How to be rigorous and also collaborative? Stephanie Skura talks to Abby Crain

What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation between Abby Crain and Stephanie Skura, part of HMD’s 2014 Bridge Project.  Thanks to Abby and Stephanie.

Abby Crain (AC): I’m interested in egalitarianism as a way of working. I’m wondering how you cultivate that egalitarianism while also cultivating rigor. Sometimes when all ideas are valid, things get watered down. It becomes hard to sift through all of the ideas. When you allow a space for all ideas, the work of figuring out what matters without discounting other ideas becomes a challenge. How do you make sure that your line of artistic inquiry doesn’t get watered down in the process?

Stephanie Skura (SS): I didn’t ever work with total collaboration. You do welcome all ideas, but you don’t work with all of them.  It is important to keep your collaborators fully in the loop.  I always share everything so that the ideas that are generated are relevant to the context I am creating in. In that way, people don’t come up with random ideas like, “I’ve always wanted to pee in a bucket on stage,” or something like that. Their ideas have to relate to what we are working on. Sometimes we associate rigor with perfect unison, but [a collaborative] way of working is really rigorous. Eventually most of the people in my company became choreographers.  Working in this way empowered them to move forward and direct their own work, which is very satisfying for me.

AC: You were talking about empowerment and how part of the process involves dancers performing their own movement. Do your dancers also learn each other’s movement?

SS: Sometimes. But I’ve found that using that method creates narcissists. There is something about doing your own movement all the time that causes people to get really into themselves. Even though there might be partnering and duets.  Now I also have people learn each others’ material.

Learning from video is very hard. But it is a wonderful way to grow your own movement ideas. It’s useful to execute them as though they are someone else’s choreography. You analyze it differently. Try to understand where the initiation points are. Pick apart all of those details.

In the early days of choreographing, I couldn’t afford to rehearse that much, so I would do structured improvisations by necessity. Then I went through that whole period of learning from video and I got really tired of learning from video. I couldn’t stand to see another video monitor. More recently I am back to structured improvisation so I have almost come full circle.

Improvisation no longer has the bad name it used to have. It used to be considered unrigorous. In programs I would always credit the dancers because we worked collaboratively. I would say “choreographed in collaboration with the dancers,” but I couldn’t say, “from their improvisations” because if I used that word that people would think, “oh this is just going to be improvisation, just feel good movement that isn’t interesting to watch.” Improvisation was a dirty word. Now it has become accepted as something that can be a lifelong choice for your work.

AC: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you do structure your work so that it has a clear form.

SS: Form doesn’t necessarily have to come from setting the steps. You can still have timing and cueing. There are an infinite number of ways to do that. You can very carefully coordinate and cue it whether it is to music or to words or to each other. You can know when you’re doing it,  for how long, and what pathways you are using. You can be very specific with how you are moving, with very specific qualities. Specificity can come from a lot of different things. You can create descriptions of what you are doing without setting every step.

Skinner Releasing Technique is a technique, but the one thing you are not learning is how to learn other people’s movements. I always thought that was okay because learning how to learn the movement of other people is covered all the time by other people in other classes. That way of learning–where you’re seeing from the outside and then copying what you see–is a very different state of mind than starting from an image. I think that once you have improvised a lot, you can bring that sense of being inside the movement to choreographed movements. In this way, your inner life is alive and integrated. Improvisation technically is really important, whether you are performing it or not, because it teaches you how to focus on other things besides shape: moving with grace; breath; texture; intention.

AC: I’m curious about the teaching you are doing now in Open Source Forms (OSF). Having taught so much pure Skinner Releasing (SRT) and being trained in that, what launched you into this new direction?

SS: When I first started teaching, Open Source Forms was my own improvisational stuff that I took from my rehearsal process. Then I started incorporating [Joan] Skinner’s work because it was what I was doing in my personal practice. I got Joan’s blessing to do that. I told her what I was doing and she said it was fine. Then she wanted me to go through the teacher training. I did that, but I always wanted to take things into improvisational structures so I never really taught it straight, which was a big point of contention. It was one of the many reasons I eventually needed to leave.

I think it is something that happens with many, many different processes. I work in a theater program and I really thing that all of these different acting techniques (Meisner, Stanislavsky, etc) are all trying to get at pure presence, at really being in the moment. They are all trying to do that. They develop a particular method, but eventually it becomes a frozen form. Then people are pretending to be in the moment. They are simulating presence. They are not really in the moment. They are pulling the wool over our eyes. Then someone comes along and creates another technique for being in the moment…

I think what is difficult is to keep going with the fire that is underneath. What the work is about, not the outer shell of it. Even Joan Skinner would always say that we need to continually change the image because what we are trying to get at is not the image, but something else that is underneath the image. To keep the process fresh, maybe the fog needs to change into a white mist. She was always trying to change it.

Even the language has to change because when we use the same words for things, we forget what it means. We have to once again rediscover the meaning of things in order to keep it alive. That is what for me real rigor is. It isn’t about which words are right and wrong, but understanding how our words affect our learning environment.

Rigor is such a delicate thing because you constantly need to ask what it is that you are being rigorous about.  How to be rigorous and also collaborative? It can’t be a 5-step thing or even a 12-step thing. There aren’t steps. It is a non-linear process. It is a web-like process. How to be rigorous without fixing is a good battle. It’s like the challenge of how to be a leader without becoming an egomaniac.