Words: Kerry Hassler

Sophia Cleary is an awkward wit with short bangs and a drive that deserves a Bugatti. Her recent work includes God Bless the Group, a choreography and collaboration with 10 performers dancing as one collective body, and, urn is the image, a collaboration with Kate Berlant describing the life and times of a woman destined to share her urn.

Where are you and what are you drinking?
I am currently at Ugly Duckling Presse working on INDEX, and I’m not drinking anything but I do have an aloe juice in my bag. YUM.

How were you first introduced to the arts?
Wow, first introduced to art? I really don’t know. I grew up in and around the theater — both of my parents were actors and would be in shows separately (or together) pretty frequently. I think I saw them perform as Nora and Torvald in A Doll’s House three separate times. Kind of a strange narrative to see your parents enacting as a kid. I was also once part of a show with them too — Tuck Everlasting – I was Winnie.

So, would you say that your parents are responsible?
Yes. They took me to plays and encouraged me to take dance and music lessons. I never felt really passionate about either of those fields, though, until much later. Also I think being the only child to actor parents makes a kid kinda nutsy-artsy regardless of the exposure I received outside of that. I was definitely a huge source of entertainment for my parents — I learned it from somewhere!

Based on your varied interests you could have been a multitude of things – a choreographer, actress, curator, comedian, historian . . . how did you come to be an artist?
I think I really started to identify as being an art-maker after college. I had always been making things here and there, and even choreographed a pretty involved and detailed dance performance by that time, but I still felt like maybe, I don’t know, the confidence was not there or at least I felt like the quantity wasn’t there in terms of a certain AMOUNT of work that existed which would qualify me as such. I think also, as you have picked up on, this kind of scattered attention I have to different art forms or ways of presenting work has a debilitating aspect to it where I think – “Oh, I’m not deeply exploring one field quite enough” or like that since I don’t have a rigorous background in technique and composition in one field or another that I don’t qualify as a true practitioner of that thing. But I am learning that all of these things are very interconnected in terms of my practice. I also think that it is so important for me to engage with performance not just as a maker, but also as a participant (performing for other choreographers and performance artists) and as a supporter (coordinating REHEARSAL or co-editing INDEX) in a way that contributes to and nurtures the community.

Ah, is that the impetus of REHEARSAL? How did it come to be?
YES! REHEARSAL came to be because I was feeling frustrated that I wasn’t involved in a composition course for choreography anymore. A huge part of why and how I started making performance came out of workshopping in a very specific way in school, and I missed it so much. I felt isolated in terms of how I was making things and developing work. I thought maybe I’d try doing this kind of thing where I’d invite a few artists to show work and then we’d workshop it with the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process – I tried it out a few times at an arts space near my apartment and people actually came and liked it! I imagined it might be the most boring thing ever (as Liz Lerman’s process can be) but it turned out to be super interesting. Since then it has become much more distilled — when it began it was me and my friend David Bernstein and my former colleague Will Jones and I enlisted them for the project because I truly wasn’t sure if people would even show up, so I thought, oh well at least it will be me, Will, and David as the audience — also I liked working with them because they are both more studied in theater and visual art than me and I loved that they could bring that to the discussion. But then they both left New York and it was just me, which was destabilizing because I felt like I suddenly had to be good at talking about people’s work from poetry to theater to music to dance, etc. and I felt overwhelmed by that — but then I just decided – hey – maybe I don’t know how to talk about everything, but I can create a supportive environment in which we can figure out how to talk about someone’s work in a meaningful way. That’s what REHEARSAL is about. Also with that idea in mind, I changed the structure from showing multiple artists to only one artist. I found that the feedback process was not going into enough depth when we had multiple artists and a time constraint. With more artists showing there was somehow more pressure or anxiety about getting to the next person and giving them enough time. The structure it’s in right now is really good – an artist shows anywhere from 10-30 minutes of work and then I lead feedback for about an hour and a half. It’s so fun to see what people come up with and say – and everyone is always so generous with their energy and words.

