RoseAnne Spradlin, Choreographer

RoseAnne Spradlin, Choreographer

“Y” (2018) New York Live Arts; with Athena Malloy, Claire Westby, Connor Voss, Ainesh Madan, Doug LeCours, Thomas Welsh-Huggins, EmmaGrace Skove-Epes & Annie Heath.

exploring PERFORMANCE       




RoseAnne Spradlin is available to teach classes and workshops in the U.S. and internationally.  Spradlin has taught workshops in performance and choreography in New York City, at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., on the island of Tinos, in Greece, at the TanzImAugust Festival in Berlin, at ImPulsTanz in Vienna, through Contradance in Brussels, Independent Dance in London and in Body-Mind Centering® Certification Programs in Paris, Brussels, Berkeley, CA and Amherst, MA.  Spradlin has taught numerous classes and workshops through Movement Research in New York City, and through her studios, Squid Performance Space (1995-2005) and Studio 65 (1990-2011).  She served as the first Director (2015-2016) of a dual-degree MFA Program in Choreography and Visual Art at Wilson College in Pennsylvania, helping to develop the core curriculum and recruiting the first two classes of MFA students.   Examples of workshop offerings are listed below.

Presence and Performance

This work begins by looking at each participant's presence as a performer, and how presence is expressed in relationship to choreographic material, other performers onstage and to the audience.  In-class studies explore performance options in relationship; for example, what happens when a performer chooses a confrontational stance in relation to the audience?  or to other performers onstage?  How does an audience experience seduction on the part of the performer?  Or compassion?  The focus of this work is to explore the questions: What aspects of myself do I embody as I interact and perform? How does my embodiment affect the audience?

The work looks at cultural imprints, those that are well-known and also those that may be hidden or unacknowledged.  Spradlin draws on material from the Body-Mind Centering® approach to embodiment to explore aspects of space, body configuration and body resonance; her experience as a choreographer and director help to focus this rich material toward questions of performance.

Transformation in Space

This inquiry developed from RoseAnne’s study of embodied embryology in combination with her work as a choreographer/ performer and her studies in choreographic theory.  Through an experiential study of our embryological origin and development we learn how to embody space - the space within us and the space through which we move.  We are transformed in our embryological development; from genetic material we’ve been given, we change form as we develop. Parts of us appear; parts disappear; transformation in the present moment is always a possibility for us if we learn to embody and inhabit the changing space within ourselves.  How can we take this transformative self into performance?  What are the possibilities? What is the performer's experience? The audience's experience?

Body Consciousness

The desire for rich, transformative somatic work as part of arts training programs is growing across the U.S. and internationally, as artists recognize the power and relevance of heightened body consciousness in performance.  Studies in body consciousness support the individual artist's need for body/mind integration and creative growth, while also allowing artists to access more profound levels of communication with audiences. With full embodiment, communication vibrates at the level of every cell and charges the space with meaning and potential.  How can we expand our ability to engage through these powerful channels?


RoseAnne Spradlin - interviewed by Rebecca Haseltine (2008, edited 2015)

Rebecca Haseltine is a visual artist, dancer/BMC® teacher based in the San Francisco Bay area.

On Embodiment and Art

RH:  When did you discover the process of embodiment, and what were your early experiences of this?
RS:  I think my early experiences of 'embodiment' were fleeting and I didn't really understand what I was experiencing. As a graduate student in visual art, I made casts of my body parts in pink chocolate, and made drawings, photographs and videos of isolated body parts that had a subtle sense of dislocation. Like many artists in that era, I was using my body and my own image as subject matter; I think I was trying to communicate something about my feeling in my body, my strangeness, my personal embodiment, though I didn’t know the word or concept ‘embodiment’ at that time. 

RH:  When did you formally begin making art – and what form(s) did it take? 

RS:  By the end of high school I had decided to major in art in college. I had danced as a child and loved dancing and acrobatics, but I couldn't imagine majoring in dance in college; at the time it didn't seem like a solid thing to me. So I majored in visual art and then went to graduate school, also in visual art.

RH:  How did your art work initially develop and how did it mesh with your interest in dance? 

