5 Questions with Choreographer and Costume Designer Jeff Hancock About Dance and Design
He’s an accomplished choreographer, and an accomplished costume designer, so he’s seen the dynamic, multi-dimensional reality of design in concert dance from many perspectives …
When we talk about making dance, we often talk about ‘designers’ — the different artists who contribute the costume, lighting, and sound that become woven into the choreography. But really, all of dance is design.
The modern world is a bit obsessed with what it calls ‘design’. People pay a lot of attention to it, and they often pay an immense amount of money for it. But compared to the way concert dance is designed by everyone who makes it — choreographer, dancers, and those actually called ‘designers’ — design in the wider world is a bit static, rather one-dimesional, and usually moves only in a single direction.
Compared to dance, commercial design is a bit static, because the design of that electronic device you’re looking at or the coffee cup next to it (or even that spoon — somebody designed that) starts where it ends, with a single, known item to be designed. Dance is never just one thing, and its design never, ever ends where it begins; the process of its design moves as much as dance itself.
Compared to dance, conventional design is rather one-dimensional, because it can never include the multi-dimensional creative exchanges that choreographers, dancers and dance designers share, where everyone’s contribution redesigns the collaboration.
Conventional design, especially commercial design, usually moves in just one direction — from concept to ideas to implementation to approval. In concert dance, design can take you someplace new every two eight-counts, and nobody knows where the shared design of dance might end up until everybody sees it on stage.
Jeff Hancock has a lot of experience with all of this, and he’s given it a lot of thought. He’s an accomplished choreographer, and an accomplished costume designer, so he’s seen the dynamic, multi-dimensional reality of design in concert dance from many perspectives, in many collaborations. DancerMusic spoke with him as he was completing vastly different —and widely admired — costume designs for Randy Duncan’s Release for Dance for Life 2019 and for Chicago Dance Crash’s Lil Pine Nut, and preparing a series of new choreograpic ventures (which he’ll tell you about later). We asked him about what it’s like for a choreographer to be a designer, and for a designer to be a choreographer. His insights about design in dance go beyond just that though; here’s what he told us:
It’s the space between our experiences where we exist in flux, always changing and being re-contextualized …
Johnny Nevin: When you speak about art, you often speak about what you call “the spaces between things”, and you’ve said that in a way, this is “where the poetic truth of dance lies”. Can you talk a little about what you mean by “the spaces between things”, especially in dance? How does this understanding affect you as a choreographer, and how do think it may be reflected in your choreography?
Jeff Hancock: I think I may have said poetic truth and dance lie in the spaces between. I think poetic truth for any particular art is always a space between: it’s not the colors blue, red and yellow that deliver us the response we have. It’s the palpable intention of the artist that we experience; it’s the space between the object as a collection of recorded actions and ourselves. We and the artist are creating meaning together collaboratively in the space between every thing that contextualizes every experience.
All we ever have is our contextualized experiences from our lives lived, experience that informs our “reading” of any object, person, story, etc. It’s the space between our experiences where we exist in flux, always changing and being re-contextualized by experience that makes us, us, at any given moment, and we ourselves are the context for receiving/experiencing/interpreting meaning/art.
Specifically, the space between in dance can mean so many things; bodies can hold and perform multiplicity, a single gesture can hold many meanings, and those meanings as experienced/transmitted by the body-performing move outward to the body-receiving them. The collective context of both bodies’ experience creates meaning, as poetic experience happens between the words. The lighting, space, sound, costumes also combine to give layers of interpretability or context to what we are seeing in performance.
… there are no absolutes, so combining and recombining signifiers is what I do …
Johnny: In addition to your choreography, you’re a widely accomplished costume designer, which is quite remarkable in that as a costume designer, you’re always working with a choreographer, but in a very different role. How does that sense you speak of — of the “poetic truth of dance” — impact you as a costume designer, and how does that awareness of “the spaces between things” inform both your own creativity as designer, and your role as collaborator with choreographers?
Jeff: I understand that the space between myself and the work — and myself and the choreographer — is what needs navigating. Two different agendas and aesthetics are at play, and my job is to fold mine in — to bolster and augment the vision of the choreographer, and expand the potential for experiencing meaning in the work, which can happen in so many ways.
I am primarily interested in costuming dance because of its liminal potential, and its simultaneous appearance and disappearance. The way you witness the work today will never be the same again due to all the variables — your life, the lives of the performers, what happened that day in the news, to you before you saw the work, and on and on… It is generally speaking porous in its containment of meaning, it can hold different interpretations for every single person that sees it, and I like to create toward and inside of this “-ish” space, the space which suggests many things, but is none of them very specifically. That is why the name of my company is “-ish design”.
