Interview with Katie Duck – A long little talk with a mature dancer – Proximity – Australia – Min Kyoung Lee December + August 2007

Interview with Katie Duck – A long little talk with a mature dancer – Proximity – Australia – Min Kyoung Lee December + August 2007

Katie Duck is a dancer, choreographer and teacher. She is a founding member of MAGPIE Music Dance Company. Throughout her career, Katie has worked with music and dance artists who share her passion for collaborating music, text and dance in improvised performances. Besides participating as a performer and composer, she has initiated numerous dance and music improvisation projects in her three bases Holland, Italy and England.

Min Kyoung Lee is an Auckland based dancer, choreographer and performance artist. Min first met Katie in her improvisation workshop in Amsterdam during her travel and then again in MAGPIE Music Dance Company collective workshop. This interview was done in Katie’s flat in Amsterdam in August 2006. This article has been edited and condensed from a much bigger volume by Katie and Min.

Min: Thank you Katie. Welcome to this talk. It can be improvisation of our thoughts and thought structures. So, Katie, can you tell us a little bit of where you are at with your improvisation and dance practice, anything from the past you’d like to mention relevant to this point.

Katie: I had a change point in my life when I became interested in being an artist in a very simple way. When I turned forty I moved from a well paid teaching post at Dartington College of arts to a less paid teaching post here in Amsterdam. I suppose this would be viewed as the opposite thing to do at forty. Improvisation demands that you see the opposites as part of the opportunity to take a risk. Work choices without financial profit are an odd thing to do these days. I read profit in my own particular way. I need for the work to change all the time. I need for my life to change all the time. Up until I moved from Dartington I had been mixing choreography with improvisation. I decided that I needed to choose a direction in this mix of setting and releasing material in time. I gave up setting things in time. It was the risk, so I did that.

Min: So you gave up ‘setting’ things up in time’?

Katie: Yes. I recognized that as a performing artist-dancer I am a choreographer. I recognized that the performing artists whom I would prefer to work with are all choreographers. I was confused in how the processes I created that lead toward a choreography needed to be played, and that the way I had set materials in time was inhibiting the potential for the performers to play. What I set in time was providing the tension and identity or aesthetic to call it a piece. I questioned that identity. I began to accumulate a pallet for real-time, body-time, felt-time; biology in general against what my identity was. There are certain levels of humiliation in that. So now when I work nothing is set.

I’d had the advantage of performing since I was five years old in theater productions and musicals. I came into the dance field at 19 years old with a great deal of performing behind me, and then I changed again when I moved to Europe in 1976, toward comedy and physical theater working with Carols Traffic. I met models like Steve Paxton, Julyen Hamilton, Kirsty Simpson and Mary Fulkerson. I had a company in Italy (GROUPO) where I produced one-hour productions and toured through out the world. Each production contained a research of some sort or another which helped me to gather the materials for the choreography. This became a method and style quite quickly and finally a boring and laborious activity. I had moments in performances with many artists which were extraordinary. With all this going on I was working with music artists such as Derek Bailey, Han Bennik and Tristan Honsinger. They were committed to real-time performance and they did it elegantly. Finally I narrowed my present work toward Derek Bailey’s approach. I had fascinating experiences with Derek where he would say “no lists”.

What if I just did that? I would probably be very unpopular, and I would probably be making a mess a lot of the time. To give up setting anything in time was more like fasting then making an artistic choice. Every performance I was challenged to not set anything. What could I do that would make sure that things would be okay?

It did not feel different from celibacy or being vegetarian, or any thing you can think of that you could give up in all that is available in our lives. Tristan Honsinger is a nice example. He is at a point in his life where he cannot drink alcohol and has to be a vegetarian. If you would ask him what he really wants for dinner he would say red wine with a big red juicy steak.

It is not that I liked the idea to not set anything in time. But I knew it was what I needed to do in order to challenge how I communicate to publics; how I am able to interact with public and how it is I live my life.

