I began making dances in 1979, but I date the inception of my overarching choreographic project to a dance I made in 1987, MacGuffin or How Meanings Get Lost. That’s when I started articulating my obsession with meaning-making, and the experiential kinds of meaningfulness that dance and performance can provide - sensual, perceptual, phenomenological. Even the dances I made in the 1990s, through which I was processing the devastations of AIDS, can be seen through this lens: The “not about” in the title of Not-About-AIDS-Dance is purposeful. Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors has been a guidepost. Also her Against Interpretation

I draw a connection from “against interpretation” to my experience growing up as a gay child in the 1960s. There I was, a cis-gay-boy-child who loved show tunes, Barbie dolls, and dancing around the living room. None of this was a problem for me. But it was eventually understood - interpreted - as a problem by many around me (like the kids who jeered at me up and down the halls of junior high school). I think this part of my personal history contributes to my desire to make choreography that discourages easy labeling and instead accommodates a complex multitude of resonances. Hence lies my interest, however utopian it may be, in somehow provoking an experience of the performance moment in and of itself - in addition to, and inclusive of, the interpretations and inescapable cultural associations that might be summoned by, or for, the viewer.

Movement discovery
I began videotaping my own solo movement improvisations in 1990 while making Destiny Dance (with a camera borrowed from one of the dancers), and subsequently have relied almost solely on constructing my dances from movement culled “verbatim” from videotaped improvisation. For years I recorded only my own improvisations, so in a sense all the dancers were asked to move like I moved on a specific day. Yet I came to see this process of striving to embody a specific form also served to expose each dancer’s deep individuality and idiosyncrasies, revealing the different and specific ways each dancer - including me - bumped against, could not truly fit, those forms. In 2006, with Quartet with Three Gay Men, I finally took the plunge to source material from improvisations by all the performers, not only from my own, which opened a new vein of exploration. During a preliminary work period we develop and explore interests and priorities for the improvisations, all ultimately funneled through each performer’s distinct body and background, habits and histories.  While this method of creating movement is not a sword I need to die on, I continue to be interested and challenged by the resultant broadening and decentering of the performance actions (away from me).  The negotiation of difference within each new cast has emerged as a central premise of this collective process.

I must acknowledge the invaluable contributions of every dancer, composer, and designer who has participated in my work, including my longtime collaborators - for over thirty years! - composer Zeena Parkins and lighting designer Michael Stiller. 

Michael and I have developed a shared design language that, in Michael’s words, “builds on our mutual interest in the ability of kinetic lighting to create a visceral experience and to bend perceptions.” Amen! Michael has coaxed me into seeing past the initial disruption when, after months of work on a dance, I see it suddenly transformed in sometimes not so subtle ways during a tech process that may only last for a few days. 

Prior to working with Zeena I had been committed to presenting my dances in silence, without music or sound design. In our first collaborations I insisted that all sound had to be dance-driven, i.e. cued by the dancers. The Disco Project in 1995 was the first work in which we performers danced to the music, and the floodgates were opened on my subsequent collaborations with Zeena. For many project she’s provided rough drafts of newly composed music for me to play with from the earliest stages of choreography, starting with the videotaped improvisations, and together we’ve ordered the separate tracks into a final sequence. She’s also served as musical advisor for those works, like The Disco Project, for which she did not compose new music, and when she’s been unavailable generously suggested other composers for me to work with - Chris Cochrane, Steve Roden and James Lo.  Most recently Zeena and James have joined forces as composers on Betsy (2022), and will again collaborate on the music for a next work (and maybe more?). 

Finally, let it be known that I love dance and performance. And I love a joke.

© Mark Sommerfeld, 2022