Reeling-Healing: A Conversation with Teresa Fellion

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Living in New York, I’ve been excited to branch out and see more art and explore beyond the literary scene (though there’s plenty to do just around writing!). So in the Fall, I saw BodyStories: Teresa Fellion Dance perform two works at Triskelion Arts in Greenpoint. Afterwards, I talked with the artistic director, Teresa Fellion, about developing these pieces, and also about how writing has supported her and her company as well, whether it’s processing difficult concepts for a project or describing a piece for a grant. This project has since expanded into a public art and action event called Inwood Erases Hate with Love. Community workshops based around the concepts of reeling-healing culminated in a performance at Linden Terrace in Fort Tryon Park on October 4, 2019. I’ve included my impressions of the works, followed by our conversation, which I’ve edited for brevity and clarity.

For their Fall Season, BodyStories began with The Warm-Up, a funny, glitzy, women’s fitness-gone-wild piece where each dancer had a particular character, such as the zealous instructor (Kate Bishop), the newbie copycat (Tamara Leigh), and the selfie-centered workout princess (Serena Chang). The larger-than-life props like a giant blue jump rope, pushed this familiar scene into the surreal, but what’s satisfying about this piece is that even the most futuristic workout must be grounded in the human body, reminding us that we carry the imaginative possibility of this piece inside us already.

Following the bouncy brightness of The Warm-Up, BodyStories presented reeling-healing, a darker politically-minded piece about processing frustration and helplessness caused by the scale and magnitude of political upheaval. How the political and personal intertwine is difficult enough to communicate with language, let alone movement, but this piece reminded me that we do it all the time, whether or not we understand it, that the mind is the body, and hateful ideology strikes to the bone. Uncanny music designed by Kevin Keller primes the audience for a climax, a crisis that never arrives because this dance takes place already inside it. After several sections of separated movement, where dancers are often blocking each other, facing away, and moving through shadowy lighting, it feels especially gratifying when they converge at the end, lifting each other over the group, one after the other, combining their energies in order to move forward. 

Katie Willingham (KW): Can you talk about the seeds of your recent work and how they were developed?

Teresa Fellion (TF): Both pieces were so different with this current show that it is interesting to talk about what those seeds were. So I’m thinking about The Warm Up first—it was an idea brought to me by Bruce Bushel, and at first I was thinking of it as very pragmatic. As he was going through physical therapy, he was realizing these repetitive motions are kind of like choreography and he had this vision of making a dance from movements that have more of a functional purpose and thinking about how you make that artistic. I was really interested in that concept and I love it when somebody brings a question to me and we can explore it together.

KW: And is Bruce just a personal friend of yours or is he a dance connection?

TF: He contacted me! I didn’t know him. It was kinda neat! I think it’s because we’ve done a lot of work in East Hampton where he lives, so he had this idea and he wanted to reach out to a choreographer. Now I feel like we’re close friends after just having randomly met on the phone!

KW: That’s really cool. I would never think to do that—to call.

TF: Yeah, I know. Some people are real idea-makers, so that was really wonderful. And I was finding, as I was going in, that there are so many ways of exercising and using the body in functional ways that I was like, ok, we kind of need to make an ode to each of these. I wanted to make it campy but not—like in a sophisticated way. I didn’t want to say here’s the yoga section and here’s the pilates section. We tried to feather them together. And John Yanelli is a big part of that. The way we work with music and dance together, it’s always threaded together so it brings you through a whole experience. And Bruce and I were always thinking of a lot of props, because there’s so many props involved in exercise. It was great to bring in the exercise balls and discs and rope and foam rollers. It was kind of a multidisciplinary approach.


KW: And do you want to talk about the seeds of reeling-healing as well?

TF: Yeah, so that piece is our brand new piece so I think of the premiere as sort of a stage 1, and it’s a piece we’ll continue with. It won’t even be the same piece by the next time we present it, but that material is an amazing foundation.

When I started this piece working with college students at Wilson College, unfortunately it was right at the same time as the Parkland shootings. It was the next week. And every shooting has been awful, but we were thinking about the way that that one was being handled, and the way that the conversation was starting to shift slowly but surely. A lot of the group material came from that. For example, say they had just opened a closet door from having been hidden in a classroom and they were seeing all this debris and hurt people, so working with the idea of that first stepping out from that extreme trauma and how it kind of emanates from you but you’re terrified and also in disbelief about what just happened—kind of this floating but also heaviness. That was a big theme at the beginning.

Developing this further, I started digging into things I’ve experienced and things I’ve seen out in the world that are traumatic experiences, and experiences of unfairness and oppression, and facing those head on. I did a close reading of a lot of sources—written ones, but also a lot of images of dehumanization and oppression and gun violence and violence against women. A lot of those images were really powerful and the dancers and I would react to them. We would say we saw resistance in an image, or two people opposing, or two people cooperating to move against another thing and we would create movement off of those. And throughout the dance, they’re kind of looking to find something—pushing and pulling through the space to find their way through that and eventually realizing how they need each other and working together.