Min: That’s a good place and it says a lot. For him to give up the meat that he loves he must be very clear of his reasons why he wants to do that. So for you to be restricting yourself to not set anything, obviously there’s something you value more. You see it as more important.

Katie: Tristan’s case is directly connected to physical health. I feel my choice is also directed toward health within the profession I am engaged with. In the mid eighties when I did my recluse to Dartington I had folded my company GROUPO. There was a virus-like movement in process, with Dance companies institutionalizing, which modified their creative potential. That seemed to me to be an unhealthy thing.

The situation among communities of artists was becoming a place where you would need to put on your lipstick and your high heels and go to work. Artist’s communities became isolated within their institutions. This placed artists in a position of completion for creative space. Economics became the way within which we qualified what we value in a creative space. If you could not see the economics then you did not value the work.

I wanted to qualify what I value in the way that I work. I wanted to make it explicitly clear that I am not spending money on costumes, set design or fashion or long laborious rehearsal periods based on multiple attempts of meaning of this that or the other. Improvisation is cheap. It costs less than the production values of set choreographies. That is healthy.

I am challenging the world we live in to question authorship and the price that we place on ownership. Methodologies for creating choreography are obscure. When I made choreographies the only area where I could respectively call authored were in the aesthetics the piece projected. Honestly, what was done live in front of a public belonged to the performers. I did not make what it ended up being. To set nothing and to not place an emphasis on an aesthetic value system allowed for the live event to be equally authored by the artists and publics who gather to view it.

I cannot repeat the event. Therefore it is made for that public alone. The public is given liberty to choose the aesthetic for this piece and they can author how it moves in time. I think this could be questioned by choreographers in how I am taking away the position of the artist’s choice. It may not be the way that things will evolve in the future. However right now I feel it is necessary to radically interact with live publics in such a way where they are empowered to be the author of the event.

Min: It was taken for granted that the choreographer has all the creativity?

Katie: Yes. And the result is head scratching publics tolerating suspended moments of dance with texts to guide them as to the meaning of something that is meaningless. Attempts at creating matter out of space. In the light of the times we live in with all our technologies, with questions about how music industries will survive the I-pod and how the movie business can possibly challenge our access to download on our laptops, choreographers are dinosaurs claiming the aim of fame for what is actually live and can never be owned. Creativity is messy.

An inspiration for how I work with improvisation today happened when I was teaching at Dartington. I had opportunity to integrate with smart people who were in tune with the Internet. At that time (1987) you could find all the websites available in one hour. It was space. It was fresh. You could see it becoming what it would become; it is dense, it is spatial, it is interactive, it is random, it is a society, it is a planet, it is urban, it is free in many places you go to, it is real, it is virtual.

I did not use the “Dance Company” as a model when I initiated MAGPIE as an art project. I used the model of a band. I made a choice for Derek Bailey because he was a musician. Misha Mingleburg and the Instant-Composition-Pool (ICP) or Tristan Honsinger’s compositions also use improvisation within their practices, which I admire. Derek’s work is not composition. It is only improvisation. That interested me. Dance in MAGPIE is an intrusion to what I saw happening in that music model. There was at first self-consciousness or the catharsis that came with doing this.

Another aspect about collaborating with dancers and musicians is that musicians come together to improvise in rooms not studios. They take a guitar and a bongo drum and improvise and they play a couple of tunes or whatever. Usually musicians are playing together because they like to. Dancers get together in studios under a more formal situation to improvise. The MAGPIE Company uses informality so that we could reach a fresh company atmosphere. MAGPIE is a band not a dance company.

