes. So, the choreographer's working with the dancers to devise materials together. A lot of the ideas and the energy and the actual physical actions are coming from the dancers themselves. It's not as clear cut as - you might say the power is not flowing in one direction, at least in that respect.

Len: I wanted to ask you about your work as a choreographer. What's your process? You just touched on it a little bit. Do you sketch things out beforehand? Do you write in words what you want to convey in dance through your work? Or do you have some a set of ideas, and then you've got people, or yourself, on stage practicing, and it's sort of like modeling clay?

Simon: It's highly variable. It really does change a lot. Just to give you an idea of one end of the continuum, it would be akin to a computer programmer starting writing code without knowing what the nature of the application it is that she or he is writing. That is that I would start with - let's say particular practices. Use the example of writing code.

There might be improvisations, there might be little things. And then from that, things emerge. We start with people who are in the studio [?] who might go, "Oh I've really got interested in this. What if we do this to that? What if we pursue that? What if we cut and paste there? Those kind of "what if" questions happen. So it's much more a kind of an emerging process.

Certainly, the other end of that continuum is that I might do a whole lot of research, with a whole series of images and ideas. And then I would bring those into the studio. But of course as I was hinting at before, when you meet people in any space, one has changed. People change you. And so bringing those ideas into contact with people8 means there's a beautiful process of adapting and working on your feet quickly 5to think through how it is best to deal with that relationship with those people.

Len: One of the things you write about with respect to choreography, is that there's the kind of choreography that happens onstage that's managed by perhaps a single person. But there's other types of choreography that happened in all of our lives, where we have conventions that we follow, things we don't even think about, about certain types of behavior. One can even see, for example, funding schemes for the arts as a form of nationalism and choreography in itself.

I wanted to ask you a question about that. Is there something about modern dance that is - I guess going back to what I was talking about, about it being unsettling to some people. Do you think it's partly that it represents this sort of subconscious denial of how choreographed our own lives are? But we don't think about it?

Simon: It's a really fascinating question. One of the things in the book that I mention is that Deborah Hay, an American choreographer, says that, "Humans, we are choreographed up the wazoo," is the way she puts it. She means that our lives are so tightly choreographed. The way in which we are postured and which we stand. The way in which we arrange ourselves in a lift or on, in an elevator.

I think there's something that - by putting it in the book, by mentioning it in the book - I think this is also a problem in dance. That is that it's pretty addictive to be controlling people - addicted as a, choreographer that is. It's addictive to have people express your ideas. And it's a slightly - I don't think that's what really happens - but it's the idea that we have these people who are doing what we're telling them to do, and express something of ours.

So there's a kind of a choreography of people, a choreography of minds that I find problematic. It's certainly very present in the art form as well. So some of the things I've been exploring as a choreographer is, how is it that I might crack open that relationship between me and the dancer or the dancers I'm working with? What kinds of conditions might I make where their responsibilities are increased?

I think that's sort of getting at what you're saying. But in the world in general, I think if we can find ways to sensitize ourselves to, let's say, the way in which our lives are choreographed. I think there's something really useful in heightening our awareness of that. And that's partly why it's one of the themes of the book. It's not just for dancers or people involved in dance. It's about finding ways to think, or taking time to stop and think a little bit about how it is that we are constrained. We are choreographed too.

Len: My next question is a little bit selfish, it's -

Simon: These are challenging, these are challenging questions.

Len: You're answering them with aplomb, so thank you very much for being game.

My next question is, I was saying, a little bit selfish. It's something I've always been curious about when it comes to contemporary dance. And it's going to take me a little while to explain.

In one of your performances, called Sprawl you performed with Sean McLeod, and there's a point at which you and Sean have a circular piece of black cloth that's around your heads.

For the people listening - you can imagine them with this shared piece of circular cloth around their heads, sort of straining in opposite directions. And they're not holding it up, they're holding it up with the cloth up with their heads. It's linking you and trapping you together.

And there's a certain moment where Sean's end of the cloth is strained over his eyes, and at the same time, the other end is over your mouth. I found it to be a sort of beautiful and ominous and striking moment. But it also struck me at first as very metaphorically straightforward. You pulled it off, but I want to ask how does someone - because it's so visual, and because there often is a meaning behind what's being done - how do you avoid crossing the line into cliché?

I've experienced much more of that than I have of what I experienced watching your work in preparation for this interview. How do you do it? How do you know when you've gone too far, or not far enough?