KW: And that’s sort of where the title comes from too, right?

TF: Yeah, because you have reel—reeling is a part of the process of healing and they’re both equally valid. You know, we should be reeling because of what’s going on right now. I mean, “time’s up!”

KW: I’m also interested specifically in the role of writing or language both in uncovering material with the dancers and in terms of how it gets presented to an audience. Let’s start with this: How has language around difficult concepts made it possible to go deeper or uncover material that takes the movement in a new direction? This could refer to your latest work or a past experience.

TF: I did have the dancers write a bit on their own for reeling-healing so they could go through their own experience with the piece. The material got so intense at points, the dancers actually asked me if they could have some time to write and process their own thoughts on these themes to be able to bring it to the performance and go further with their physical exploration.

KW: What sort of things got uncovered through that for them?

TF: Knowing the themes of the piece, everyone was really invested in exploring that for themselves, so by the time we got to the writing portion, I gave some personal examples for myself to give everyone the permission to go deep. I shared an experience of sexual assault where I had that kind of reeling and healing process on a personal level. But then we talked about the difference of having experienced that versus being able to empathize with others’ experiences. And it’s an important distinction because we got into feeling such an intense reaction to things like the school shootings, but I haven’t been involved in that and I didn’t want to try to tell someone else’s story. Even deciding to make this piece I wasn’t sure how, but then I began to realize the connections we all do have. I brought the dancers through that too so we were all aware of those lines and how are we navigating them to be sensitive. By the time they were writing out their own, I think it made it easier to navigate. And then it did help us have a common language in discussing it. Even if we’re not sharing all of each other’s free-writes, we had these common words that came up.

KW: I know audience participation is a big part of your work. Can you talk a little about why that is and how it works, as well as how text has sometimes played a role?

TF: So it’s funny because I think I always have been leaning towards audience participation, but it’s not like I set out to make every work immersive. That’s a defining word in the dance world. You know, if you have an immersive show it means that the audience is either traveling in the space or they’re surrounded by the dancers. It breaks down the fourth wall. And I’ve been doing that—gosh!—maybe eleven years, now that I’m thinking back to it, and maybe longer, but I don’t want to say that’s the only work I’m interested in. Sometimes I do like people to be able to relax and watch the work on stage and that’s enough of an experience. And I would argue that all of our work is immersive even if they’re in their seats! It might be a little silly to say, but it’s true. Like our work Home, everybody was sitting there in their spot, but it really pulled them from where they were and people made really personal tie-ins to the work that weren’t laid out for them. To me, that’s immersive, but it was completely proscenium style setting.

But when I think about why audience interaction is important to me, it’s because our whole mission is having that visceral response from the audience. That’s the deepest impact, I feel. You’re with other humans in the room, whether they’re onstage or in the seats, and that’s such an intimate bond. It communicates things that are hard to communicate elsewhere.

KW: It makes that more visceral too for people to get up in the space.

TF: Yeah, so when they get up in the space it’s a whole different thing. When we had a commission for chasama at Anita’s Way, 4 Times Square, there were 40 dancers and it was site-specific. It was an elevated stage but people could walk through between two buildings, so it was a public performance that people would walk by and then come in. We had audience navigators that would guide the audience to different focused areas and they would stand in different formations while the dancers were shifting formations also. It was called Control/Dominion and the whole thing was sci-fi and hyper-architectural, so the audience probably felt controlled in a way.

And then kind of loosening up after that project, we got into the Mantises trilogy starting in 2012, and the final iteration of that so that was in 2015 at Danspace. We taped out designs on the floor so it was almost like the audience was in the board game Candyland.  They’d start in in a semi-circle on purple tape and then be moved into a diagonal and so on. They traveled to 4 or 5 places within the space and then they were led to their seats. So that was this more quirky way of uncovering the layers of the psyche and then going deeper to a more felt, fluid experience and the audience was seated for that. So I guess each time I’m trying to think of a more sophisticated way to deepen the audience’s experience.

KW: And then do you want to talk about text as the method of interaction with reeling healing?

TF: Yeah, because that’s quite different from the others. Those interactions I was describing were all very much spatial, but reeling-healing felt like it wanted text because our pieces do tend to be very abstract.  I think that’s a strength of them. I don’t want to be literal. I didn’t want to spoil the piece, but I also did want to ground it and so we brought in these timelines. They had been developed by, I think, Lincoln Center Education Department and then I learned of them through Dreamyard Project but it was this timeline that spanned…maybe the most recent 30 years? And, of course, it didn’t cover everything, but it covered some key events in American history that affected different populations. The housing crisis was on there, for instance, and that may affect people very differently. Like if you’re in the finance sector that’s going to affect you very differently than if you bought a house that got foreclosed on. And it was just listed without those perspectives I’m describing now, so people could make their own connections. We gave them green stickers to put on the events that felt significant for them, and they could put as many as they wanted. My hope was that they would have that information in the back of their minds and they wouldn’t try to be thinking, “oh, this is that part of the timeline and this part of the dance is that part of the timeline,” but instead they would just have had that mental experience of interacting with the timeline and then be able to watch that piece.