RS:  I received an assistantship to Ohio University’s two-year MFA program in visual arts, and while there I began to drift back to dance. I was exploring photography and photo-printmaking, but I was working on a large scale, in print series, which was both expensive and technically difficult.  What I was doing really was making performance pieces on my own in the studio and then documenting them through photography and one-of-a-kind prints.  So the work never really existed as live performance, just as documentation.  I was trying to make some video performances.  Also at this time Yvonne Rainer's book Work 1961-73 fell into my hands and I began to read and study her thought process and dances.  This was my introduction to the post-modern movement in dance and I was very interested; I tried to teach myself Yvonne's dances by studying her book.

RH:  How did you discover Body-Mind Centering®?  When did you formally begin studying BMC®, and what happened initially?

RS:  I completed the MFA and eventually auditioned for the dance program at OU because that was the only way to get into the best dance classes and into the composition and choreography classes, which was my real interest.  Ohio University's dance program was a very good program and had a strong emphasis on choreography, but they were not yet interested in the post-modernists, so I still felt out of place, artistically.  I got married; my husband was finishing his Ph.D. and then became a professor at OU.  I decided to stay in the dance program there just to gain some technical training.  Then toward the end of my time at OU I saw a flyer for Bonnie Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering® program on the bulletin board, and I remember being very drawn to the idea of this kind of study, which seemed like it might be an alternative to the traditional dance training I was encountering. This must have been in about 1980 or the early '80's.

Then in '83 I was in New York City for the summer and I met Bonnie for the first time. I felt an immediate connection to her, a cellular connection; it was very strong, almost like a trance.  In '86 I took a workshop with her in NYC (where I lived by then) on the spine and by the end of the first evening, I knew I wanted to study with her.  I started in the practitioner program that summer, in the summer of 1986, in the class of 100.

RH:  What was the initial relationship between your creative work and your work with BMC®?

RS:  In the beginning, I needed to get away from dance and dancers when I was studying BMC®.  BMC® and dance seemed to be very different paths, with different goals. BMC® was about life and deep discovery, and at that time, dance for me, despite my earlier passion and enthusiasm, had become full of things I didn't like - judgments, misunderstandings, lack of acceptance. I knew that studying BMC® was something of a liability in the NYC dance world that I wanted to be a part of; ‘somatics’ as a discipline or practice was not well-known or accepted. Of course now I feel I made the right choice, but at the time I wasn't sure what was guiding me a lot of the time. I felt some conflict in the earlier years, though gradually people in the dance world came to accept the validity of somatics. The BMC® work has also become more simplified and more accessible and those of us ‘in the practice’ have a better sense of how to balance creative work and our internal practice.

RH:  Can you describe how BMC® currently influences your creative work?

RS:  How I make use of the work has changed over time. Through the course of the training and by the end of the decade after finishing the training (roughly 1986-2000) I felt like I had taken the BMC® work totally inside of me, into a deep integration, so I didn’t think so much about 'using BMC®' on the body level in my creative work. In a profound way I was even more influenced by the experiences of community I had in my training than I was in the pure movement experiences.  I was in a group of one hundred students, one hundred students plus about another twenty teachers and visitors, all together in a huge room, and our training program was really wild; there was a ‘raw’ quality to what happened day to day. It was a time when not everything had been figured out in the work and so many unexpected things happened in the group.  Bonnie was still exploring and finding new things all the time, and she would go as far as the group was able to go.  There was an acceptance of chaos, and that influenced me. And observing and witnessing Bonnie's bravery really influenced me. I saw that she had the courage to trust her perceptions and to go with them. And I think I took something of that into my artwork, that attitude that I could trust myself.

I also learned, or embodied, something about structure in the BMC® work.  At that time in my life I felt it was very hard for me to actualize my ideas in the world and I remember asking Bonnie one day, "How do you make a structure?  How can I do that?" And she pointed out to me, "Well, you are doing it right now…your question is a structure to get at what you want."  It seems simple now, but that opened my eyes and helped me realize that there are many subtleties to how each of us figures things out, how we each find ways to make life work. So my perceptions were opened by the work. And I deeply trusted Bonnie, and that affected my personhood as an artist.

For me, BMC® is not a technique. But it is a practice, a practice that can yield profound experiences. And like many practices, the yield depends on the quality of the practice and the commitment to the practice. With BMC®, there’s always an emphasis on the questions, and clarifying and understanding the question is seen as just as important, or maybe more important than finding the answer to the question. Of course, there is much in BMC® that is really helpful to dance and movement, but the personal journey that must be taken to get the full integration – well, in my opinion, there are no shortcuts.

