questions for Susan Rethorst

Susan Rethorst, HMD’s 2013 Bridge Project artist, will be in residence in San Francisco from April 19-May 5.  During that time she will set her acclaimed work Behold Bold Sam Dog (BBSD) on local dancers (which will be performed May 3-5 at ODC Theater), teach a composition workshop (Sunday April 28th) and do a book reading from her new book, A Choreographic Mind, named one of the New Yorker’s Top Ten of 2012 (Sunday April 28th).

Based in New York City since 1975, and splitting her time between NYC and Amsterdam since 1995, Susan Rethorst has presented work extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe. She is the recipient of two Bessie Awards and a 2010 Alpert Award in the Arts. A highly respected choreography teacher, Susan Rethorst has been instrumental in establishing post-graduate programs in Amsterdam, Salzberg, Cork, and Copenhagen. A documentary of Rethorst’s teaching methods and philosophy is currently in production at La Caldera in Barcelona. She has guest taught at Bennington, Ohio State University, Bard, NYU and Barnard, among others. Rethorst is widely known for her “wrecking project,” in which choreographers enter and take over each other’s creative process. In 2011, Danspace Project in New York honored Rethorst with a mid-career retrospective.

Recently I caught up with Susan to ask her a few questions about her work and specifically the dance she’s bringing to San Francisco, Behold Bold Sam Dog.

How would you define choreographic thinking?  
I just wrote a book about it – A Choreographic Mind.  It’s hard to summarize, but I can offer a quote from the book:

‘Tere O’Connor, a choreographer and friend, once told me a childhood memory. His sister slept in a room in the front of their house, while he and his other siblings (all boys I think) and his parents had rooms at the back. This in his mind left his sister’s room feeling like a kind of an appendage, thrust out from the safety and togetherness of the others. The road, though not close, ran by the front. He being very fond of his sister, would lie awake in discomfort and anxiety, thinking of her in her front bedroom, her isolation in relation to the rest of them, her seeming exposure in the vulnerability of sleep to the public sector of the world.

When he told me this I immediately said, “Oh, that’s the mind of a choreographer.” The mind that had a kind of spatial emotional map of a situation, the emotional psychological reading of place, and of people in relation to that place and each other (in this case its relation to the road, to others, to aloneness, to sleep) is the same mind that now looks at people and movements in the stu- dio/theater with an eye to arranging their various essences, how they speak and combine. The mind of a choreographer operating outside the studio, applying the same modes of perception that are both inclination and tool.’

What are some ways that you approach the teaching of composition?
I try to offer proposals that are metaphors and/or provocations for ways of thinking and proceeding. I try to stay away from imposing the answers I’ve found.  In fact, I often say at the end of a workshop, “Don’t take my word for it.”

If you consider the current dance landscape, what trends excite or interest you?
I am interested in what feels to me like “found” movement as opposed to “made” movement – movement seen and  gathered, not so much technique driven or invention driven.  The “manipulate the movement” era seems to be losing ground, and I am glad of it.

What questions currently fuel your choreographic practice?
I’m at a crossroads, wondering where my work will take me now.  I’m finished (I think) with my ‘living room series’ which has taken me to projections, installation, and site-specific work.  But I am floundering now as to the next step(s).  I am more and more interested in place and home and displacement, but how, and in what form, I don’t know.

What questions drove the creation of BBSD?
I’d been living in Europe and was movement-hungry.  I wanted to make a piece with a lot of dancing. I wanted to work again with Jodi (Melnick) and Vicky (Shik). I had heard the Shostokovich waltz somewhere and the ending of it had such endingness I wanted to see what I could do if I started with that ending as a beginning. I also had an image of a full busy stage  – many people – sweeping through and leaving Jo and Vick behind; a back and forth conversation between duet and group – interruption, comment.

How did you generate the movement in BBSD? Was improvisation involved?
I work in a couple of ways.  I go into the studio and make movement for whoever is there, that’s one way. The other is me improvising on camera, with Jodi learning back the parts that appeal to her, taking liberties with it as she goes. Some of it I then ask her to teach to the rest of the cast. The piece was about half and half of these two approaches.

Were there contributions from the original cast?
Just Jodi’s input in what/how she chose to learn off tape.

What are the movement values in the piece?
The most usual kind of comments I give to dancers doing BBSD have to do with weight and manner – weight down, as opposed to balletic posture, the body is almost lazy compared to ballet body. Walks are like you’re in your own house, not “on stage.” Also a lot of the movement has a near mocking itself quality: silliness, exaggeration, attitude.

Were you always a performer in the work or was this a decision you made later (to add yourself)?
I did not want to perform, but I felt after the 2nd duet that a new person had to enter with a very different tone – pull the work down to earth somehow, and it had to be me. So I did it.

Details on all of Rethorst’s residency activities below.   Performers in BBSD in San Francisco include Katie Faulkner, Christy Funsch, Aura Fischbeck, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Deborah Karp, Phoenica Pettyjohn, Peiling Kao, and Hope Mohr.


What: Open Rehearsal of Susan Rethorst’s Behold Bold Sam Dog
When: Sunday April 21, 5 p.m.
Where: San Francisco Conservatory of Dance
Tickets: Free and open to the public.
Workshop: The Choreographic Mind in Practice with Susan Rethorst
When: Sunday, April 28 1:30-5:30 p.m.
Where: ODC Dance Commons, 351 Shotwell St., San Francisco, CA
Tickets: $50.  email to register.

What: Book Reading: A Choreographic Mind with Susan Rethorst
When: Sunday April 28th 6-8 p.m.
Where: ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., San Francisco, CA
Tickets: Free and open to the public.

What: West Coast premiere of Susan Rethorst’s Behold Bold Sam Dog
Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 2p.m.
Where: ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets: $15-30 or call 415.863.9834