I had many experiences when I was in my 20’s and 30’s where I was asked to work with musicians alone. In most cases there was a composition involved however I was asked to improvise. Musicians tend to use composition as a means to find what can be improvised while dancers tend to improvise in order to create structures. This is an interesting difference. The dancers in MAGPIE know that we will not create structures for performances. Therefore we are working in rehearsal on how to maintain the tension in the space, the communication between the musicians, dancers and public and the shifts of constellations and materials in an entertaining yet unexpected way. Musicians are not usually used to rehearsing improvisation. I suppose dancers are not used to this as well. But it was the dancers in MAGPIE who eventually formulated a way to rehearse for performances. This is certainly one of the conditions of MAGPIE that makes it unique and professional.

The circumstances that evolved to create MAGPIE were not out of mine, or any one person’s, ideas or energies. It happened by chance. I did an Improvisation festival for five years in Amsterdam (1995-2000). This festival did help to gather the artists for MAGPIE but it was only once in the year. MAGPIE happened because dancers gathered regularly with the musicians who had the same idea. The dancers were interested in dancing, interested in music and they were interested in ‘live’. The dancers needed to train the ear to be able to deal with the kind of music we were going to deal with and the musicians needed to train their awareness of space.

Because I’d made so many pieces, I think everyone expected right to the end I would set something. I never did it. And I still haven’t done it and I never will do it, because that’s what the experiment is: to not do that. That is a part of how we have remained engaged with the work in MAGPIE: that promise.

Min: I was going to ask you about the questions you’d had in the past. What would you say the questions are that you guys all share in MAGPIE now, or you shared in the past?

Katie: Everyone in MAGPIE came from a background of working with choreographers or composers or making choreography or compositions. Most of the artists in MAGPIE still do make work or are in other artists work. I think everyone is electrified by the experiential area of MAGPIE more than anything. I think if you asked anyone individually in MAGPIE, that’s what they would say. To dance or play music in this way with these people in this particular time is glorious; end of story. That is why we keep doing it. It is fun.

Min: That’s even before the realm of audience coming in, isn’t it?

KATIE: Yes, absolutely. Just the fact that there is a rehearsal that night puts you in a good mood. You know that when you finished that rehearsal you are going to be different than when you started. You go to a MAGPIE rehearsal and afterward your head is up and out. It is a healing thing. There is a viral feel around the arts today. It is not healthy for the artists and it’s not healthy for the public. MAGPIE is healthy.

Min: I’ve also experienced that in a Contact Improvisation retreat. There I got to learn, not just physical things, but also the philosophy of how we are relating to each other for example. It was something I found so healthy, so very healthy. I don’t know how that can be incorporated or used in a performance or choreography or rehearsals, but independently of that, just on its own the experience of that was of great value. It was so democratic and so respecting of each other and just getting together of it was very nourishing.

Katie: Improvisation is a funny word. I consider biology, feelings and nature when I say improvisation. The theories for relativity were sitting there for a long time prior to Einstein being able to place it in a way that communicated to others. Einstein discovered the theory of relativity because he felt it. Improvisation could be a word we use to express the place that cannot be explained over the processes of time. Improvisation could be a code term that we use to amplify the possibility to be aware of the present with a vision for a future with a minimal burden about what has happened in the past.

Min: The fact that MAGPIE was able to last as a group for such a long time – ten years – is because you also were able to produce good work, I believe. If you were having a great time together but were not able to give a good performance to the audience, there might be more difficulties or conflicts within the group to sustain this.

Katie: MAGPIE artists were determined to make work that connected to publics. This was clear from the very beginning. However, no one was willing to break the promise to set anything in time even if it meant there could be a moment where publics may be alienated. Every time this kind of situation occurred in performances the artists placed the question in rehearsals and came up with ways to resolve or understand more clearly why this happened and what it was we needed to do in our work to make it remain interactive with public yet not set it in time. These past experiences have been placed within a rehearsal processes which we can now share. MAGPIE is loyal to the original artists who were there in the beginning and yet are open to bring younger artists into what has now become a tradition. The artists in MAGPIE want to maintain a tradition by way of the education we can offer in the work we have already done yet stay open to what the young artists add. The artists have a uncompromising attitude about how performances do not use set time, themes or any manipulations, that it must be of the highest quality in both dance and music and remain open for public interaction.