KW: Yeah, that kind of audience interaction is more mental or internal, rather than when people are being moved in the space where that’s like an outside thing that then moves inside, its like that the inside that then moves out.

TF: Yeah! I like that a lot! The dancers had already gone through that mental process and brought it external and I wanted the audience to go through that mental process and have the external experience, but then for them in their external experience to meet the dancers. Then at the culmination of the dance, the dancers meet the audience so it kind of brings it all together. So that’s why I think in the next steps of creating this piece, I want to then possibly move the audience (laughs). You’re going to be like “oh, again?” I know I don’t need to do that every time, but it just feels like I want to see actual connection. What is that dialogue or what is that movement that is then created with that new level of understanding? Almost maybe a cathartic movement or something like that. So that’s the next question.

KW: Have to wait and see!

TF: Yes, check back!

KW: Coming from a writing perspective, I want to ask what it’s like to translate your goals for grant proposals, promotion, or even just collaborators in order to generate enthusiasm and to realize a piece that will ultimately be an experience beyond description. Can you talk about that?

TF: So it is tricky, because all these things feel intangible and for a long time it was actually really challenging for me. In my writing or in my speaking, I wondered, “is this going to make sense?” It’s a hard thing to know how to communicate about, but if it’s the work you do and it’s how you think—and a lot of us dancers do operate in that realm—then it does make sense. It won’t make sense to everyone, but it’s valid and it speaks to an area of things that aren’t always spoken about. That’s why dance is so important. It all makes sense together—why it might be hard to speak about, but why it’s so important to speak about.

And when it comes to promotion or proposals for grants, you feel like you want to be very analytical about your work and I would write about it in sort of an academic/theoretical sense at first, and then I would realize, “No, they want to hear about specifically what I want to do and what we care about as a company and how we’re going to put that into action.” So actually learning that made it grounding and thinking about where theoretical meets the pragmatic. And in the end, you want to be able to visualize the project in the proposal and you need the nuts and bolts to get to that place. And it shows you also value the intelligence of your reader to do that, because if you describe the project thoroughly, they’re going to understand.

KW: I feel like there’s been a lot of discussion about genre in writing and what different genres are well-suited to explore, I think because there’s so much genre-bending work out there as well. And sometimes these conversations have classist undertones, like trying to elevate “literary fiction” above genres like science fiction etc. But I wanted to think about that in the context of broader genres of art making. What do you feel is important in the world of dance right now that is best expressed through this art form versus any other (visual art, writing etc.)?

TF: I think there’s similar things in the dance world. When you say classist undertones, I’m thinking about a recent conversation I had with a colleague about the admissions process for undergrad and how often the first part of the audition will be a ballet barre and then there are cuts right after. And often, when there is someone who is very good at ballet, their parents have had to pay for tons of classes and they’ve had to commit time and money to that, while someone who may not have had those resources could be amazing in a dance department but not necessarily start from a ballet background. I would say there’s been some progress with that, especially for modern dance programs. Not everyone is coming form the same ballet base now, but I did grow up with that base, and I’ve had to break down those barriers over time.

I think that genre-bending is important. What is your movement vocabulary and what is your movement history? I would say you blend from all those. I would say my movement history would be ballet, pogo sticking, snow boarding, modern dance, contemporary dance, running, and biking. And tag and rugby too! It would be everything I’ve done in the past including dance, but not exclusively dance. And that does bring up a lot of genre-bending. I don’t think you have to say when you’re making a new dance, “is this dance?” No, it’s movement and it’s put there intentionally so therefore it’s dance.

KW: And is there something you think dance captures best, rather than visual art or writing or any other artistic practice? It’s hard, they all touch everything, but yeah—

TF: Dance and theater are living humans on stage in 3D so it has that immediate human connection. We were talking about this before—being in the same space and feeling that. Theater involves text—and dance can have text also—but through movement I feel you can conjure up so much, so many recognizable things, even when people don’t know that they’re recognizing it. They kind of feel like, “oh, that’s reminding me of something,” and maybe it’s a gesture or a glance. They’re kind of in this felt experience with the dancer having a felt experience. It’s a really reflective way of consuming art, because you have to invest in it in order to have that sensation. Of course, you can watch it for the beauty of it, and movement is beautiful—any kind of movement whether its beautiful or ugly, I think is all beautiful for what it’s intention is. It’s communicating something if you’re kind of open to receiving that. I’m thinking of what David Dorfman said about our work too. He said it was very “soulful” and I like that because it’s like beyond moods and emotions. That’s all very much a part of dance, but “soulful” gets at that deeper level of understanding.