MOVING WORDS: A Conversation with Sara Draper and Elizabeth Gilbert

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Sara Draper and Elizabeth Gilbert in Body/Soul
Photo by Jim Caldwell

Sara Draper and Elizabeth Gilbert were destined to work together. Draper, who is also a writer, has been drawn to using text in much of her work. Gilbert, a poet and playwright, creates work from a deeply embodied sensibility. Draper and Gilbert discuss their upcoming collaboration, Body/Soul, slated for the Big Range Dance Festival in June.

How did your artistic paths cross?

SD: I was facilitating Fieldwork, a workgroup for artists, when Liz joined the group, so we got to know each other’s aesthetic while in the workgroup. Liz then invited me to show two of my works in the annual Women’s Works production, so we performed our respective works in that show together.

Both of you focus in on the “body” as subject. How do you approach this theme with your own form of reference?

EG: These poems came from my own attempts to understand myself through the healing process. The body and soul, in my mind, make up the “self”. In this performance, my character’s connection with soul, or spirit, becomes the source of healing. This provides the requisite strength and support for confronting the difficulties of dependence and limited mobility.

SD: I often meditate on a body part as a starting point for a dance, and it always leads me to issues of the psyche and of culture. In this case, I started with the poetry and by getting to know Liz’s physical movement range. For me, the body always leads to the psyche, and that is the essence of this work; it reveals the inseparable relationship between the body and the soul.

Liz, you have always had an interest in modern dance. Did you ever think you would wind up sharing the stage with a modern dancer?

EG: Actually, my becoming a playwright began a long time ago when I studied dance at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to my accident, I had begun to connect with dancers because I was writing a play about Pushkin. I envisioned this as a text based performance with dance. Then, I crossed paths with Sara. So, finding myself on stage with her in a modern dance performance seems almost premeditated. If anything, it’s certainly not surprising.

Tell me about the rehearsal process. How did you avoid clichés and other pitfalls?

SD: There are nine poems in this work, and they are approached in eight different ways. We wanted to include mood changes and to explore lots of different approaches. In one rehearsal, Liz and I spent most of the time on the floor together, getting into different positions and simply exploring physical possibilities. One day a week, I take Liz’ wheelchair to the studio during a time she doesn’t need it, and play in it and choreograph myself into it. We didn’t want Liz to be seen as always/only in a wheelchair, so we tried other options. In fact, Liz is only in her wheelchair for three of her poems. This is dance theatre, so we are looking for what works theatrically, and don’t feel compelled to have lots of movement every second. There are dramatic points of stillness. Liz and I also stay focused on the meaning of the poems, including the relationship between the body and the soul.

EG: Collaboration is always an intricate dance of communication. I approach my work from the perspective of the writer and actor and try to communicate my needs without constricting Sara’s needs as choreographer and as a dancer. We have had, as all collaborators do, difficult moments. Since we share a common goal, however, we have not reached any barrier too difficult to overcome.

I just wrote a piece about a dancer who uses a wheelchair and learned that there is whole world out there on mixed ability dance. It has its own history and legacy. Did you feel it necessary to visit this already established world?

SD: I was introduced to this particular world of dance by some dancers in Utah in 1990, and what I saw was beautiful, but it was very different from what Liz and I are doing. One of the magical things about this collaboration is that Liz and I had the idea of working together on this project at the same time, while we were each respectively watching the same PBS show about Detours Dance Company, whose artistic director uses a wheelchair. I immediately started imagining collaborating with Liz, and she had the same thought, which we discovered soon after. So we knew we weren’t going to re-invent the wheel, but we wanted to explore what we could do with it.

What I think is unique about this collaboration is that this is not simply a dancer choreographing on someone who uses a wheelchair. Liz is a talented, seasoned performance artist who brings a whole history of aesthetic sensing, writing, directing, and performing to our work. So this is a true collaboration between two artists, one of whom happens to be using a wheelchair at this time.

EG: I am uncomfortable with the term mixed ability — to me it implies one person’s ability is better than the others. In this piece, I am not on stage dancing, I am performing my writing as an actor portraying the character and Sara’s body represents my character’s desire to connect to her spiritual side and move about freely without the constraints of her physical condition.

How were you challenged in creating this piece?

EG: For me it was confining myself to the time limit. I see more to this work both in movement and text, but the time constraints of this particular show would not allow that.

SD: Collaborations are always a challenge because two artists, each with a well developed aesthetic sense, have to agree on the process and the product. But I also think that challenge is what can make a collaborative work really powerful. Liz and I have worked at communicating with each other, and have helped each other see new possibilities when one of us felt momentarily stuck.

Transitions between poems are a creative challenge, and we’ve experimented with approaching them in various ways. Ultimately, I think the transitions and the caretakers who help with them are reminders of the earth-bound details of the physical reality, always present, yet remaining in the background of the more important issues of body/soul and self.

Liz, in one of your poems you ask the question, “Why can’t I understand that difficult is merely different?” It’s a statement that reveals a deeply nonjudgmental view of the healing process. Can you speak to how the ideas in this statement fueled your creative process?

EG: That line came from a journal entry and really reflects what was troubling me that day. One element that Sara contributed so brilliantly to this collaboration was selecting the order of the poems for performance. The poem using this line is when the character is just beginning to understand her role in the healing process. In order to heal she must focus less on the difficulties of her day-to-day existence and more on the pleasures of being alive.

Sarah, you are an old hand at working with text, what was it like to work with text that came from someone else?

SD: I’ve used text that was not mine before, but this is a special situation because the author is right here with me in the process, a part of the process, and I can ask her questions. I can ask, “Who is ‘the other’?” for instance, and Liz can just tell me what she was thinking when she wrote that. I’m getting much more in-depth understanding than with, for example, a four thousand year old text that I’ve used in past works. Liz’s poetry is deeply moving to me, and I feel privileged to get to share the space in her head and heart, so to speak, by focusing on how to embody the words.

How does Liz’s poetry weave into the work? It’s a large body of work, and doing anything with poetry and dance is tricky business. Fill me in on the text factor.

SD: Liz performs her poems live. She speaks accompanied by recorded music during some, and by silence or sound effects with others. She sometimes uses gestures while remaining in place as she speaks, with the dance following, or with me dancing while she performs the poem. The poetry is definitely the core of the work, and I feel like everything else – the choreography, sound, transitions – is really woven around the poetry.

What do you love about performing this work?

SD: I love being the character that I dance in this work, and I love experiencing the relationship connection and the affection in the dance. I love the emotional space that I’m in when I dance the piece.

EG: The term “love” connotes choice. I approach creating new work and performance as a necessary act which requires examination of something pulling me, whether deeper into the self, an attachment to an issue, or an inflated emotional response. This examination results in the performance, which then allows the audience (individual members within the community) to contribute with their own response, and on their own terms.

Do you think you two will collaborate again?

EG: I hope so.

SD: Liz and I have talked about creating more works in the future. We’ll take a break in the fall months while she is out of town, and then we’ll revisit that possibility when she returns. We already have another gig for this work in the spring, so this is definitely not the end of our artistic partnership.

Dancepatheatre presents Body/Soul and other works as part of the Big Range Dance Festival on June 15-17 at Barnevelder. Call 713-529-1819 or visit


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