I find it interesting that quality is one of the ways we qualify what we value. It seems more obvious for the young people coming into the company. With us it was such a big thing to suppose that you could maintain quality without setting anything in time. For the young artists who are now working in the company it is just obvious.

Min: Besides you practicing the way you value with the groups of people, what is the audience for you?

Katie: That is a really good question. I have been in front of audiences since I was 5 years old. I am now 55. I have always performed. My ideal public is the gathered crowds who have come to the theater without the expectation to engage and find that they are being placed in an interactive position by surprise. My favorite public is the person who is watching television at home or surfing the internet and find themselves in a theater by mistake. I like people. I think that people are basically nice. All publics are nice people.

It’s a very natural habitat for me because I’ve been doing it so long. The audience is the room. I’m in the room with people. I am in the room with a lot of people or I am in a room with a very few people. They are people. Just people.

Min: When I asked you ‘what’s the audience for you’, I was thinking about the value of a performance. Maybe it’s because I came into artist-hood quite recently, having started dancing five and a half years ago. Although I performed a lot while I was young in the church, I think I have grown up my critical eyes from an audience side of it, before I became an artist. So I could have more of an audience view, even though now I am an artist.

KATIE: When I was young I used to sit and watch performances and the whole time I’d be pissed off I was not in it. As I got older I got better at seeing work and enjoying it. But I doubt that I can ever be an audience member without having empathy for the artists performing.

Min: That’s interesting.

Katie: It comes with the territory.

Min: When I am performing, I ask ‘What’s the value of what I am doing to the audience?’ Would you like to tell me what you think of the value you are giving to the audience?

Katie: That is paradoxical. I had that time in Dartington to think about that and then the Internet blasted in and it gave me a solution in a way. I value that people choose to gather first and foremost. I hope that after a performance the individuals in the publics will be able to watch the news and feel. We have become so conditioned to accept lots of information and feel so little. I would like to open up this potential to feel. The homeless person on the street we pass by without looking too sharply his or her way. I hope when someone leaves a performance that they are more likely to feel this person. And that they realize to feel does not take away their potential to live a good life. That in fact the act of feeling clarifies our ability to think clearly.

Min: Please say once again…

Katie: If you play in front of public a lot, you do recognize they are just people gathering. They actually bought a ticket. That whole relationship is actually very cool. If you do it on the street, if you do it anywhere. It is shamanistic. In the best of cases you heal and they heal. We do this by celebrating this ability we have to feel: Feelings of the body, feelings of our emotions, and feelings in how we wager our ethics, feelings in how we are able to empathise. Feelings are all I really am aiming for.

The pieces I made were okay. People would get involved and go ‘Wow, cool’ but it didn’t really move the room.

Min: You think because of the distance?

Katie: Yes, the distance. I would sit in audience of my own work and feel that I am sitting here feeling very distant, people are going ‘wow’ but I am not engaged really. I mean I am not emotionally moved or in any way moved. There’s a way of alienating people by it being a good piece that I did not respect. The relationship with public and choreography is like being in church. Everyone is there because they believe in something. Not because they actually feel it.

Min: Then what do you think the relationship you have now is with the audience when you perform improvisation?

Katie: I am comfortable to let the public guide the performance. I work with the potential of the event.

Min: That sounds a very different place of meeting the audience from.

Katie: The institution of art places you in a position where you view a public as someone who is judging. I do not think this is true. Everybody has a life, and everybody is having a life right now. They are alive. There’s a lot of love to be shared.

Min: If you see the audience as your family, of course you will have a completely different relationship with them.

Katie: They choose to come.

Min: It is good to hear how you see the audience. It refreshes my feelings about the audience and the pressure or responsibility for them, but in a different way. I feel you include them more, not separate them.

