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KT Niehoff "Unhinges" Movement and Ideas

Written by Mariko Nagashima

KT Niehoff
Photo by Hayley Young
KT Niehoff knows movement. Anyone who’s taken her long-standing class at Velocity Dance Center, or seen her company Lingo Productions perform, has felt the visceral pull of a movement dialect filled with distinctive “KT-isms.” There’s an energetic through line created in the body that allows for simultaneous release and tension. There’s an almost hip hop sensibility with sharp accents and angles. And there’s a certain intensity to it all, deriving in part, no doubt, from her own forthright personality. There’s no messing around with this brand of full-bodied kineticism. All of this will be on full display in Niehoff’s upcoming show, Collision Theory: The Finale, at On the Boards, April 18-21, 2013. The denouement of Niehoff’s yearlong project, Collision Theory, which has included a private dinner party, film screenings, a fashion show, and letter writing to audience members, The Finale will be the most traditional installment yet. “We’re making a show,” Niehoff says with a bit of a chuckle. “We’re making a dance. It’s really a dance show, which I feel vulnerable about. But these dancers are really good, and the performance will rest on them. And that is exciting.” In a recent interview with SeattleDances, Niehoff discussed everything from the creation of Collision Theory, to her movement practice, to her future art-making plans.

Niehoff has spent years developing a particular aesthetic and movement language. “I’ve always been interested in a certain kind of physicality and I’ve called it many things over the years,” she says. “But there’s always been this kind of mobility, a range of mobility that I’m interested in. Joints are there to mobilize and muscles and bones are there to stabilize.” For Collision Theory in particular, however, Niehoff spent about six months in the studio with several of her dancers, researching and figuring out how to articulate a new language, which they call “unhinge.” They developed cues like “jaw of a snake,” “prehensile feet,” and “eyes are round,” to help cultivate this aesthetic. The cues assist in “figuring out how to support the structure of the body so the joints can be as unhinged as possible.” Niehoff goes on to speak of a furthering within the each unhinge, which is then “kinetically reacted to through the circuits of the body.” This developed language has become “our collective practice, our technique,” says Niehoff. “We do it everyday and it’s been a great journey for me with this group of people. And I feel like we get it now. It’s like we are really finally on the same page.”

Lingo Productions dancers in Viewfinder, an installment of Collision Theory
Photo by Hayley Young
In addition to working with this technique, the company begins with a daily practice called “passive tussle,” where one person is in a completely passive state (“that’s physically, and psychologically, and emotionally,” clarifies Niehoff), and another person manipulates him or her. “We call it ‘passive tussle’ because it’s really tussle-y. It’s not slow. It’s: I throw you around, I toss you over my body, and I turn you upside down, and I reach your leg up over your head and slide you around the floor.” Niehoff says the benefits of passive tussle extend beyond the physical practice. She describes it as a political, a psychological, a spiritual, and most importantly, an incredibly generous act. To give complete control of your body to another individual signifies ultimate trust, and “is incredibly hard. There’s so many life lessons to learn from doing that.”

Passive tussle, along with other exercises, has helped Niehoff develop a certain sensitivity in her dancers in addition to their physicality. Because her primary goal with her recent works has been to connect with audiences by manipulating the level of audience to artist proximity, she has instilled a particular awareness in her dancers that she researched over the past six years. “My work left the stage in 2006 and hasn’t been back. When it left, I needed to go into research about what it was I needed to do interactively. For me it was a desire for a deeper connection and a deeper intimacy, and inside of that, a deeper safety in between the air of myself and the witness. That was something I had to learn.” The process of developing this comfort in interactions with audiences involved about six months of studio time with a core group of Lingo dancers back in the mid 2000’s. Through sitting, watching, looking at, dancing for, and talking to each other, they would “try to be sociable and performative simultaneously. And try to be in a vulnerable state without being weird.” They found maintaining this tenuous state as a performer made them much more comfortable as witnesses. “I feel like I learned with that group of people and I got better at it, we got better at it. And as I got better at it, I was bolder with it.”

For Collision Theory, the process of developing that audience-artist proximity has been slightly different as Niehoff was working with a new cast of dancers. “It was interesting to try to teach that to a whole group that I didn’t have any history with, nor did they with me. But it was pretty fluid. I had learned all those tools, so I wasn’t researching with them. We just did all those exercises that I had learned, and talked to them about those ideas, and it came pretty fast.” And with this project, perhaps even more so than others, audience interaction, engagement, and responsiveness have been key. With such a lengthy timeline and so many different types of events, Niehoff admitted to fearing that the work was too disparate in nature. But as the project progressed, she gained confidence that the audience became the through line between the works. They’ve “been the connective tissue. And their reoccurring nature and the stories that they’ve been able to weave and put together in their minds. The context that they have created.” The fact that the audience has been willing and invested enough to chart the company’s endeavors in the context of such a large project, is a testament to both Niehoff’s skill at framing situations in which audiences feel comfortable, and the dancers’ skill at engaging viewers performatively.  

Lingo Productions
Photo by Hayley Young
And though one might think there’s been a temptation to incorporate audience response from one performance into the articulation of the next, Niehoff emphatically says that she worked hard to avoid that. “It’s been a compelling argument in my mind to try to make context happen.” But, in the end, she realized it was her job to be responsive to the needs of each individual event and trust that connections would be made between them. As a result, each episode has been its own entity, with its own story, but taken all together they create an even richer statement.

Niehoff’s goal of creating a deeper intimacy with audiences seems to have been largely articulated in the spaces between performances, not necessarily in the events themselves. “I think in the intermediary zone we’ve been able to be responsive,” says Niehoff.  For example, the continuous letter writing to audience members was a byproduct of the first installment, Paper Trail, and not the original intention. “It’s the interconnection points between the performance,” says Niehoff. “And then of course friendships have just been forged naturally, and faces have become familiar, and names have been learned, and I think that is a simple act that has profound effects.”

After all these interactive events and heavy focus on audience engagement, Niehoff conceded that going back into a theater for the final performance has been rather disorienting. When Lingo started their residency at On the Boards, Niehoff said the experience was “deeply alienating. I walked in there and I was like ‘What the hell! I am so uncomfortable in this environment!’ Because theaters are so dictating.” So for those who might be expecting some kind of zany interactive type show, don’t be alarmed at The Finale’s traditional structure. In regards to that, Niehoff says, “I humbly and reverently ask this audience to sit down and watch a show. And that feels crazy to me.”

KT Niehoff’s Collision Theory
Photo by Hayley Young

The Finale marks not only the end of Collision Theory, but the finale of Lingo Productions as well. A step that Niehoff says has been a long time coming, this entails “the simple act of disbanding the company itself. And all that goes along with the assumption, and the responsibility that a company model requires.” In no way, however, is this a finale for Niehoff’s art-making ambitions. Almost running parallel to her theories on movement, it seems that Niehoff’s thoughts on art are experiencing an “unhinging,” and a delving further into a new branch of creativity. Collision Theory and her other works on a variety of platforms have given Niehoff a new kind of fulfillment, and she plans to continue experimenting even further in that direction. “My sensibility, or my ideas of what an active art is, has really started to change and shift over the last six years, and its gotten pretty abstract,” she says.

Niehoff’s presence as a dance maker and teacher in the community will be mutually missed. “I love the dance community here so much.” she says. “But I want to develop a new relationship with the art world and also the dance world here. I want to mentor and be present and somehow be in it, but I need to do it in a different way now.” If anyone is capable of doing things a different way, surely Niehoff is.

Collision Theory runs at On the Boards April 18-21. Tickets can be purchased here.