Buried Venus – An interview with Douglas Wright (1996)

This interview was commissioned by Landfall New Zealand Arts and Letters and published in Landfall, Autumn 1996, No 191, pp37 – 49
by Raewyn Whyte
Raewyn: Every time I speak with you, you seem to be reading five or six different books.Douglas: I do seem to spend a lot of time reading books. I find reading is a really good way to do research. Reading used to be an escape for me, but the various worlds which it lets you into can be more than an escape, they can be an area that you grow in, and let you learn a lot. There’s no substitute for working in the studio, of course, but reading can help me to prepare for the studio work.

Raewyn: So what are you reading at the moment?

Douglas: I sort of dip all the time, read lots of different things. I just read the Mapplethorpe biography which talks a lot about his relationship with Patti Smith. She was my idol in the seventies. I probably listened to “Horses” every day, twice a day, for about a year and a half. The first time I heard her voice I was smitten, and reading that book has made me aware of what was actually going on in her life and her relationship with Mapplethorpe at that time when her vision and her work was solidifying. It’s very fascinating.

I’ve been reading The Bible, Song of Songs. It’s incredibly beautiful poetry, very intense and full of very strange images–things like “hair like flocks of goats on a hill” or “teeth like shorn lambs just up from the washing.” It’s very strange, very very sensuous, a beautiful, beautiful love song.

For the past six months or so I’ve been reading feminist theory books as part of my research for my new work, Buried Venus. I find those books more difficult to read because they’re more from the head than from an emotional centre. I’ve been reading Jungian stuff, Women Who Run With The Wolves . And I was reading back over Janet Frame’s Living in the Maniototo the other night — I often dive back into her writing because I always get an extra something new when I read again. I think that’s because of the clarity of her writing, the freshness. Sometimes it’s hard to make myself read every word, and with stuff like that you have to read every word and allow it to sink in.

I’ve been reading a book by Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects, which is her new collection of essays. She talks about a book having its own tempo and rhythm that you have to discover as you’re reading it and if you take it at the wrong tempo you’re going to miss it all. I found that was an interesting observation as I know I tend to try to get things quickly, I want everything quickly, so I probably miss things. She also talks about the fact that art as ecstasy is unfashionable in our age. A lot of my work goes toward that sort of ecstatic release, so I found that discussion really intriguing.

She reopened my interest in Virginia Wolf too, I read The Waves years and years ago but I’m going to look back into it. We’ve been told that Wolf’s kind of literature is very difficult to read, but if you can remove the block in your mind that comes from being told how difficult her writing is, and just let yourself read, you can find it immensely enjoyable and rewarding. We’ve also been told that this woman is sexless and cold, but I don’t think that’s true at all. It’s just that she’s found this stream that she’s been able to dive into, and it’s refreshing, it’s a different texture, it gives you a whole different feeling when you’re reading than most other books do.

I’m also reading poetry, women poets mainly, especially Emily Dickinson. I always read poetry.

So I guess I’m reading quite a lot at the moment.

A few months ago you told me about the James Purdy book, I Am Elijah Thrush, which you were thinking about adapting for a dance theatre work.

Douglas: I’ve read lots of James Purdy’s works, and I’ve settled on this very strange and amazing tale.

Like many of his other tales, this one is rather bizarre but very profound. It involves four main people. Millicent de Frayne “who was young in 1913,” is hopelessly in love with Elijah Thrush who is a mime, poet and painter of art nouveau. After ruining the lives of countless men and women, Elijah is finally in love (incorrectly if not indecently) with his great-grandson, a young Indian boy known as The Bird of Heaven, who lives in an orphanage because of his grandfather’s doubtful moral character. The boy is mute, but he communicates through kissing sounds, and through “the most sylvan sounds which have every issued from human lips.”

Elijah will have nothing to do with Millicent, so she hires Albert Pegg, a young black man, to spy on Elijah and write the story of Elijah’s life. Albert accepts this task because he has an expensive but very secret habit to feed. He begins watching Elijah, and eventually falls under his spell when he meets him, under false pretences. Millicent finds out about the child. and kidnaps him. She also discovers Albert’s secret habit…

The story is very complicated.

