An interview with Tahni Holt

Interview with Tahni Holt by Anthony Reale

This week, I had the pleasure to interview Tahni Holt, guest choreographer for the HJT dance
show Go On.  Holt is a Portland-based choreographer with an interest especially in the
perception of her work by the audience.

A: Hi, Tahni.  It’s so nice to meet you.

T: It’s great to meet you too!

A: Let’s dive right in!  Are some of the challenges you’ve faced with this show different from
any challenges you’ve faced in previous shows?

T: Well, I’d definitely say the timeline is pretty profound – because it’s so short.  I’m here for
three weeks, but the creation period is only two weeks.  Then we go into tech.  For me, I tend
take a year-and-a-half of rehearsals to create an evening-length work.  I’m definitely accustomed
to a longer rehearsal period, but I also tend to hem and haw and add on a lot of material and then
edit, edit, edit down to get to the distilled aspect that is what I’m looking for.  Taking time and
letting ideas marinate is definitely for me.  The duration of a process is definitely something
deeply embedded in my process. And so, to come in such an interesting exercise, to come in and
just have to move forward without looking back and say “This part’s okay” and then veer to the
left, to something else really quickly is a great exercise.  It’s such a lovely opportunity for me.
I’ve been working with professional dancers for a long time– I’ve worked with students, but it’s
been three years.  Every time I work with students, there’s such a joy, such openness.  All the
other artists I work with, I’ve known them on some level:  I’ve seen them perform, I know their
history, I have deep conversations with them.  Here, I walk in, and Renée asked if I want to
know a lot about the people who auditioned for the piece and I said “No I don’t.” I don’t want to
make any assumptions about them before I see them and I think that’s really helpful for a short
period.  Challenge is definitely the timeline.  Another challenge is both giving students a really
good experience, not necessarily the fuzzy, warm “It was so nice for me”, but a good experience
meaning that they’re being challenged, and deeply affecting them in how they see the world and
how they move forward in this art form, or not and also wanting to make a really strong piece.
Sometimes, these two things are perfectly aligned, but other times they’re not.  So that’s also a
challenge that I’ve taken with me and I take very seriously.

A: Is there such a thing as choreographer’s block?  How do you avoid or defeat choreographer’s

T: Well, I call it the ebb and flow of a process.  And so for me, I think “writer’s block” is a

A: But it’s not the right term for this obstacle, per se?

T: Yeah.  If I think there’s a block, then I might really get blocked. (Laughs) I’m really interested
in how I think about things and so much of my choreography has to do with perception.  So, I
think that that’s true for how I think about what I’m doing.  For me, there are definitely times
when I go into the studio and I’m just doing nothing.  I take a nap, even.  I’m a parent of three
year old, so yeah, I take a nap. (Laughs) Or I read.  Or nothing happens.  For me, that’s so
essential.  I know that’s what has to happen for the choreography to happen.  So now that I’ve
been doing this in my life process and in my artistic process for many years, I’m forty, and
hopefully many more to come, I know that the form really changes and I have to allow it to have,
allow it to change and so sometimes it does mean that I’m not producing something at the end of
a rehearsal process.  But I also find that incredibly enriching because production is not my main
desire of my relationship with this work.  That’s not always what I’m striving for.  It’s a way of
living for me.  And it’s a process.  Part of my process isn’t always having something to say that I
‘did’.  It’s just allowing myself to be.  Because I know if I allow myself to be, then eventually
there is something to do.

A: Do you get any inspiration from your surroundings?  Is there a difference between
choreographing in Portland and then choreographing on Whitman’s campus and in the Walla
Walla community?

T: Oh, totally.  Absolutely.  I am greatly affected by my space.  It’s really important.  In general,
if I’m rehearsing in the studio all the time, I’ll take the group outside.  In Duet Love, the last
process I was involved in, we had a residency and this amazing space in Southern Oregon.  And
we started moving some of our practices outside because so much of it focused on sensorial
information.  The sensorial information of being in the studio is very different than being in the
grass, for example.  So it’s incredibly important and affects everything depending on where
you’re rehearsing and where your headspace is.  Specifically, Portland versus Walla Walla.
First, just the idea of being taken away from my normal daily rhythm is wonderful.  The idea of
residency, the time where I can just think.  I don’t have to do other things during my day.  It’s so
enriching for the work.  Specific to Walla Walla, there’s something about the fall turning that is
really alive.  There’s also something about being on a campus with students that are all of a
particular age that feels particularly vital to me.  I’m not always around that age group, so there’s
something that’s very energetic around the campus that’s affecting the work and the dancers.
The people who are really affecting it are the dancers, because I’m calling upon them to create
the work.  I’m shaping it, but they’re making up their own steps.  The choreography is the
shaping of it.  It’s completely them, you know, getting through the onion layers, that’s because
they are living here at this moment at this time.  When I tell them a prompt, their experience of it
is exactly situated in the present moment.

