“What is this?”
Whether looking at a still frame, a dance work, your own life, or something you found on the ground, this question comes to mind. The search for “this” is found in any situation—a constant thirst for definitive exactitude. 2016 Dance Crush Artist, Ella Mahler, and her collaborators unabashedly take on the seemingly vague subject, exploring the possibilities of “this” from every conceivable angle. Their three-part series of work includes this and this too, it can also be this, and Really, it’s this. I sat down to talk with her about the last of the three, which is premiering at NW New Works Festival this weekend.
“For Really, it’s this., we cracked open this and this too, and this is what’s inside. Someone who saw a preview described it as looking at [this and this too] under a microscope, which is really interesting to me because a lot of the things that we explored had to do with scale and impact…in the sense that it’s “this”, but it’s so much bigger, or closer, or more fleshed out, or cracked open, or upside down…” Mahler says.
this and this too, commissioned by Relay Dance Collective, premiered in 2016. “I didn’t set out to make three pieces that were related to each other…but from the very beginning, perspective seemed to be very important. I found myself watching rehearsal [for this and this too] from different corners of the room. It was clear we also needed to experience this through film.” Following the original duet, Mahler created a film version, it can also be this, in collaboration with videographer Liz Houlton. It received high praise, winning the 2016 Audience Choice award in Velocity Dance Center’s Next Dance Cinema festival.
“Under the surface, there was more. It just seemed obvious that we needed to keep making this thread of work…so we did.” she states matter-of-factly. Mahler’s collaborators include dancers Jenna Eady and Anna Krupp, Houlton, lighting designer Angela Kiser, and Dustin Mahler, her brother, who created the sound score for each work.
For this iteration, the work takes a multimedia approach to “unpacking” the underlying themes. New elements will take “this” to a new level: chairs, stacks of grey shirts, water, and projection. “The theme that shows up is this ever changing, evolving, never actually landing…work. It’s like a Rubik’s cube of effort, experience, labor…doing a lot, many different strategies of doing. And even if you solved it…then what?”
It’s apparent that Mahler and her collaborators were very interested in conversing with the work —listening to the “pulse of the piece” as she describes it. They paid attention to trusting what was important and what wasn’t. “We worked out of a place of necessity.” She says. “We cut out any wandering….it’s very commanding. As if to say ‘I’m here. No, I’m actually here. Well, now, I’m here.’ There is directness.”
Like the film version, this third iteration plays with perspective, sometimes audibly. “There’s things we can hear, but can’t see. It suggests, or makes us wonder if there’s more than what we’re seeing. It’s also like we’re experiencing a specific window of time within this world…like it could have been happening long before we started watching it.”
At points, Mahler lost the capacity to describe the piece with words. “We wanted to raise the stakes of this and this too. We brought more effort, more listening, more—” she cuts herself off, making micro-movements with her neck and hands. “Anna has this solo, where she’s having to problem-solve, and track all of these things. She has incredible detail of the most minute shifts, among her weighted, strong, hurling self—and both of those are happening at the same time.”
“There’s an abundance of change and sameness…it’s a little obsessive. It’s definitely a life piece…clear and structured, and then it falls apart. But in no way is it a desperate piece…as in, there’s no performative desperation. They are themselves, functional, working together, sometimes not working together. You can see it by their action, not a specific illustration of emotion.”
As far as how it relates to the other pieces, Mahler prefers the word “series” over “trilogy.” “I feel like ‘trilogy’ holds this connotation of order…and I see them horizontally, they have their own identities, but are connected. It’s all one true thing.”
Really, it’s this. will premiere at On the Boards for NW New Works Festival on June 16-18th, 2017. More information can be found here.