Purdy is a difficult person, I’ve been told. I need to ask him for permission to adapt his work, so I’ve asked friends of mine in New York who also know him to help me work out how to approach him. I understand what it’s like to have people tinkering with what you do, so it’s very important that I should speak with him about it.

You seem to be able to get on well with difficult people.

Douglas: Well difficult people are very rewarding. I think that what we call “difficult” people are people who demand what they need for their work. They take the space they need for their work, have the ability to to be direct with you rather than saying nice things to make you feel good. Janet Frame, for example, has the reputation for being a difficult person, but she would never be rude to you, she’d just clam up. You have to keep your awareness up when you’re with them, and that’s a hard thing to do.

You’ve often talked about Janet Frame and how important she has been for you.

Douglas: I’d been writing to Janet for years before I ever met her. I started reading her books when I was 11, and I’ve read all her work. It was wonderful for me at 11 to discover someone could write things like “in the city there was a terrible screaming” and then as she says in the last line of one of her parables “silence had found its voice.” I could feel that voice coming from inside of me.

I started writing to her in my teens. I just wrote her a few letters, thanking her really. It was as if I was writing to the sky, or something distant like that. I never really thought of her as existing in reality, an ordinary person who buys food at the supermarket. But she replied to my letters. The first time she sent a card which she had painted, really beautiful. I still have it.

When I was leaving for New York to study, I wrote to her to say I was going, and she replied, telling me that I might meet Turnlung there–he’s a character in her book Daughter Buffalo, who meets a young American, Talbot Adelman, a medical student who is studying death.

When I was in New York, I met a man at a party, Tobias Schneebaum, a writer and explorer and sexual anthropologist whose book Keep the River on your Right was quite famous in the 1970s. At the time we met, Tobias had just spent several months at Yaddo – the writer’s colony – with Janet. They had breakfast together every morning, and they had developed a friendship. He and I somehow had an immediate connection, and we developed a friendship too. When I wrote to Janet to tell her about meeting him, I realised that it was a lot like the meeting of Turnlung and Talbot Adleman in her book.

When I returned to New Zealand in 1987, I wrote to Janet again. She invited me to visit her, so I went on the bus to Levin. I was terrified of meeting her, and I almost got off the bus several times before I got to Levin. It was that unimaginable reality where I didn’t feel that she would really be there when I got there.

And she came to meet me at the bus stop.

Janet’s example is really inspiring for me. It’s something to do with being destroyed in a sense, and locked away, and hounded because of who she is, then literally rising from the underworld and creating works of great insight and beauty out of that experience. From her I take heart, I mean she’s been so hurt but she’s not bitter, and I think that that is extraordinarily powerful.

Part of what Janet uses to rise above, or to escape from that reality, is the knowledge of the power of nature, that in the face of the forces of nature we are nothing more than grains of sand. Acknowledging that helps you begin to be truthful about your reality, your limits, which is very hard to do.

…..and once you’ve acknowledged your limits you can begin to stretch them, release them?

To me, one of the things that connects the people who you’re talking of, Tobias Schneebaum and James Purdy and Janet Frame, and yourself, is that you’re all in your own ways releasing your limits. Others see you as going beyond the ordinary in what you do.

When you dance…. to anyone watching, what you do is impossible. When I’m watching you, a part of me is asking “how can he do this,” because what you do defies gravity, defies the limits of flesh and blood. Somehow you exceed those limits.

Douglas: I worry sometimes that people will think “Oh he’s just doing these tricks.”

But tricks are things that you can repeat, that other people could also do. When I see you dance it’s never the same twice, it’s always different, what you do, how it feels.

