“visions of beauty” by Heather Kravas is “Punk in Attitude, Feminist In Spirit”

Heather Kravas experiments with the process of making dance as much as she experiments within the actual performance. Choreography for her newest work, visions of beauty, has evolved throughout her experience working with the nine dancers performing the piece—the result is a dance about itself. Heather’s Creative Capital project premieres at Performance Space 122’s COIL Festival Jan 10-13, 2018, in the East Village, New York.

We caught up with Heather to learn more about the work, and get a sense of what it was like behind-the-scenes in developing the choreography.

Alex: How do you describe visions of beauty?

Heather Kravas: visions of beauty is a dance about itself and the compulsive, lopsided, angry, funny, frustrating and redemptive messiness of everything. Nine performers demonstrate how bodies both trap and free us. The work examines relationships between art, power, agency and desire; language is distilled, stuttered, repeated, held and abandoned, leaving space for the audience to experience something beyond amusement.

This is the official language for it. But for me, these two lists feel closer to something real:

X, Corner, Line, Tornado, Spiral, Switchbacks, Rite


Andrew, Cecilia, Connor, Joey, John, Kayvon, Michael, Michael, Saúl, Tarek (Gus, Vic, Tonja, Agnes, Robert, Felix)

Alex: I read that visions of beauty is a response to an earlier piece The Green Surround, a piece you made for nine women which analyzed their “pursuit of perfection and the possibilities generated from its failure.” Is this still accurate?

Heather: It is always interesting to reflect on what the point of departure is with a piece and how the ultimate work rejects and responds to the initial ideas. While I continue to relate the dances to each other, I feel it is more apt to describe how power and collectivity is examined in each work, rather than gender.

When I made The Green Surround, many people described the work as “intimately, inextricably female,” and it became of interest to me to test this assertion and thought to recast and invert the piece with a male cast. I am naturally contrary and seldom like my first ideas, though I am fascinated by how there remains a thread to an initial impulse. While conceptually tidy, I am ultimately not someone interested in fleshing out a plan. What planning lacks, for me, is the visceral experience of working with other people—of discovering, destroying or building something together.

All these forces are essential to the creation of visions. Early in the process, I rebelled against my initial plan and brought together a cast comprised of men, a woman and gender nonconforming individuals.  I think I made it through half a rehearsal believing in an inverted structure, shivered, laughed and got to work on the real and messy process of figuring out what this piece could be.  We made most of this work in the fall and winter of 2016.  The political climate was unbearable and sometimes dancing was a way to be together without language, embodying our frustrations and desires and sadness.

My work often entails a physical risk or personal vulnerability. As a performer, I am interested in this offering. However, I am not interested in telling people when and how they should test their own limits. It is something I think about often—how to allow the dances to test limits without enforcing an imbalance of power?

I reflected on my ideas about making a piece that addressed some aspect of male identity.  It felt important to offer something that was not about reinforcing (anything, be it gender or the traditional hierarchy of a rehearsal practice).  I wanted to make something un-stuck, something that undermined our assumptions.  This was the real challenge of the work, even more than discovering its organization, which was also a challenge (and always is).  It is a work where the choreography and performance must re-position itself because the moment the material is understood it becomes about cliché rather than transformation.  It was very important to me that I did not become didactic in this pursuit, or worse, that I made the performers try to tell my version of something that I, myself could only misunderstand.  The work is full of emotion and untreated histories but this information is delivered as a kind of by-product. The work is attempting abstraction. It wants to be abstract but admits to the absurdity of this endeavor because of the flesh-bone-mind-hearts of the people who are making it.

I think every work becomes a piece for the specific individuals who are with me making it. Specific groups have specific, group interests. With The Green Surround, our collective curiosity enabled us to focus on precision and this attention glued the group together as a powerful, unnerving assembly.  The nine performers of visions were not collectively interested in an examination of minutiae.

Excerpt from “The Green Surround”

My work often entails a physical risk or personal vulnerability. As a performer, I am interested in this offering. However, I am not interested in telling people when and how they should test their own limits. It is something I think about often—how to allow the dances to test limits without enforcing an imbalance of power?

I have questions about the structures of the dances I create with others based on my role as “director.” We worked with this tension in the following way: I would “invite” the dancers to try a task/movement/improvisation and give as much information about it as I could (sometimes not much). We had an overriding rule: “you can choose ‘no’ and not participate.” The performers (and I think performers generally) are incredibly generous, thoughtful people. I think because of the direness of the time, we wanted to go deep and far with one another. I had an expectation that for the most part people would say “yes.”

If I said, “let’s rock with one another for 7 hours,” people would be like, “yeah, that sounds hard. Let’s do it!” What was really fascinating to me was that people said “no” quite a lot.  Not necessarily with words but with actions.  And that saying “no” taught me a great deal about what the structure could be that contained rebellion or maybe even just the possibility of rebellion.

I saw people very powerfully question their own relationship to command—sometimes people said “yes” to a choreographic prompting and felt trapped. Sometimes people said “no” because they did not want to become someone who said “yes.”  Sometimes everyone said “yes” and the power of collective “yes” made them create something together that felt way beyond my directive.  This gets back to what I was previously saying. The two works examine different power possibilities.