RH:  Can you describe your experience of art-making?  What happens when you make a performance?  What would be an example of the sequence of events that lead to completing a performance?  

RS:  I often decide on a question I want to explore, and usually it is something that I have some personal stake in. I bring the question to the dancers and we turn it over and look at it in multiple ways. I structure improvisations that explore aspects of the question; sometimes I have made drawings that the dancers use as 'scores'; sometimes I bring in pictures, or just imaginary images, sometimes I start the improvisation from a body-level meditation. I use juxtaposition a lot - I might have a movement task that says one thing, but is performed in the context of a video image that says something else. So I try to create a kind of chemistry in the work. I’ve also explored heightened movement qualities, exaggeration. I think I work more like a visual artist than as a traditional choreographer.  I am not so interested in traditional choreographic aspects such as phrases and rhythms; I wasn’t interested in depicting emotional states through movement shape, as in classical modern dance.  But I am more and more interested in helping the dancers to free their emotions when they move, so that a kind of vital expression comes through. I'm very interested in the individuals – I want to see what's unique about them. But every dance is different and has a different developmental strategy.

When I started making the dance NOVA, in late 2005, I was dealing with the aftermath of the break-up of a relationship. I felt depressed and unable to come to some kind of resolution about the break-up. At the same time, I was trying to clear out my life at home, trying to get to a new stage of life. I had all these old clothes I had put into huge garbage bags, and I was just about to get rid of them when I decided to take them to the studio instead. And then in one stroke I got the idea of having the dancers dress in layers of these clothes, and to have the layers be slowly cut away bit by bit by other people. For me, it was a metaphor for what it feels like to become closer and closer with someone, and then to be left at the end, standing naked, so to speak, to the world, having lost one's protection, or defenses, gradually. Additionally, the idea of “cutting” had other meanings for me at the time, as I had had major surgery about six months before this. And more positively, I had participated in a weekend ceremony with Buddhist monks, a healing chö, that was performed to “cut away” negative karma that was interfering with spiritual growth.  So “cutting away” in its many meanings was something that was on my mind and I chose that as a way to start the piece.  It was conceived of as a kind of stand-alone performance event (it took about 20 minutes to cut all the clothes off), and then I decided I wanted to get to an expression of anger somewhere in the work.  The whole piece had a kind of 60’s vibe – there was a painting of an American flag that we made – Walter Dundervill and I painted it on a piece of white marley and taped it down in the center of the floor - so the expression of anger was contained in the imagery of 60’s radicals confronting some larger authority.  (Chase Granoff perfectly embodied that young radical energy when he shouted “Fuck You!” over and over while giving the finger to some imagined authority far in the distance.)  Well, so that's how the piece took shape, little by little, different performance goals for different sections, and then all put together to make the dance. 

And aspects of the subtext of making this piece became very satisfying to me; eventually we had to start purchasing clothing just for the purpose of cutting it up. And it became clear that the clothes couldn't be just any old ratty clothes; they had to signify a certain materialism.  So it was satisfying to purchase clothes and then to cut them up; I really enjoyed that – because it seemed such a pure and honest expression - of sacrifice, I suppose. The dancers even donated some of their own clothing for the ritual; so they also sacrificed. And then I used all the cut-up clothing in my next piece in a totally different way. I recycled the clothes, and this felt significant, too. There was something very biological in it, and something personally significant for me.

The two women in that dance were Jennifer Kjos and Tasha Taylor.  This all took place – 10 shows - in my little studio down on West Broadway in Manhattan, and I presented it as a work-in-progress. I originally had a commitment to re-stage it at the Kitchen.  But somehow – and I never understood how – that plan got derailed and I was never able to restage the work.

RH:  Can you talk about embodiment in relation to art-making?  How do they influence each other?

