Rachel Tess, early in the morning

Rachel Tess talks about the art and thinking behind her early-morning performance on Monday

Native Portland choreographer and performer Rachel Tess (currently splitting her time between Sweden and Portland) would like you to join her on Monday morning at 5:30 am at the The Pinnacle Pavilion on 1210 NW 10th Avenue for a walking/dancing exploration of a world that sleeps, choreographed by experimental choreographer Peter Mills. Bring a warm cup of coffee, a coat, an umbrella and your adventurous spirit. Message her ahead of time to let her know you are coming at rtess@rachelvtess.org.

Tess is interested in developing performances unique to neighborhoods and urban spaces, collaborating with visual, musical, and theatrical artists and fostering community and promoting dialogue between community members, leaders and activists.

Tess trained at Oregon Ballet Theatre, earned her BFA at Juilliard where she received a Princess Grace Award in 2002, performed with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, Gothenburg Opera Ballet and held a permanent position with the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm.

This is the place by Benoît Lachambre and Rachel Tess at Milvus Artistic Research Center in 2014. Photo by Darial Sneed.

‘This is the place’ by Benoît Lachambre and Rachel Tess at Milvus Artistic Research Center in 2014. Photo by Darial Sneed.

She has premiered her choreographic works in Stockholm, Montreal, New York City, Costa Rica, and Portland, Oregon. She was part of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch in 2010 for her work as co-­director of Rumpus Room Dance in Portland.

In 2013, Tess received her masters in choreography from the New Performative Practices Master’s program at DOCH-School of Dance and Circus at the Stockholm University of the Arts. She won and completed a Princess Grace Foundation Works in Progress Residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City with her ongoing project Souvenir in 2013.

She is the director of Milvus Artistic Research Center in Kivik—a residency program in Sweden that sits on approximately 27 acres of farmland on the edge of Stenshuvud National Park in Kivik, Sweden. The center offers space to performing artists to create work. And she directs Rachel Tess Dance in Portland.

Peter Mills is a choreographer, dancer, performer, artist, activist, researcher, teacher and mentor. Peter has a masters in choreography from Dans och Cirkushögskolan, where he worked on choreography through documentation as an ethical practice, towards anti-authoritarian ideals.

Tess and Mills met at the University of Dance in Stockholm, immediately entering into critical debate and a lasting friendship and artistic partnership.

Over the holiday Tess and I corresponded via email, and she was kind enough to answer all of my questions. Here are those questions and answers.

How was Rachel, a performance for the dead of night created? What was the inspiration behind its creation? Have you performed it before?
The performance is created through the concept/initiative that was developed by choreographer Peter Mills. Rachel, a performance for the dead of night, is part of a series of solos that explore existence in different parts of cities during the time when the city is not fully awake. Peter lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden, and is from the UK. He will not be joining us for the performance so the creation has happened through dialogue on Skype, Facebook, and e-mail. Here is a transcript of some of Peter’s guidance during our conversations the last weeks:

So you understand your first instruction is to choose a location to meet and move from. Part two is to visit the place. You could go to the location and take a walk, film the area talk about things, make associations or I can go through the location via google maps, then we skype together and talk.

I would like to work with a language which deals with your conditions and goes further into an existential questioning.

I feel we will need to contextualize the movement practices or expressions, so to secure them within a gaze which is helpful. Which means, I think, to give tasks to the audience (for example positions in space) and frame the different sections with speech.

I feel like this city is a love of yours and I feel like you want to do it all (choose every part of the city for the performance) it’s so lovely to do this with you I’m very excited.

To begin the solo, Peter asked me to visit a site at 5:30 am. I sent him video and photos which we have posted on the event page on Facebook. He then asked me what my interest in that site was. For this version of the solo I have focused on history, largely personal history. I have chosen sites in close proximity to spaces I have performed or worked in. I am interested in the histories embedded in my body and how they reveal themselves through my performance practice. Over the past three days, I have been developing a score for the performance based off of my experience during the first visit to the site. Keep in mind here that I grew up in Portland and have a special connection to living and working in the city as a dancer and choreographer.

I am responsible for the solo choreographically. Meaning that I choose the way in which the audience and I will move through the city. Peter’s role is as the responsible party or authority. Through taking authorship of the work, he gives me the space and security to explore the sites that I choose and what interests me.

This will be the first time I will perform the solo. I saw the first version of it in Stockholm with performer Gabriella Ax Tripsiani. She performed the bulk of the work on a rocky outcrop, the highest point in the city. It felt like meditating, mountain climbing, summer camp in the rain, a quiet night around a campfire, that thing you do after a party when no one is ready for bed yet and everything is possible, and a ritual all wrapped into one. I still need time to process how it sat with me as a performance. I am busy trying to understand it as an experience and see how my ‘take’ on the solo for the dead of night will turn out. I should say the thing that interests me most about the solo at the moment is the format. My choreographic work is usually articulated through or as long research periods. The format for this solo does not allow for that type of long-term research but requires all of the knowledge I have generated in doing it. I need to be able to access all of that knowledge and use it to actively engage with the audience in a specific place at a very specific time.