A: Is there any you try to embody when you choreograph?  Do you find inspiration in animals,
nature, the movement of the planets?

T: It really changes, you know.  Right now, we’re working on perception and these ideas of
destabilization and instability.  So that also means working in a system and trying to think about
so many things that you can’t actually do.  There’s a tension in being unable to do all those
things.  I don’t know if that’s quite embodiment, but there’s definitely metaphors that come into
play in this work right now.  Yeah, I would say it’s animalistic.  We stay away from naming
particular animals, because then it becomes you representing an animal.  And that’s not really
embodiment.  When you’re acting as, it’s not really embodiment.  You have to be.  So
embodiment of animals, along with texture, along with weight of gravity, those three things are
in focus. (Pauses) I’m trying to listen to your question again, because I don’t think I answered it.

A: No, no.  I like that.  I’m thinking about destabilization right now, and two images came to
mind: one aggressive one, like a building falling and one toned-down one, like fall and the leaves
changing.  What would you say, if one of these images can be attributed to your piece, lines up
with your piece most clearly?

T: How I answer that question is… We’re physically organized in a certain way so we’re playing
with destabilizing that particular way of organizing.  And, I’m also playing with really
challenging them to destabilize and create ruptures in the way that they commonly think about
things.  So I am asking them to think really radically differently.  Those are two ways we’re
playing with instability.  We’re also playing with instability from the audience’s point of view by
destabilizing their normal experience of being in a theatre – the lights shine in their eyes at a
point – not radically.  It’s very subtle.  For me, that would feel like the leaves falling.  And where
sometimes what they’re physically doing and the ruptures in their own way of thinking, that’s
like the building falling.  That fissure that begins there really feels like that.

A: So would you say that fissure, that change in the way they think is really only seen during the
pre-performance period?

T: Well that process does come up then, but it also comes up during the performance in that
they’re still working with those things.  Also, I do think that it’s playing with the materiality of
our bodies and what we’re doing with them.  It’s not exposing a skill set like ballet.  It’s not
exposing a codified language of dance, even though some of them have been immensely trained
in those languages.  It’s actually saying what can this body do in an extreme way that
destabilizes the way that you would normally behave.  We’ll see if it does that.  There’s a lot of
language around this, but I am very curious about how it will be seen or experienced.  I think it’s
more subtle than what can be seen.

A: What’s the most difficult part of the process for you during any production?

T: That’s a good question.  There are a couple of ways I would answer that.  I think personally,
it’s always difficult for me to hold space for everyone involved in the project in a way that I feel
is really going to get the best results.  There’s a psychological attachment in making sure
everyone is doing well.  Sometimes that gets in the way of making good work.  That is
something that I always have to be aware of.  It’s a tether that I have: I always want to make sure
that the process is a positive thing for everybody.  But it’s also presumptuous for me to assume
what that means for everyone.  What I’ve learned is that instead of being the mother for
everybody, I have to let people figure it out for themselves.  And that’s really challenging for me.
When do I let someone flounder and figure it out and when do I step in and make sure that
they’re okay?  That’s a real fragile line for me.  It’s always been a challenge for me.  Being a
choreographer, you have to have your sights on everything.  It’s not just about the actual steps –
that’s just one aspect of it.  You’re working with these people to make the piece show the talent
and skill that are contributed by the people gathered in the room together.  That takes a lot of
brain and heart space.  I love this challenge of making art.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in
my life and I continue to do it and I love it.  If I didn’t like that intense challenge then I wouldn’t
be doing it.  The field in general is challenging.  It’s incredibly hard to make a living out of what
I do and getting other people to believe in the importance of the arts in general is something
that’s really hard to do in our culture.  To motivate in a culture where capitalism bleeds into
everything, including our major belief systems, is nearly impossible.  When you’re working in an
art form that really doesn’t fit into a capitalist system, it’s not commodifiable in the particular
way that capitalism asks it to hold value.  I and my colleagues are constantly championing its
importance, even if it’s outside of a monetary system.  So that’s the challenge in the field at
large.  But it’s also something I strongly believe in.  Although at the same time it’s virtually
possible to exist outside fully.  You have to plug in somewhere, you have to make a living.  It’s
an interesting, challenging contradiction.

A: Thankfully there are people like you persevering in this fight to keep the arts alive and
relevant!  Thank you so much for talking with me today.

T: It’s my pleasure.  It was wonderful to meet you.

Go On will feature work from Tahni Holt, Renée Archibald, and Peter de Grasse.

It runs from November 11th to November 14th at 8:00pm and November 14th & November 15th at 2:00pm.  Tickets are still available at the box office or by calling 509-527-5180. Adults are $12.00, Seniors 60+ and students are $8.00 and WHITMAN students are FREE!