Douglas: Over the years I’ve changed the way that my body relates to movement. When I try and make things on my own body I find that I don’t have any choice really. I just keep going, searching for what will satisfy my desire to express a certain thing. Usually, I have to go through a few versions of a particular movement before I get to that point, whether it be standing still or doing something very physical. I almost always feel that I have no choice, that that movement has been there waiting for me before I began, that what I’ve been doing is lifting away the veils of movement to find what is right. If there’s any little bit which feels wrong, my body feels embarrassed. I can spend three or four hours on a transition and not even get it that day.

While I was in the studio working on the new solo for Buried Venus, I had one of those days where I was aching, and dirty because the floor had been dirty, and I’d been working for three or four hours and I’d got nowhere that day. And I sat there and I felt completely happy. I realised that I had been doing the same thing when I was nine or ten, in the back garden, getting dirty and sore, but being happy with it. And no matter what happens… well that’s not quite true .. my body could just give up, I could get quite ill, that’s on the cards. But at the present time, I have that satisfaction, that process, and it’s mine. I can always go into the studio and work by myself, and it doesn’t matter at all whether people approve of what comes from that.

One of the constant things, when I’m working, is that I have to fight with my despair at not being able to find something which I haven’t done before or seen before. I find there is always a period where I feel lost, that I have no bearings and a feeling that I’m hopeless, that I’ll never find anything. So I have to be aware that is going to happen, and not give into it. The ego wants to do strange manoeuvres all the time.

In 1987, you left the Paul Taylor Company and international touring to come back to New Zealand to work. Why was that?

Douglas: I’ve been lucky enough or unlucky enough to be….. perhaps you could think of it as fly-blown, by the work of people like Paul Taylor, and by DV8 who I also spent some time with in 1988. I loved working with them but there came a point where I had a gutsful of it, where I could not stand to do it any more. I had to go away from these men and their companies to do my own work, instead of their work.

I have made pieces like Gloria which I consider to be my apprentice masterworks, out of the studio of Paul Taylor, so to speak. Those deep influences have provided a bridge for me to the works that are really my own.

I had intended to go back to New York, to take my works back there, but in 1989 I became ill, and was diagnosed HIV positive.

Your HIV status didn’t become public knowledge until quite recently.

Douglas: When I was first diagnosed I was very fragile, and physically not very together. I had seen how the media had dealt with other people who had said that they were HIV positive, that they treated that person as HIV first and everything else last –the heading becomes “HIV Positive Dancer,” “Dancer Has AIDS” blah blah blah. I didn’t want media attention on me just because of my illness. I was quite happy for people to know that I was HIV positive, but I didn’t want it to become the main thing about me. It’s just one aspect of my being, and the reason for the media to interview me ought to be because of my work. So for at least a year or two I resisted, but then I spoke with Jane Faire at the Dominion about it, on the understanding that they wouldn’t make my HIV status the headline, that it would just be part of the story, and they did that, and I was happy that they honoured what they had said.

I don’t want to use HIV as a point of interest in me… I’m interested in people learning about my work and not having that learning obscured by the fact that I could drop dead at any moment. (laughter). I mean we all know that we could be run over by a bus any moment, but this bus actually has my name on it.

In what ways do you see contemporary dance here as being different from those other places, like New York and London, and Paris and so on?

Douglas: Dance here, as elsewhere, has a relationship to the whole social, spiritual, geographical fabric of this country. As we are more of a subconscious culture that is still emerging, the work does have an aspect of that. We’ve always been in the shadow of America or England, us whiteys, that’s what we have to think of as our cultural heritage. A lot of work in this country has obviously been influenced by snatches overheard, you just catch a fragment or a few bits of things that send you off on a tangent. I think that we are influenced in an unusual way because it’s not a complete knowledge of what our influences are.

There is a burgeoning, a deep river of indigenous culture that flows in this country which is starting to come out in contemporary dance. If you look at the work of Steve Bradshaw and Te Kani Kani o te Rangitahi, for example, when they started back in the mid-1980s, and this year Neil Ieremia’s work for Black Grace, you see new things emerging, coming out strongly. My works have elements of these three cultures meeting because there are Maori and Pacific Island dancers in my company and all my dancers contribute to the works we make. That meeting of cultures is a unique aspect of our country, our shared heritage, and the challenge is to find a way for that particular aspect to speak more clearly. It needs to be able to be “used” in our art, to be acknowledged as a living thing, and that’s a challenge for all of us to come to terms with.