Simon: Well also, one person's cliché is another person's perfect moment. So there's something about taste, and what we're used to seeing. And certainly Sean McLeod is a New Zealander based in Australia. He and I have been doing this a long time. So it's also about our taste, and the kinds of ways in which we've developed taste over time, and our - you might say the way in which we've tried to be sensitive to placing something in the room, you might say, forcing people's eyes on what it is that we're doing.

So there's a playfulness there, between an offer, but also it's an offer which is saying, "Maybe you could look at this, maybe not." So there's something quite gentle about it.

I think that's very different from the way in which we tend to be manipulated emotionally in a lot of mainstream Hollywood forms. Their reason for being is to manipulate us emotionally. And the way that music is designed - it's designed to do that, for example. And so we're dealing much more - in this case, in the case of the work "Sprawl," with Sean - it's a little bit like - it's a bit more insidious. Like gently insidious, if one could say that? Here it is on the table for you, make of it what you will. It could be a cliché, could be a cliché for sure too, what you described.

Len: No, thanks for that answer. What you said - one person's cliché is someone else's beautiful moment. And the funny thing is not that I thought it was a cliché, but it did strike that thought into me. I seemed so straightforward to me. And then there I was reading your book, and I came across the thing or chapter about constraint.

And the image that was drawn has someone with a circular constraint around them.And but what you say about constraint, is that constraint is good. It's the source of creativity. And it totally shifted what I'd been thinking about that image of you and Sean.

Simon: With the elastic, with -

Len: With the elastic, yeah. Covering the eyes and covering the mouth at the same time. One could view that as each one of you imposing a constraint on the other, giving them an opportunity for creativity, because they're not usually subject to that constraint.

Simon: Yes, and the situation's made more complex,because of course, we were improvising. So we didn't know necessarily that that was going to happen at that time. So you could say, "We avoided the cliché by not choreographing it." And yet still the possibility is that it occurs. That's something about sensitivity to time, sensitivity to the way things might seem, the way in which they might look.

The other thing that's going on in that particular walk at that time is AC/DC, the Australian band - there's - playing, "Back in Black." And so there's something that's sort of undermining - it's a little bit like saying, "We understand this is a bit silly." Because then what you don't see is the lyrics of the song are being played on a little screen next to us. There's some kind of absurdity. And that playfulness gives us license.

Len: I wanted to ask you - I know every - every work is unique, but one thing people listening might not know is that the dance that Simon does is not accompanied by music, might not be accompanied by music at all. But sometimes music comes in and out of the performance.

I was certain it was, "Highway to Hell."

Simon: You know what? You're right, it's "Highway to Hell."

Len: I just want to say, the striking thing about the creativity involved in this type of work is there are two men - and I didn't know that you were improvising, but doing this sort of beautiful routine - and then you walk over. There's a ringing, and you walk over to an iPad that's on the stage with you. And then I think you click it. And then all of a sudden, "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC starts playing.

I don't know if I can be more specific than this, but what is your relationship to music? Do you use pop music in your performances?

Simon: It's a little bit like any kind of element or any kind of - you might say like a brush stroke. "What if I add a little bit of this?" I've used music, and choreographers tend to use music in wide and varied ways. Sometimes choreographing very directly, for example. I made a work years ago to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun." Every moment was highly choreographed.

I've worked with composers who were making music, or making sound, very specifically for work. So I don't have a particular relationship, but I recognize, and I certainly write about this in the book, that the power of music is very strong in a way in which it frames what it is that we're seeing.

Len: You write in your book about something called the "Kinosphere." I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about that. It's a fascinating idea.

It reminded me - I've never danced, but I've done some martial arts, and it reminded me a little bit about the experience you can have with - the concept of chi is very complicated, and varies across culture and discipline. But it did remind me of some of the experiences I had around heightened moments of awareness. Not being a pro or a master myself, it wasn't a constant thing. It just sort of came and went.

Simon: It's interesting you mention martial arts, because my first memory or contact with the idea of the Kinosphere was in a practice called "Contact improvisation." Contact improvisations sprung out of the United States in the late 1960s. A lot of it was in relation to the practice of Aikido - so a lot of the concepts and practices were derived from Aikido.

It's a curious thing where it's trying to get at the idea that the way in which we are in the world is bigger than our bodies. When you're really working closely with your body, it's easy to imagine the limits of your body, are the limits of the way in which you're, let's say, changing the space around you.

And the Kinosphere, especially when you're dancing with someone else - if you're not in contact, there's all sorts of - you might say, charge. I don't mean in any scientific sense of the word. But there's a sense of aliveness going on between and around you, which extends beyond the body. It sounds a little bit like "aura." I don't think the idea of Kinosphere is the same. But what I'm describing, it's a little bit like that.