With Green Surround, the group became powerful because of a near endless agreement about detail. It looked like authoritarianism without evident director.  To some, I appeared as the invisible “dictator,” but more complexly, the power of the work resided in the agreement between the cast and myself to examine synchronistic behavior. By performing consenting synchronicity differences were rather magnificently present.

With visions, the group becomes powerful because it makes room for not only difference, but also choice.  To me, performances are a container for all of my thoughts and feelings and experiences during a particular moment in time. Right now it feels very necessary to create something with possibility even if it risks sloppiness or failure. My personal, rather obsessive, tendencies run counter to this so the choreographic letting go feels central, crucial and terrifying. We are trying to move and make room—to demonstrate something that isn’t fixed by idealism.

Alex: Ok, so I understand the rules of creating the piece as you worked with the performers. As a director, how did you proceed from the “yes” and “no” premise of it to confirm what the choreography would really look like?

Heather: There is a specific structure and set of principals that guide the creation of each of the work’s seven sections. Simply put, the performers are improvising and I don’t precisely know what the choreography will look like. It is something more akin to putting a puzzle together—we know what the final picture should be but it coheres a bit differently each time. Our work has to do with identifying different strategies—understanding tempo, range, how decision-making affects outcomes, and allowing for exhaustion or accident to be an impetus. In the end, I feel like I have choreographed barely anything at all. The movement is much more a collection than an invention. It includes material taught to me by Antonija Livingstone, detailed directives from my 4 year-old son, an attempt to create a dance from a drawing by Victoria Haven and the fleeting expressions of various techniques. This is all filtered, interpreted, rejected, and embodied by the performers.

Most of the sections began as fairly loose improvisations. They were amazing. I loved seeing these spontaneous performances where the idea and the dance met for the first time. After that, I went through a rather painful time of trying to set material, perfect it or turn it into something else. I tried to be choreographic with it and make it behave as a dance I had made before, something to be contained. To my eye, it got worse and worse, heavier and heavier. There was no joy and it became a series of bad clichés.  I had to have a lot of faith that we were going to arrive at something that felt right because for a long while I felt oblivious.

The work allows for a lot of “dancing” which is (ironically) kind of different for me. There are moments where it looks like Bob Fosse, Paul Taylor or Kurt Jooss have made a visit. By allowing the material to remain improvised, references can come and go. Their arrivals and departures can be called upon and sometimes also spring up unexpectedly. I love these passing citations. When I tried to set the material it looked like I was (badly) recreating the work of others.  Somehow in keeping the dancing structurally less rigid, I believe we can honor more of our performance histories, acknowledging that dance is a form passed on from body to body that will also always be in the process of transforming.

Image from visions of beauty. Photo credit: Alex Escalante

Now we improvise on our improvisations that were based on set material based on an improvisation…
I am still trying to understand what I can do to make it work “better” (an impulse that is likely getting in the way of something more radical, and therefore worth my continued examination). I see that the material is most compelling when there is a lot of tension—when I witness people acting alone and together to draw out an experience or cut an action abruptly. What is amazing to me is how this group of performers works together to manifest the structures, making bold decisions that are in service to the form rather than ego (or more explicitly, how personality can also emerge, recede, transform). I feel excited about how abstraction, politics, and feeling intermingle within their dancing.

Alex: So, the work has come a long way since the initial phase. In terms of actual movement, repetition is a big component of your work—and is key to understanding visions of beauty from what I understand. You said in your Retreat presentation that repetition allows us to see time and how time affects meaning. Can you explain this more and how it plays out in your project?

Heather: I am interested in the discrepancy between ideological repetition and the role of human error and fatigue when we try to replicate something. Repetition can be lulling or boring. These are very human experiences that we are, of course, encouraged to eradicate with technology and entertainment.  Sometimes if we can sit through something that tests our patience we are rewarded—small changes can lead to powerful shifts, unexpected big changes can be noted for their profundity.

I think repetition lets us see in detail.  I think repetition allows an audience an authorship—they may experience how their own emotional/intellectual state shifts rather than be continually forced into a pattern where the performers are entertaining/educating and the audience is placated/enlightened.  I don’t like people telling me what to think and I try really hard not to do that. I think this is one of the ways that art can be politically potent.  Not in telling us what we should think but in allowing us space to think for ourselves. Repetition is maybe a tool for this but also I think a pattern I relate to, like rocking someone to sleep or head-banging at a concert.

Alex: How has receiving Creative Capital Award been helpful to the development of your project and/or art practice?

Heather: The Creative Capital Award allowed me to work with this extraordinary group of people.  I used the bulk of my award to remunerate them for the significant amount of time we spent in rehearsals in New York.  It was very meaningful to me to be able to pay people to work towards a project.  We have made something without costumes, without scenography—if I have a room, a kitchen timer and my phone we are pretty much good to go on with a show that lasts for a varying amount of time and is then remembered and forgotten.  I feel so fortunate to have been allowed to go deeply into a difficult, meandering, rewarding process.

Purchase tickets to see the premiere of Heather Kravas’s Creative Capital Project, visions of beauty, at Performance Space 122’s COIL Festival.