Acts of Translation

Dayna Hanson (left) and ilvs strauss at Base, Hanson’s Georgetown performance space within Equinox Studios Creative Industrial Complex. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom

DAYNA HANSON is a choreographer, dancer, writer and director for both screen and stage, who last year realized a decades-long dream when she and some of her closest collaborators opened Base, a beautiful, well-appointed performance space in Georgetown. Though her celebrated 30-year career began in performance art and dance theatre—including 12 years with touring company 33 Fainting Spells—her recent projects include an episode of HBO’s forthcoming Room
 104, a feature mockumentary about a ragtag dance troupe and a socio-political stage piece based on a YouTube video. ILVS STRAUSS is a writer, performance artist, director and lighting designer whose latest work is a comedic play about lesbians in space. Once a chemist, she found her way into performance by experimenting with slideshow storytelling. She arrived at fully produced original performances when a sea cucumber at Seattle Aquarium inspired her meditation on womanhood, Manifesto.

Next fall their worlds will overlap when Strauss takes over Base for a two-week residency. We joined them there on an early morning in May for a sweeping conversation about how multi-disciplinary artists navigate and integrate their many forms and skills. As they talked, they uncovered uncanny similarities in their obsessions.

DAYNA HANSON So what are you working on?

ILVS STRAUSS Doing some post-show wrap up for my play that I did, Deep Space Lez: Episode 1. And then thinking about the future of that.

DAYNA Yeah, if you tack on “Episode 1,” then there’s—

ILVS The implication is that there are more. And so, I’m long-term scheming on that. I’ll be remounting Manifesto [a 2014 show about a sea cucumber, among other things] in Bellingham in June. And then just looking forward at my future projects like the residency here [at Base in October]. In the summer, I’m doing the Intiman Emerging Artist Program.

DAYNA What are you doing for that?

ILVS I’m in as a performer/actor. And the theme this year is solo performance. So I’ll be working on building a solo show or solo segment of the show.

DAYNA Nice. You’re comfortable in that form?

ILVS I do enjoy it. It’s interesting because I’ve done so much solo work. I mean, with my play, I had to hand stuff over, like, Oh, you do all the visual stuff and you do all the sound stuff. That was an interesting process. [laughs] What about you? What are you working on?

DAYNA I’m working on phase two of 28 Problems, my calculus piece. I did the workshop premiere of it in October, here at Base as part of [art and tech festival] 9e2. That’s the piece where I’m taking this scratch-paper page of calculus problems that was an artifact of a gesture from one of my sons to the other, and translated that material on this piece of paper into a dance language, without understanding the source language. It’s my most abstract piece so far.

One of the things that I was really working on for 28 Problems, that I didn’t achieve in the fall, was a section of the dance that would be performed by chairs. And specifically, the plastic ones that you see on the side of the road. They’re called Monobloc chairs and they’re everywhere in the world.

ILVS I have a tattoo of them.

DAYNA Really?!

ILVS Because they’re everywhere in the world.

DAYNA I’m obsessed with them. I’m doing a still-life project in my backyard, where I took one of the ones I used in the show and I set it under a Douglas fir tree. And I just take pictures every couple of days. It’s funny because you’d think it would be accumulative. And then a big windstorm comes and it gets wiped clean. And I’m like, Shit. Start from scratch. But I can’t touch it. I can’t do anything with it. It has something to do with calculus being the study of change over time.

ILVS That’s great!

DAYNA The Monobloc chairs—I want to animate them. I want them to dance. So I’m talking with people who have robotics connections.

I’m thinking about what you said about the Episode 1 implying there is an Episode 2. I see a lot of choreographers who are casting a longer line of inquiry. I’m seeing people doing diptychs and trilogies. I’m thinking of 28 Problems similarly because I made this piece in ignorance, and my plan was always to eventually learn calculus and make the enlightened section. But I’m now treating it as a separate project—sort of the second piece in a diptych.

ILVS Cool.

DAYNA So when I came to see your [Cornish Arts Incubator] showing and heard you pitching your idea for a show based on Foley, I was like, Ah!!! Because I love Foley and because I’ve been wanting to do that! I’ve done Foley for film and for dance film. You realize how hard you’re working to get the sounds exactly right to match the picture, and how that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing the same thing, or doing it right. In order to fulfill what the picture is asking for, you might have to cheat. You might do it wrong. Maybe the sound editor is the one who’s making it work. To get integrity and fidelity, it’s not always exact, it’s not always truth.

ILVS That’s one of the things I talked about in that showing—just how much post-production goes into any kind of film. The main example I brought up was watching a behind-the-scenes about a nature documentary. And this guy was showing different clips of the Sahara and all these animals in the true sound that was filmed there. And it was really noisy and windy, and there’s people talking. And then he showed the cleaned-up version, and showed what those noises are. The lion walking in the grass is him crinkling grass in front of the microphone, and the lion panting in the heat is him panting into the microphone. And I was like, What?! I knew I was being duped in some way, and I was okay with that. But now knowing for sure that there was this whole other layer—

DAYNA Fiction, yes.

ILVS I would’ve rather not known.