What is interesting to you about performing at 5:30 am in the morning?
On a conceptual level the way it breaks with the conventions of performance. On an experiential level with the sensations it produces. When I was out the other morning working on the solo, I had the sense that I was very safe and there were also moments that felt more precarious. At 5.30 am it’s quiet but not silent. I could sense depth and the intensity of light and dark more profoundly. These are just observations from the first visit—potential material for the solo.

Why did you choose 5:30 am and not another time? Or was it chosen for you?
This is a specific choice that Peter made. He chose 5:30 intentionally to break with the conventions of performance going.

How does it feel performing when you might not have an audience?
Normal. Hahahaha. There is always the potential for little to no audience. It doesn’t really make a difference to me. As a dancer I have always enjoyed performing but really love the process of creating. So for me…if the audience isn’t there I can still work, I can still perform. If it’s one person in the audience, it will be that experience, a one-on-one performance situation. If it’s more people, then I direct my energy differently. I can still practice performing one way or the other. But with this type of solo, which hinges off of the audience and their interaction with the materials (to a greater degree than a performance in a traditional theater I might argue)…. yes…it’s really nice to have an audience there.

I think the amount of people also affects the individual audience experience. How does a group form a community through shared experience? Is it possible for this to happen in an hour-long performance? This question interests me and has been something I have learned from Peter’s artistic practice. What interests already exists within the group?

Peter has been very specific about limiting the audience capacity to 10/12 people. This is done specifically so that the performer can safely manage the group in an outdoor performance situation. But I think it also has to do with intimacy and individual experience with the solo and performer.

What have you gleaned from your rehearsal experiences so far?
People are much more awake, up and moving around in the city of Portland at 5:30 am than in Stockholm. I saw a lot of runners and some people walking their dogs when I was out rehearsing.

There is also something about moving around in the half-dark (there are a lot of street lights of course) that allows me to focus in a much sharper way. Perhaps it is the absence of the intense activity on the streets during the day.

How do you feel about dancing in the rain?
No problems there. I enjoy dealing with different conditions in my work and seeing how they affect the movement materials and audience experience. I have let people know to bring umbrellas.

What is the score that Peter made for you?
It is in my answer to the first question. Perhaps it was more of a set of instructions and the score is what I created in response to those instructions.

How would you describe a score to people unfamiliar with this concept?
A set of instructions that dictate the choreography. Broken down by the distribution of time, position and space, and activity.

How did you and Peter come to work together?
Peter was an artist-in-residence at my residency center (Milvus Artistic Research Center) in Sweden in 2015 and 2016. We also went to school together at the University of Dance in Stockholm where we both completed our masters in choreography. We will be working together again through the residency center in the summer of 2016 with a performance Peter is creating for babies. (www.milvusart.se)

You choose to choreograph and perform in atypical performance spaces. What is interesting about these spaces to you? What are you trying to learn/investigate from these experiences?
My initial interest in working with site specificity stemmed from a rejection of the traditional theater space, plain and simple. I had danced on a lot of large proscenium stages and in black box theaters and I wanted to get closer to the audience (and here I mean proximity as well as closer to the spaces and places that people use on a day to day basis). My early work in Portland included large scale interventions in various public spaces.

I found that over time I started to feel like water. That I was becoming too malleable…that my choreography lacked specificity because I continuously challenged it by moving from one space to another. In 2013 I created the project Souvenir, which is an 8-by-5 meter wooden structure that I use as a frame and boundary device at different sites. In this way, I still travel to different public spaces, but I see them through the lens of the structure and the choreographic materials we have made inside of it. I enjoy seeing how different contexts affect choreographic materials. I enjoy seeing how different audiences in different locations respond to the materials. How they respond to being in a confined space with the dancers. What does intimacy mean? I am interested in what silence means for different audiences—what community means for different audiences.

What is it like dancing in Europe versus America? How has that changed you as an artists?
I have more financial stability in Sweden. I have had wonderful opportunities to produce and deepen my artistic work in the years that I have lived there. In contrast I have used a 501(c)(3) non-profit to continue my work in the United States. So the means by which I produce my work in both places are very different. Grant organizations vs. individuals in my case. Both have their benefits. I enjoy getting to know the wonderful individuals that have supported my projects in Portland over the years. There is something very special about making these connections and listening to how people respond to the work you are making relative to the city they live in. I still have a fighting spirit from working in Portland, a kind of do-it yourself, come hell or high water attitude that I think shapes my work. But I have also experienced the luxury of having time and space for my artistic work in a way I might not be afforded in the United States.

My artistic work changed markedly when I had the opportunity to work with choreographer/performer Benoît Lachambre while dancing at the Cullberg Ballet (2011). The process re-calibrated my sense of time and what a body can do or become in a specific time and place. Benoît and I have continued to work together and just performed a new work of ours in New York last summer in the River to River Festival. Lately the biggest change I have noted in my own practice, which can often be very critical and reductionist, is that I am more accepting of considering everything as material. So it is less about what you are working with and more about how you work with it. I learned this from Benoît I think.

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