I design with the idea in mind that every area is a grey area so to speak, there are no absolutes, so combining and recombining signifiers is what I do, looking for the blend that won’t override the experience and push it too specifically into any interpretation, unless that is what the work requires.
A lot of both of these processes is stripping things away, editing back until only the essential remains.
Johnny: Collaboration is such an essential — and even magical — part of dance, it’s the essence of so much of what an audience ends up being able to share. But in your case, you regularly make dance in two of the major collaborative roles — choreographer and designer — and it seems like these two roles must constantly be informing each other. Can you tell us if you think that your own choreography affects your costume design, and if your costume design affects or inspires your choreography?
Jeff: I think my interest and passion for process inspires me in both pursuits, as does my interest in liminality, which is the thing that allows the witnessing experience to morph and become each person’s Rosetta stone in witnessing work. Process in the way it speaks to each act of performance as a variable process is also what I am referring to, not just the sequence of events that result in costumes for the work, but the performance of the work being a process that varies every time it’s done. This space inside the work to be read differently every time is what I design toward.
The process of following an idea through research both intuitive and rooted in theory, history or some text that is present in both, and the places these processes of design and performance collide is what interests me most, the way they inform and influence each other.
I don’t often start a choreographic work knowing what the costume will be, though I am interested in making a work one day that makes these things intrinsic to each other, combining form and content in a way that can’t be pulled apart. It is sometimes difficult for me to costume a work when I am making it, which I never experience when creating a costume for someone else’s work. In those cases I might collaborate with the dancers to come up with some ideas, or make something very simple.
I rarely make very complicated costumes for work that I am choreographing, which as I think of it is interesting. I am happy to iterate over and over again with other artists when creating costumes for their work, but tend to not do that when designing for my own dances. Perhaps it is just that I’ve said what I think I think I need to say with the bodies and space, etc. and at that point don’t usually feel the need for another layer, or maybe don’t have the bandwidth or desire to add another layer. A lot of both of these processes is stripping things away, editing back until only the essential remains.
Maybe more consideration or bandwidth will be given to thinking or wondering about people and the world and relationship.
Johnny: Your costume design is exceptionally imaginative, and much of that seems to involve the interest that you have in designing for movement — how design both impacts movement and enriches it aesthetically. What have you discovered about what you describe as “the place between material and movement”?
Jeff: I’ve discovered that people do not lack imagination, and they are ready to go on a ride when they decide to witness some art, something about signing that contract allows them to be more open, and take in more possibility, suspension of disbelief, etc. This makes me excited to dig around in the unconscious places of the works, the spaces that are off to the side. Like where you realize there is something serpentine about the movement that makes that character wearing something resembling a snakeskin hat make sense, or the relational space between those two performers suggests twinship, or the tension in the space that suggests disagreement being present in colors that don’t agree with each other side by side in the same garment.
I get very excited by our own potential as meaning makers, and that somehow the act of engaging imagination and empathy while witnessing moving bodies will be taken into the world. Maybe more consideration or bandwidth will be given to thinking or wondering about people and the world and relationship. Possibly more empathy or consideration for otherness may surface, if people are required to engage their imagination to understand what is happening in the space in front of them as they witness art and create meaning, and their own poetry.
As more and more performance is being done in non-proscenium spaces, and people are challenged to carry this understanding of possibility, or suspension of disbelief into public and/or non-traditional spaces of performance, I like to imagine that their art goggles will begin to blur into their everyday sight, and make more things possible.
I’ve discovered that people do not lack imagination, and they are ready to go on a ride when they decide to witness some art …
Johnny: Can you tell us about some of the projects that you’ve got coming up — who you’re working with, what you’re working on, and where we can see it when it happens?
Jeff: I am currently expanding my thesis solo into an evening length work titled excerpts from verge: at the gilded edge of loss. It deals with multiplicity; whiteness, aging and queerness in a moving body, and the power and problem of performance of all of these things. I will be announcing dates for performance on Facebook some time in the spring.
I am beginning a new work process with Molly Shanahan/MadShak which will be performed in the fall and winter titled Ex|Body, Facebook TBA also.
I will be creating a new work of choreography around the idea of time and the experience of it becoming tighter, more expansive or spirallic depending on variables, and designing all the costumes for the mainstage production of Danceworks 2020 at Northwestern University. That production goes up in the first week of March, generally.
I am also in talks about an improvised performance process with some amazing musician/composers and some lovely people form the contact improvisation community in Chicago, more TBA!