DAYNA And yet you wanted to do it. When you began to play with it, where did it take you?

ILVS In that project, the character doing the Foley is related to the character on the film. So there’s that aspect of that relationship on top of the action of Foley. And then thinking about the Foley space as a visual scape, and how to repurpose those sounds towards a different action, live. The layers of that—different perspectives of what’s actually happening.

DAYNA Right. This might be a reach, but I think there’s a little act of translation there too. When I look at my body of work, I feel like that’s a motif. The idea of translating from one form into another, or taking content from one form and finding its path. And finding the best way of delivering that content in another form. And in a sense it’s the same with sound and picture.

ILVS Yeah. I was talking to someone about the idea of different mediums being like languages, like dance versus writing versus film versus audio. For me, the two main ones are movement and writing, and treating both of them as language, as a way to express. My primary language is writing; dance is a secondary.

DAYNA I identify with you on that, partly because of my own side-door entrance into dance. I was pretty convinced I was going to be a short story writer; that was what I was studying, that was my path. Then I got blown out of the water by a performance piece—in 1987, when the Wooster Group came to On the Boards. Partly it was the nature of that piece, that it was super text-heavy. It was distilling sources through all of these different kind of filters and devices. And then there was this super-kinetic crazy dancing going on. And I was like, Okay. Hang on. [laughs] Put the writing over here for a minute, and I think I want to teach myself to dance. I loved not knowing what I was supposed to be doing. That was the experiment.

ILVS When you were talking about approaching it not knowing what you’re doing, and being completely okay with that—I feel like that is such a great spot to be in, because so many people who want to dance but don’t dance, or want to write but don’t write, that’s the inhibiting factor.

DAYNA Exactly.

ILVS And then just to embrace it.

DAYNA To embrace it and to stand up for your own sense of rigor about it. I mean, man, I took it all very seriously, for as ignorant as I was about it. I felt like if I wasn’t going to go get trained, then I was going to work twice as hard on it somehow to fulfill, or to honor, that new language, to do it justice or something.

ILVS That authentic voice. A lot of people who are trained in a very specific way have to reverse engineer it somehow.

DAYNA Right.

ILVS But going into it and not having the formal training, it’s right there if you allow it. It’s always right there, but it’s sometimes easier to access.

DAYNA People can take years learning technique in order to find out what their natural choreographic or movement voice would be, if they didn’t have all the habitual language that is ingrained. I’ve always have had a lot of respect for dance training.

ILVS Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

DAYNA But I also remember being super bored by a lot of dance that I saw when I was first starting out. Like, Okay, it’s not this. This is not what I like. [laughs]

ILVS Because I did lights—I still do lights for a lot of dancers—I was lucky enough to work with [choreographers] Jody Kuehner, Jessica Jobaris and [dance company] Salt Horse, all of whom were so into the untrained body and what it can do, and were so fascinated by it and had such a reverence toward it. Having that influence before I went into dance was super helpful.

DAYNA For me, from the beginning, combining disciplines was intrinsic to what I was doing. Because I’ve been doing it now for 30 years, my relationship to all of that changes. I know that the abstract nature of 28 Problems is a direct response to the last work that I made, The Clay Duke [a 2013 dance/theatre piece based on a YouTube video of a shooting at a Florida school board meeting], which was very multidisciplinary and not abstract at all. I think that’s interesting, how over time we react to ourselves and our own output.

ILVS When you’re going into a project, do you have an idea of what modes of expression you’re going to use?

DAYNA I do. Like with The Clay Duke I studied this YouTube video, and really tried to imagine what sort of form this could take, and if it’s worth taking this horrible thing that happened in real life and translating it into a performance experience. If it’s worth it, then what are the terms? What are its terms?

ILVS For me it varies from project to project. For the play, I knew the script is the main thing, I want to focus on dialogue and writing. Thinking about the Foley project, I had been wanting to work video and performance art for a while, but trying to figure out a way for it to make sense for it to be there versus, like, Oh, it’s the backdrop. Doing live Foley for a video clicked in a way, like, Okay, this has purpose. From there, I’m figuring out how to tell this story. Is the video the main thing that everything else is based off of or is there a different kind of text? A lot of it was trying to figure out where the text is coming from. Am I talking on stage? Is there talking in the film? Is there a different voiceover that’s not connected to the film?

DAYNA It’s almost like architecture in a way, right?

ILVS Yeah. And figuring out what to nail down first and where everything else can fall into place.

DAYNA Yeah, and whether something is structural and load-bearing versus ornamental.

ILVS It’s interesting how those decisions have informed what ends up happening on stage, because when I was doing performances 10 years ago, I would do slideshow presentations. So that was just an old Kodak slideshow carousel and narrating some stories to those. And then I wanted to branch out, but keep text as the foundation. I think it was at a 12 Minutes Max [On the Boards’ platform for short experimental performances] when I didn’t want to have to memorize but I didn’t want to read off a piece of paper. So I was like, Oh, I’ll just make an audio recording. And then I was like, Oh shit—now what do I do on stage? And so assigning that text to a voiceover forced me to explore movement.

DAYNA Right. You’re making choices with ramifications that you have to listen to, that you have to abide.