RS:  Well, I suppose the most compelling art comes out of someone who clearly embodies whatever they are trying to tap to create their work of art. I mean, that work has resonance; it speaks to us on multiple levels, and I guess we'd say it reaches our depths, even if we can't quite articulate why. I think different artists have their methods, their strategies to get below conscious control, to work with embodiment. I remember when I took a workshop with Anne Bogart, the theater director, I noticed she used speed a lot in her working process. She would require students to work so quickly on their in-class creations that they had to go into their fluids; she would throw so many things at once at the participants that they had to go 'cellular' to find the 'oneness' and relationship of all these different parts.  That is my analysis of what was happening in her process, in these particular exercises.  Bogart probably arrived at her methods without thinking about “embodiment” per se.  I don't think she was particularly aware of the BMC® work, possibly she was, but the sense was more that she was working intuitively and had found these things on her own.  And she was really quite brilliant in her feedback to participants.  I only studied with her 12 weeks, and she didn't even show up for some of the classes.  But I felt I learned a lot from her that I still use.

RH:  Can you talk about conscious embodiment and unconscious embodiment?  In other words, are there times when you choose and guide yourself (or your dancers) into embodying, and are there times when you realize something is embodied?  Are these related or unrelated? 
RS:  I once spent a great deal of time exploring my own embodiment: of cells, subcellular structures, body systems, developmental stages - all the things that are in the BMC® work.  I worked on it all the time, almost every day, for hours.  And then, at some point, I just stopped doing that. When I'm working with dancers in the choreographic process, there often isn't time to take them deeply into an embodiment process, and it's also difficult to make the transition from a more internal process to working on choreography. Sometimes I might try to work with a dancer outside the rehearsal process if they are missing some piece of integration or there is some quality they can't find. But I usually let the other person be the guide for that. I don't insist that people work on their integration. Part of my esthetic is to make use of people more or less as they are. I do sometimes use the BMC terminology in rehearsal; I might say, "let it be more bloodful."  Or I might just say, "let it go, let your emotions go when you are doing that part." 

RH:  Do you experience a distinction between the kind of exploration that is involved in BMC® and the kind of exploration that is involved in art-making?

RS:  For me the exploration in BMC® is more about traveling, traveling through the interior, getting to know something about myself and about other human beings and even about animals and the object world - everything - it's about exploration that knows no bounds.  Everything is potentially interesting and worthy of time and consideration, worthy of meditation. And the BMC® exploration, for me, has primarily been erotic, in the sense that erotic means aroused, awakened; it has been about awakening a depth of feeling that is difficult to put words to. To be in that pure state is luscious, transcendent. 

Art-making, for me, is more about giving form to my expression and just about creating.  I really don't think very much about what I am doing once I get past the beginning stages in making a new work. I just get very involved in the creative act itself, as a kind of daily work, something that needs to be done, something that needs to be actualized. But I'm also aware that the artistic product is not just for me, so it's not just about what pleases me or about what I find interesting in the moment. 

There is, of course, some kind of interface between these two things that I am describing - the BMC® experience and the art-making experience. The way I present people onstage and the way I focus on bodies in my work is where the BMC® influence comes through most strongly.  One critic wrote of my work (paraphrasing), "In Spradlin's work it's not about what the performers are doing, but about who they are being onstage."

For me there’s also a distinction between pure exploration, which I might call science, and the kind of searching that often drives artists to create. Obviously, artists are driven in different ways and have different approaches and different personalities. But I think artists are often driven to explore those aspects of life that resist integration, that maintain mystery, sometimes for a lifetime. I remember reading a journalistic piece in the New Yorker about the development of young novelists. The journalist wrote, (one can only assume somewhat ruefully) that there is no better event to spur a young writer than the death of a parent. So this observation underscores that artists are often fueled by those events in life that cannot be easily understood, those parts of themselves that resist integration, that resist cultural taming. And this non-integrated life-material is also what often draws people to the BMC® work.

For the person who needs safety, a lot of safety in their exploration, BMC® can be challenging. Bonnie is inherently a risk-taker. She has taken many risks as a thinker and as a leader in the world of somatics and embodiment. As an artist, one has to take risks, and you can't do that if you are focusing on your safety. You can do one, and then you can do the other; but I don't believe you can do both at the same time. Over the long haul, I would say I have been very healed by making my work.  But sometimes what I have made has ripped me apart; sometimes I have gone too far.  But ultimately I’ve felt healed by getting my work to a certain level; I needed to match up with something I felt about my true nature.  I believe BMC® gives people tools to unfold into their uniqueness and their wholeness.

© RoseAnne Spradlin, 2008, 2018