Rosa Vissers and Hatlo have been making work together as PE|Mo since 2011, but have been on hiatus since their last work, 2016 DanceCrush winner Anatomy of an Accident, premiered in late 2015. As individuals they’ve both been keeping busy. Hatlo has had a hand in countless area theater and dance productions, including Markeith Wiley’s It’s Not Too Late and the Stranger Genius nominated That’swhatshesaid. Vissers is not only a dancer, teacher, and choreographer, but also the Executive Director of the organization Yoga Behind Bars, which brings yoga and meditation to incarcerated individuals.
Since Anatomy of an Accident, the theater/dance collaborative team has been waiting for the “strong desire to need to make a next thing,” explains Hatlo. “At this point, now that we’re in conversation again, we’re really excited about making again and feel a really strong need to make this thing we’re brainstorming about right now.”
PE|Mo tends to “focus on stories that are underrepresented…on narratives or ideas that are rooted in social justice themes, but specifically feminism,” says Hatlo, but Vissers clarifies, “I wouldn’t describe us as a company that makes social justice work or work about social justice. That would feel too small for me and too narrow, it’s just that it’s part of our values, of who we are as people, so that is going to be a big influence. Just like my dance training or Hatlo’s background in writing and directing and theater are big influences.”
True to form, the idea for their new project is inspired by a concept of social justice, but abstracted to a fundamental level. “How do you work really hard to de-center something in a way that doesn’t let it keep coming back to the center?” asks Hatlo, “That’s the root of the experiment that we’re excited to make moving forward. This idea of pulling from the margins to the center, and challenging how the center functions, to move it outward…That requires something transformative.”
For Vissers, it ties back to her work with Yoga Behind Bars. “How this transformation happens…I’m in a live laboratory with that question on a daily basis in my work,” Vissers explains, “I used to think, ‘Oh my dance identity and my background in dance is informing x, y, and z,’ and I think right now I’m in a place where it’s more the other way around. We’re not going to make a piece about mass incarceration, but there is this aspect of working with invisible populations, people who have been written off as worthless, less than human, that is informing this.”
Hatlo is gaining insight from researching theoretical astrophysics. “How do gravitational pulls work to make things a circle, create orbits, and then what are the forces that can actually interrupt that, and how do we translate those things into the body?” Vissers adds, “It’s interesting because you know our name, PE|Mo, [stands for] Perpetuum Mobile—like this perpetual motion machine. And we were joking like, ‘Oh wait, we’re going back to this physics thing.’”
Pulling from a diverse set of sources is just how PE|Mo works. “We start with a whole bunch of materials and sources and start to layer them together and then go, ‘How much of this has been really important to us to get to this place, and how much of that is not really relevant to the final thing?’” Vissers explains, “Sometimes it’s scaffolding for us to get to some other place and we’ll take the scaffolding away and it’s not relevant, sometimes even for the performers, to know where something came from.” The two artists laughingly recall an early performance of theirs that referenced both koala bears and the Milgram obedience experiment.
“I think what I have learned from working with Hatlo that I didn’t get very much from my dance training (although in Europe there is a strong tradition of dance theater so I had some*) is the dramaturgy of the work… whether I want to or not, I am telling a story. Is this the story that I want to be telling?” asks Vissers, “It has to have an inner logic. Even if the choice is to be totally chaotic, it has to be a choice.”
“It’s about having central operating ideas that you want the piece to be and then it’s about regularly checking in with that, and making sure that you’re kind of pulling the piece back to those central ideas,” Hatlo says.
“Something else that’s really important about this collaboration for me is that I can go down like a million influences and list a million things that I’m excited about bringing into this process as a layer. And also at the end of the day, PE|Mo affords me taking my intense mental wrestling into the body,” says Hatlo, “I’m always like, ‘This is the idea that I have, this is an experiment I want to do’ and Rosa’s always like, ‘Oh, great. Boom. Here’s my really fat tool belt, and let me tell you the name of the person whose workshop it is, and this is their teacher, and so that’s where this came from and let’s try this tool.”
From the theatrical discipline, Hatlo brings their experience with written and spoken word. “I have a lot of strategies to unlock how language can be extracted, or how you can embody and articulate the triple meaning of a word through how you warm up saying it, how you move saying it…In rehearsal a lot of language that is generated by performers or that’s brought in by me, a lot of it doesn’t make it ultimately to the performance, but that’s a huge part of how we move in rehearsals and how we build work.”
“I love languages, words, reading,” Vissers adds, “In dance sometimes I felt really lost, that the word and language only came as sort of suspect in an effort to reclaim the body as a place of wisdom, knowledge, and value. It was almost as if you had to de-value the word, and language, and the mind. I think that that has also been something that working with Hatlo, I’ve really been able to be in that space a lot more.”
All this process isn’t fast. Vissers and Hatlo plan on spending the rest of the year with just the two of them in the studio. They just took a workshop together with Heather Kravas and got to “mess around with somebody who’s really irreverent about knowing what you’re doing, which was really positive for us,” Hatlo says. In the spring they may start experimenting with ensemble through some low-key workshops or performances. “This is going to be a piece that takes a long time to make because it starts with these big questions and we want to build a whole way of working that we’re constantly testing, that lives in our bodies.”
“We want to make things, but lower the expectation that it has to be a finished, neat thing because people have paid for a ticket and all of that,” says Vissers, “In the book Art and Fear there’s a chapter on whether it’s better to throw one perfect pot, or make forty over a period of a month. So you have one month to make one amazing object, or you can make 40 and what they’ve found is that the more you make, usually there’s a lot that’s crap, but usually in the end there’s one or two or three gems in there that are even often superior to trying to craft this perfect thing. So I think we’re a little bit in that mode right now.”
Both Hatlo and Vissers are finding ways to reframe how they think about their work in terms of the process. “Performance is just one manifestation of a whole bunch of things that I personally get out of doing this kind of work,” reflects Vissers, “It’s taken me a long time, more than a decade to figure that out, that the performance is one manifestation, these conversations is another way, the rehearsal process is another way and all of these things ultimately fit together and hopefully move things forward in some way.”
Hatlo has their own take, “This is about an endeavor, because in an endeavor you don’t know, you’re just working at something. Working it out, working it out, working it out, where you land is going to surprise you. That feels like what this is going to be: an endeavor.”
*Vissers was raised in the Netherlands.