And then there are all the stereotypes about dance in New Zealand, that dance here is more raw, more physical, and those are also true enough. I was reading a book that said that people always try to marry together the influences of their parents, whether they like it or not, and to go a little bit further. This idea about marrying our parents’ influences makes sense for me –my father is really into rugby, he loves sport and things that are very physical; and my mother is very sensitive and into gardening, very loving and caring. I’ve tried to use a very physical language to express things that are quite sensitive about nurturing and compassion, but with quite violent movements sometimes.

People often do react to what they see as violence in your work as being violence for violence’s sake, rather than seeing that it is many things at once. The movement is often violent but you are using that movement for what it lets us understand about people and their relationships, and about their ways of being in the world, which is something bigger than they are.

Douglas: Sometimes the violence or the savagery in the work is there to do violence to that moment in the theatre, for the audience to be torn by what’s happening on stage. But I also see violence as part of our struggle to stay open, as at times taking us a step beyond the usual constraints of our lives. Sometimes I watch what we make, and it is violent, and there’s something in me that thrills to that violence, is very moved by it. It’s cathartic really, actualising something that is hidden until it happens, all the tacit realities that are not spoken, that happen in the dark. But the violence I use has a purpose, it provides the opportunity to take us beyond that violence to an understanding which is more powerful in its effects than the violence is.

The piece that you’re doing for the International Festival is named Buried Venus. That’s a wonderful title, very resonant, very mysterious. It reminds me of this enormous monument near Washington, this huge figure buried in the ground, on its back, with arms and legs and face stretching to heaven.

Douglas: Did you hear that they’ve found buried in Turkey, part of what used to be one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world part of a huge statue, a torso of a woman. I immediately thought “oh it’s a Venus,” and I’ve found myself making a story about it. They showed it on television being hauled up out of the water by a huge crane, this huge torso of a woman, headless, armless legless, emerging from the ocean, I thought “my god, that’s IT!”

I find that name is very challenging, it takes my ideas, makes me go further than I can, so I feel uncomfortable. That name is leading me somewhere I’m sure.

It takes quite a time for you to arrive at a new work –a couple of years?

Douglas: Well my last piece, Forever certainly took almost that long to develop. It was an enormous project. I started out with some particular ideas about what I wanted to explore, ideas which were slowly developed over a period of about six months. I knew I wanted to explore the search for love, the things that really happen between people in relationships, and to take some of the mystery away from what happened to the body after death. I wanted to use characters that people could identify with, and tell a story that people would be able to understand. I also wanted to use film in an interactive way, and I was going to include a ne solo for myself, as I have in my other works.

The company came together for a two week workshop in October 1992, where we focused on some of those ideas, and explored the dancers’ own experiences in relation to those things. That helped to identify some of the more specific aspects of the new work. Over the next six months, I wrote a kind of libretto, a series of thirteen short scenes between a number of characters who were vaguely adolescent, or at least experiencing the first throes of love.

And then I had to start making the work with the dancers, as well as collaborating with the filmmaker, Chris Graves, the set designer, Michael Pearce, the composers David Long and Mark Austin, and once it was close to being ready, with the lighting designer, Helen Todd.
Once it was ready we did a national tour, and then over the following year we took it to Switzerland and Australia.

Forever was such a huge work for me that I really did need a couple of years before I could think through a new full-length work. I’m glad in a way that I waited because it has taken a long time for the theme of this work to be settled. Really it solidified when the company did a workshop at the beginning of this year. Until then I didn’t really know what it would be. During the workshop, I found that I wanted to work more with the women as the focus. There’s going to be five men and five women, but where Forever was very male-oriented, this time I’m going to try and discover the feminine and explore what men really feel about women, and vice versa.