Katie: MAGPIE is taking a position where they are deliberately not building an institutionalized company. We are doing that because we do not want to view publics through the shield of the institution. We are going to include the public in whatever it is that we are doing. The artists in MAGPIE have been together a long time. We have shared incredible experiences. We love each other. Why not just share that?

Min: How do you do that?

Katie: By treating everybody like that.

Min: Is it just in your intention or are there certain ways you can tell us that you access them differently?

Katie: First you need to have your intentions clear. If your intention is to involve publics already things happen. You need to have a keen access to empathy and a keen use of all of your physical senses. You try to get the social gene cooking by saying ‘let’s play it, lets work it’.

Min: You know some artwork, I think, touches the audience with the content of what they say. Others touch them with the beauty or aesthetics, or the sharing of the visions etc, and the way your work touches the audience and meets them is…?

Katie: Mine is a visceral art form.

Min: Visceral is like touching?

Katie: Consider someone sitting watching your performance and someone next to that person farts and they don’t smell it. What a drag. They should be able to smell the fart next to them. Those kinds of activities keep you alive. Even if you do not like the smell it is still important to acknowledge the fact that you smell it. Love is missed daily. Beauty happens all the time and we miss it.

Min: Yes. I was also hoping to ask you about something more practical, about what you are finding difficult during your improvisation performances and how you deal with those situations or problems.

Katie: I did a performance with Mary Oliver (violin). She was playing a beautiful music solo, however, for some reason or other one the audience members closed their eyes and after a minute or so began to snore. Mary was so engrossed with her violin solo she did not notice the snoring. I did and I did a slap with my hands which woke up the audience member and stopped Mary’s solo. I looked the audience member in the eyes and we smiled. Mary and I continued on until the end. She asked me why I did that and I told her that this person had fallen asleep. Even if the music was beautiful this person in the audience had given us the message. When I later met him he thanked me for waking him up. He said he had a long day and the music put him to sleep. Though he appreciated the moment of rest he appreciated more being woken up (as did the public who had become a little annoyed by the snoring). These kinds of situations are wonderful and test the priorities with your artistic practice and publics.

Min: I wanted to ask you about feeling shy; we talked about shyness a bit. Do you ever find yourself on stage feeling uncertain, or any options that are available to you didn’t seem like the one you want to take. Does this happen to you?

Katie: If I were shy then I should probably not perform. I do feel shy in many situations in my life. But not performing. I do not get nervous. I am an old performer.

Min: What would you say to young people, then?

Katie: Keep going. Do not underestimate the energy of self-consciousness. If you are radiating vulnerability in performance I would encourage it.

Min: I can see that if it was optional, that would be wonderful. But if you couldn’t choose not to be like that, it would feel quite awful.

Katie: If you are in choreography there is not much you can do about it. If you are in an improvisation you can always exit.

Min: If you are in a solo…?

Katie: You can exit in a solo. It all depends on what you believe you are responsible for? I felt responsible for so many things when I was younger.

Min: And now?

Katie: I am more really relaxed. It’s cool.
I have no memory of when I didn’t perform. It makes it a bit different, I should think. And I am only realizing that now, as I get older.

Min: I will ask you probably the final question. I wanted to ask you about where you are at, whether you have any questions around your practice; your art practice, your dance practice. What questions are you not having any more?

Katie: My interest in beauty has changed. I am only interested in the serendipity of beauty. That is different. And I don’t understand why we are so afraid of the mind.

Min: Are you not afraid of that?

Katie: No. I like it very much. I feel safer around people who are a bit crazy. I think we should listen to people who are hearing voices. Give them love and lot’s of attention.

Min: Any questions around your dance practice, art practice at this moment?

Katie: When will I not be dancing?

Min: That’s a good question: when will I not dance any more?

Katie: I want to understand that.

Min: What do you think?

That… as long as I keep getting offers to go play, I am going to play.

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