A Conversation with Visiting Choreographer David Thomson

A conversation with Whitman’s Renée Archibald and visiting artist David Thomson, whose piece titled Awkward Beauty will be performed as part of ACTUALLY JUST KIND OF AND ALMOST.

Renée: Can you tell me about how you developed movement for your piece, Awkward Beauty?

David: I was intrigued by the perception of beauty in dance and how that becomes an unconscious value system that affects our interpretation of how and what we see. This echoed my thoughts on how children live in their bodies and how they discover their physical capabilities. I have always been drawn to watching their uninhibited play; how we see the beauty in this “innocence” and their sometimes disorganized freedom of movement. How they take joy in the simple act of running, falling, shifting their weight, following and responding to others in made up games. The animal playing with their most basic tool.

I worked with various improvisational strategies to allow the dancers to generate their own movements. “Stumbling” was one of the ideas that we worked with; the notion of being off balance, playing with momentum, falling and recovering. Based on this idea, they created phrase material that I edited and combined to make duets and solos. In addition, I generated movement that they could manipulate to create their own phrase material for use in a structured improvisation.

Renée: I had the opportunity to work with Megan, Erin, Tyle, and Haley, the dancers in Awkward Beauty, in the interim between your two week residency and this final tech week. I was surprised to find that there were several sections that are improvised based on set movement material. What kind of directives did you give the dancers to guide their choice-making during these structured improvisations?

David: The structure of the piece has changed since I’ve returned. At this point, there are only 2 sections that involve physical improvisation, and certain directives have shifted to allow more freedom. During the initial rehearsals, I had them improvise using rhythm in their feet to generate spatial choreography. I was struck by how well they worked with this system. One of my goals was to create an open space for them to realize and generate live choreography, using the concepts of landscaping the space, catalytic responses, unison, stillness, repetition and intuition as their guides, echoing the ideas of play and relationship. There is also a solo that Megan does where I am asking her to manipulate the speed, size, rhythm and direction of the set material to unlock more of its visual facets. Again this returns to the idea of play in the body. The question I ask is “how compelling is it to watch someone negotiate something that is to a certain extent a mystery?”

Renée: I’ve seen you perform in many other choreographers’ work. Currently you’re touring with Tere O’Conner, whose recent works are, to overly simplify, coming to the surface as what we might consider “pure dance.” I also recently saw you perform in Alain Buffard’s work Baron Samadi, which requires you to sing, dance, and speak. These elements are integrated into a contemporary performance work that one wouldn’t necessarily label as dance, yet movement and dance are essential to the work. In your own work, do you draw a distinction between “pure dance” and performance?

David: I understand your distinction, but those terms get blurred for me unless I am speaking about specific artists. When I think of “pure dance” in my personal history I tend to think of Trisha Brown, where the movement and structure was the message. Tere’s work can also be seen as “pure dance” since his concepts of movement and structure are a significant aspect of the work, but underneath he employs other theatrical systems that he asks the dancers to consider internally rather than overtly. So in a sense there is performance work happening in his work as well, though much more discreetly.

At this point, I don’t do “pure dance” in my own work, unless I am purposefully improvising along those lines. My interest has been in repurposing and recontextualizing task-oriented material and structures to find more porous interpretations for the viewer and performer. For me, task-based structures help locate the mundane, quotidian moments and actions that can speak to the oddity, frailty and strength of the human condition. My nature tends towards a certain sense of theater influenced by ideas surrounding the abstraction of narratives and sometimes the use of text.

Renée: Whose work is really interesting to you right now?

David: I continue to love some of the old classic works of Pina Bausch such as 1984 and Palermo, Palermo, where she orchestrates an amazing international cast of performers to create these choreographic dreamscapes that break the theater and become immersive experiences of human nature and absurdity. I’m always intrigued by the mind of Ralph Lemon and how he fuses the lines of visual art, dance and performance. Other artists include Okwui Okpokwasili (viscerally arresting work), Dean Moss (intense and unusual structures), Daria Faïn (deeply researched work with language, sound and movement), 600 Highwaymen (their use of regular people within compelling performance structures) and a number of others, too many to mention here. Oh, I recently saw Xavier LeRoy’s Retrospective at MoMA. It was a daily 6 hour installation/exhibition lasting 2 months with rotating performers moving and verbally engaging the visitors. I was fascinated by how he infused the dance history of the performers into his own history, allowing them to construct/recreate/interpret their lineage in relation to his own history. Informative and compelling.

David Thomson has worked as a collaborative artist in the fields of music, dance, theater and performance with such artists as Mel Wong, Jane Comfort, Bebe Miller (’83-’86; ’03-’06), Remy Charlip, Trisha Brown (‘87-‘93), Susan Rethorst, David Roussève, Ralph Lemon, Muna Tseng, Sekou Sundiata, Meg Stuart, Dean Moss/Layla Ali, Alain Buffard, Deborah Hay, Tere O’Connor and Marina Abramović among many others. Thomson has performed downtown, Off Broadway and in London with the acclaimed a cappella performance group Hot Mouth, which garnered a Drama Desk nomination for “Unique Theatrical Experience.”

His own work has been presented by The Kitchen, Danspace Project at St Mark’s Church, Dance Theater Workshop, Roulette and Movement Research at Judson Church.  Thomson has been Artist-in-Residence at Dance Theater Workshop, Movement Research, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Gibney Dance Center, LMCC Governors Island and The Invisible Dog. Thomson is a Bessie award-winning artist for Sustained Achievement (2001) and as part of the creative team for Bebe Miller’s Landing/Place (2006). He is a 2012 USA Ford Fellow, a 2013 NYFA Fellow in Choreography and a 2014 MacDowell Fellow.  An ongoing advocate for dance and the empowerment of artists, he was one of the founding members of Dancer’s Forum and has served on the boards of Bebe Miller/Gotham Dance, Dance Theater Workshop and presently New York Live Arts. He holds a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from SUNY Purchase.


David Thomson, performer and choreographer in The Aftermath (2006). Clip created by Mike Taylor.

ACTUALLY JUST KIND OF AND ALMOST  runs December 11,12,13 at 8:00pm and December 14 at 2:00pm