People say “Oh but you’re gay,” but so what. I lived with women when I was a teenager, and though I haven’t had sexual relationships with them since then, I do have ongoing relationships with women. I’ve been very attracted to the woman who is alone, and powerful but hidden. Janet Frame, Emily Dickinson, Patti Smith –well she wasn’t hidden, but she was dealing in arcane, obscure, forbidden material.

I find those kinds of women very attractive but I don’t know why. I find they invest a lot in their work — there is a reaching towards what Emily Dickinson calls circumference. She says “…you laugh at me…. I could not stop for that. My business is circumference.” For me that’s such a powerful image, it gets me beyond those sniggering voices, other people’s, your own, the ones that tend to stop you from searching for the next thing, a further thing.

We’re using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a departure point, the male going into a kind of space which might previously have been thought of as the underworld, to find the feminine, to find the woman that is lost. Maybe that’s the feminine part of himself, or maybe the piece has to be the women’s journey to a place where they can really dance together. I’m reluctant to talk more about it, as I don’t yet know what it is.

I want to find a way for men and women to dance together in a way that’s real. I don’t want to succumb to a “correct” position, and I don’t want to show either gender as being in the wrong. Any situation depicted between male and female can be construed as misogynist, sexist. But I do want to have sex as part of the picture, something which really has to be taken into account between males and females because that is real. And that’s a big challenge.

We’ll be making Buried Venus over an eight-week period during January and February. After the International Festival, we’ll tour it throughout New Zealand, and take it to the Green Mill Festival in Australia in June. We’ve been invited back to Switzerland but it’s not worth going to Europe unless we’re doing a tour–it’s so far and it’s so costly. We’ve also been invited to perform at a festival in South America, but we’d need to tour there as well for it to be worthwhile.

How do you decide who your dancers will be?

Douglas: They need to be people who are committed to doing things with their bodies that even dancers are often not used to doing, not trained to do. I like people who show a kind of compassionate ferocity. Also they have to be beautiful to me, which isn’t anything to do with our everyday ideas about what is beauty, being model beautiful, but rather about what is beautiful to me. There has to be some kind of erotic spark, which doesn’t mean I want to sleep with them (although I may want to), rather that I want to watch them moving. being present. And they have to be intelligent enough, free enough with themselves to improvise.

The most wonderful performers are usually people who have problems, so they can often be the most difficult people. to work with too.

When we make a work, we live it for that period, so it’s really important that the dancers can get along day to day, that they aren’t going to just hate the sight of one another after a while. Of course, that sometimes happens– we all make mistakes. The people who I work with are creative themselves and eventually they want to go off and do their own work. The biggest problem, though, is that I can’t provide them with work for the whole year, so I can’t hold onto them.

I have chosen not to have a full-time company. New Zealand is not a country you can tour around all year. It is just too small. But also I have in the past lacked continuity of management. Managing a dance company in New Zealand isn’t a very good way to make a living, and it’s an incredibly demanding job. And you have dancers and choreographers moaning at you all the time.

Who are your collaborators on Buried Venus?

Douglas:  I am very excited to be working with New Zealand composer Gareth Farr. When I heard his music for the very fist time I could sense his musical intelligence working right from the very first note. We are still going to use the Bach which I made my solo to, for my solo, one short Ravel piece and two short Webern pieces, but he is making the rest.

Michael Pearce, the Australian designer who worked with me on Forever is doing the design, and Helen Todd is once again doing the lighting. So it’s a proven team, very satisfying to work with.

The next problem is to find a visual image for the posters, and we have to do that before the work exists. With the word Venus in there I feel there has to be the image of a woman, or else something that is neither man nor woman. We need something that is mysterious and layered and rich. It needs to read well from a distance. I love the idea of having the actual planet Venus being buried, and having that radiance coming through the ground…… or perhaps a piece of a woman’s body buried in some substance other than earth….water maybe, or milk……molasses, baked beans, feathers, sand, rock.

Maybe ash…… think of the textures, the greys…..

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