Len: Thanks for that answer, it's really interesting when you talk about contact improvisation, it reminded me of something in Kung Fu called, "Sticky hands," where you and your training partner touch forearms. In one version of this, you move your forearms in a circular motion, and eventually you actually do find yourself able to sense what the other person is doing naturally.

And when I read about this in your book, the Kinosphere I thought, "How much more complicated must it be in a creative endeavor like dance?"

Simon: It's also complicated, and also tremendous pleasure. It's something that's an incredibly rich, physical, sensational experience.

Len: One other thing I wanted to ask you about. I hope I put this in a good But I think you write about in your book about a paradox, of having to be ambitious in order to be good, but also remaining open or vulnerable, and that this is a complex situation that you can find yourself in.

Simon: I think any kind of specialization in any endeavor will need discipline. It requires spending a lot of time doing that thing. Of course, the flip side of that, is it means you're not doing other things. And when you're talking about creative processes - having access or being exposed to things that are other, that are surprising to you, that make you feel uncomfortable, that are not in your usual domain, seems to me to be a critical thing.

There's a kind of a paradox there, which is - I need to spend time on this. But if I spend too much time, then I'm effectively operating in a bubble. And that bubble is not a very useful place to be. I think, again, that would go for any endeavor. I don't know if that's particular in dance.

Len: Are you working on a performance currently?

Simon: I'm about to head up to Scotland, where I'm working with two other people - Natalia Brewa and Katrina McPherson. They're both filmmakers and dancers or choreographers. The three of us have those shared practices. And so the project is - we don't really know what it is yet. But we're going to start next week, and it will be working with a lot of cameras in the room, a lot of screens. And each of us is all of those things, we are both, you might say, directors of photography, dancers and choreographers. So it's kind of a live or hot situation. We don't quite yet know what's going to happen.

Len: Best of luck, it sounds exciting to be starting something new like that.

Simon: It should be great.

Len: My second last question is - 80% of the royalties from your book are going to the Chisenhale Dance Space](https://www.chisenhaledancespace.co.uk), and I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about that space, and the work it does.

Simon: Chisenhale Dance Space is a small artist-led space in East London. The thing about artist-led spaces these days, is that they're pretty rare. And Chisenhale has served contemporary and experimental dance in the UK, in London, for a long time now. But it's also a small organization. It's run on the smell of an oily rag.

I wasn't so much interested in trying to make any money out of this book. I have a salary as a researcher at a university. It seemed to be an opportunity to try and get a little bit of money to Chisenhale Dance Space. I'm really proud of that - hopefully they'll get a little bit of cash, and looks like that's going to happen.

Len: I'm curious, when you say "artist-led" - as opposed to funded by a council or something like that? Is that what you mean?

Simon: What I mean is that a normal organization would have an artistic director who then has people underneath her or him. And their responsibility is to oversee the organization. Artists in those spaces don't have little say in the way in which the structure and the things that are going on are happening in that space.

But in an artist-led space, or an artist-run space, it's the artists involved who are saying, "We need to do more of this, we need to do less of this. What about this?" So they're really driving the heart and soul of the way the space operates.

Len: My last question is: If there were one thing we could build for you on Leanpub that you'd like to have, or if there were one thing that we could fix, is there anything you can think of?

Simon: Well it's kind of funny because I was pretty aware when I first thought about using Leanpub - it seemed to be a community where mostly technical books were being written. I appreciated that it was effectively a risk to write a book that wasn't about technical things.

One of the funny things about that is, when I was trying to find a - the right kind of area for this book, it was really hard to make any sense of how this book would fit in the different categories that you have for Leanpub. So that would be my one request, that there was some kind of opening out into other areas. And maybe that would help encourage - or hopefully this book will help encourage - people who are not just writing technical manuals. I know that's a pretty rough summary.

Len: I'll go and add dance as a category right now for this interview.

Simon: You're too kind.

Len: Thank you very much Simon, for taking some time out of a London evening to talk to me, and to be on this podcast. And thank you for being a Leanpub author. I was really excited when I saw you appear.

Simon: Thanks Len, it was a real pleasure. And I certainly appreciated doing the publishing through Leanpub. But also, just this evening, I've really appreciated the questions. They were wonderful and quite challenging indeed, so nicely done.

Len: Thanks very much.

Podcast info & credits
  • Published on June 26th, 2018
  • Interview by Len Epp on February 21st, 2018
  • Transcribed by Alys McDonough