Donna Uchizono makes dances that make you want to see them a second time. Her complex and visually arresting work has been gathering momentum since she launched her company in 1990. She has gathered worldwide acclaim and amassed an extraordinary collection of honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Harkness Foundation for Dance, the Rockefeller Foundation, and a 2002 “Bessie” – the New York Dance and Performance Award – for her work Low. On February 10-11, her company will return to DiverseWorks to perform her latest dance, Approaching Green. She brought DSH up-to-date on all her latest work.
You mention the experience of witnessing of an Indian spiritual guide Ammachi hug 5,000 people as the inspiration for the piece. Can you speak to that experience?
DU: Ammachi’s devotees feel she is enlightened being. And though I’m not a devotee, I don’t question if she is or not. Her way of communicating with people is giving a hug. She comes to NY once a year. I always go see her and it makes me feel good to be in her presence. I was struck by all of these people, believers and non-believers waiting in line to be hugged, watching her hug over 5,000 people. There was something powerful in witnessing the desire for true physical contact. I think about the power of dance and one of its powers is that it’s live and it’s physical. There is nothing virtual about it. That’s an important aspect of our lives.
Did you think then it would generate a piece?
DU: No. I never know when something will do that. It’s always later.
I understand you had official huggers when the piece premièred in at Danspace Project in New York. Will there be official huggers at DiverseWorks?
DU: Yes. I thought it would be a nice homage to Ammachi to offer hugs to anyone that comes to the performance. It was interesting. There were 4 huggers in New York as they entered the performance space. I assumed New Yorkers are pretty hardcore. We thought 60% would want to be hugged. There were only 2 people, from the four performances, that did not want to be hugged. Some wanted hugs by all four.. Micki Wesson, one of the huggers, is known for her hugs. When I asked her she replied, “Oh darling, I would love to hug people.” She quietly announced, “Hugs are available, as people entered the theater.
You talk about the presence of aging in the work? How does aging translate to movement?
DU: I always start with a general concept, and then create a physical vocabulary that is appropriate. There is a place I like to get to where the dance starts talking back. Things kept popping up like numbers and birthdays. There is a lot of counting in the piece. We turn around and ask, “When did I turn 75?”
The set, costumes, and lighting are all pink. Why?
DU: When you flood the eyes with pink light, and then look at natural light, you will see green. We cannot flood the audience enough with pink light to fully experience that. The all-pink environment is my nod to that visual phenomenon. I thought about how aging is part of life, in fact everything that lives ages. The color green normally symbolizes life, and every living thing ages, thus we are all approaching green.
How would you describe the tenor of the work?
DU: There are some very sweet moments, sad moments, and tender moments. The humor in the piece is like smile. I also wanted to convey private places in public spaces, creating scenes behind the curtain that is revealed through virtual reality or shadows.
Did your process change for this piece?
DU: Yes and no. Each piece shifts the process. I never begin a work with pre-set movement. I always go in with the idea and develop a physical vocabulary that will support that idea.
Last time we spoke you mentioned you were only able to work three days a week. I’m astonished that you make such lovely work in so little time.
DU: It’s impossible to make work under those conditions, and, of course, we are all forced to do it. It’s criminal.
You have worked with composer Guy Yarden on several pieces. How did that work this time around?
DU: Guy came into the process much later than usual. He took a full-time job at DTW which made the process more difficult for him in terms of available time. For the performances in June, the music was more sparse then the current version. The change in the music made a huge difference.
Is video new to your work?
DU: Yes. This is a first. Sometimes with video and dance you are forced to make a choice, to either watch the video or the dance. I made a conscious effort not to have the video compete with the dancers on stage. With that said, there are some specific moments where there is some visual tension, but very specific moments. The opening video sequence is great.
I’m interested in the partnering. One dancer appeared to be using the other as the ground. It was extraordinary.
DU: I had this idea that the dancer on the other dancer would use the other as a moving terrain. Alex Escalante wasn’t just standing still, he was also dancing and moving through space. Even when Alex leaves the space, there is a symbolic way that Hristoula Harakas still never touches the ground.
Tell me about your work at the Baryshnikov Center?
DU: I created a trio for Misha, Hristoula Harakas, Jodi Melnick. Misha has been viewing my work for a while now, and he had asked me to create on White Oak, White Oak disbanded, so then that never happened. I saw him again at a dance concert and he asked me to make a piece for him. Misha is very generous. I’m incredibly grateful for how much attention he has given to contemporary dance.
Is the situation in the dance world getting better or worse?
DU: I was having this very discussion with Tere O’Connor and John Jasperse. We were talking about how unfortunate that we have sacrificed so much to get the work out there. We have set up an unrealistic expectation that it can be done. The kinds of things we do to make these performances happen are unrealistic. We have over sacrificed and now people think it can be done, but it really can’t. It’s getting worse. This year I am not making a piece. I just don’t have the money. I am incredibly concerned for the next generation.
What’s next for you?
DU: I have a great idea for my next piece. The piece continues my exploration of live versus virtual that I started to address in this piece. The opening idea of the work is three dancers sitting on a chair with white powder on all exposed parts of their bodies, with a life-size video projected onto them, depicting the same movements that they are making, for example, talking and gesturing. This opening sets the tone for the question of what is real and what is virtual. Since the performers are doing live exactly what they are doing in the video that is being projected onto them, it will be difficult to discern between the video and the live action. The performers will slowly start to brush off the powder, making it more difficult to see the video being projected on to them, and again, to discern the video projection versus the live aspect. The lights go to black. When the lights come up, you see the residue of powder on the floor. The physical dance aspect of the piece begins with the dancers’ interaction with this residue. The thought of it makes me excited to get back into the studio.
This interview was originally published by Dance Source Houston
DiverseWorks presents Donna Uchizono-Approaching Green on February 10 & 11, 2006, 8pm. Call 713-335-3445 or visit http://www.diverseworks.org/
Learn more about Donna Uchizono Company at http://www.ladonnadance.org/.