The movement and language in your work seems completely improvised – but I imagine it’s much more choreographed. How do you begin to construct works such as The Tirade?
Well, The Tirade was basically another expression of this choreographic score that I had been working on with previous collaborators for about a year or so previously. In one of the earlier versions I made with my friend Joey Teeling, I had introduced (at the last minute) this bizarre 5 minute improvisation in the beginning of the score which was meant to express our ‘personalities’ — I sprung this on him literally 2 days before our show – I was like “Okay, we’re going to just improvise sexy/absurd dance to this Kylie song, k?” And he was a total champ and did it. And then Kate approached me after that show about wanting to make a dance, so I started rehearsing with her based off of this pre-existing score, but the improvisational section in the beginning of the work really took over the mood and energy of the piece and it has truly exploded into something energetically different than from where I was initially going with this series of works. The piece really started out as a completely tender and earnest duet about a break-up, but since working with Kate it has become more about manic sisterhood, or something. Kate’s movement vocabulary is so so inspiring to me dance-wise and her energy is off the wall which I love having in the work. Our most recent duet together urn is the image uses this high energy, climactic improvisational section as a jumping off point for a kind of strange narrative that unfolds about two women competing for an urn.

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Photo – Ian Douglas

Collaboration seems to play a large role in your performance pieces. Can you speak a bit about the importance it plays in your work?
Collaboration is so interesting and weird. I’m not sure I even know what it is. I was telling Amber Bemak from the last project we were working on together about how I felt about the piece we made with Vanessa Anspaugh, Malin Arnell and Lydia Okrent, and I was saying how in collaboration it’s important for me, at the end of the day, to really know who is calling the shots. I’m not sure if that need undermines collaborative efforts or ultimately supports it, but I was grateful in this process to know that my voice was heard but that someone else was ultimately making the decisions (Amber and Vanessa). In my own choreographic work I think I consider it ‘collaborative’ insofar as I ask and expect my performers to bring their own technique and specific movement vocabulary into the work – and then once they show me what that is, I go from there. In my dances I try not to force super specific choreography onto individuals in the piece. In God Bless the Group, for instance, all the dancers in that piece are pretty much acting out a movement that they do that’s like their OWN dance style or that they at least made up for that piece. There may have been some minor tweaking to make it look good in the composition of the group, but I never told anyone what their movement should be — that was an important part of that process for me.

Have you ever considered the skills, talents and abilities of others as your medium when choreographing?
Yes, completely. Like in this last piece I worked on with Kate Berlant, urn is the image, I really wanted to incorporate text or spoken improvisation because that is Kate’s field of expertise (she’s a comedian). I wanted to somehow incorporate the intensity she has when performing live, so we created this section that was completely open for her to just talk with me about this idea of a woman (who has to share her urn). That was basically our only structure/prompt. We practiced improvising a couple times but just left most of it up to chance! I really trusted Kate (more than I did myself) in that section, and that’s what made it work.

Speaking of Kate – what role does comedy play in your performance work?
It’s funny you ask that – I just did this piece at 321 Gallery in Brooklyn – it was the inaugural show at the space and it was so, so, not funny. I mean some parts of it were funny but it was really a piece in which I completely abandoned trying to please anyone or make them laugh. The content was super dark, depressing even. Sometimes I really need to get away from comedy – comedy is my safe, go-to form of work, my reflex or something. But it’s not like stand-up – it’s more just being bizarre in my movement vocabulary or making an unexpected shift in lighting. I think it takes on an unusual quality in my work – like it’s definitely more absurd than it is ‘funny.’  I use that impulse to draw in an audience (or the hope is that I can do that) — but sometimes I feel like it’s almost a defense mechanism — like that I’m using it because I’m afraid to really go somewhere that makes me uncomfortable — like — if I’m making performance, why am I doing something I know will work well instead of doing something that might challenge me or that I have a question about? I would like to think that I’m motivated by the latter, but it’s hard.

Do you feel like your work is shifting? Working alone seems quite out of the ordinary for you as well as showing your dark side . . .
I do think my work is shifting. But maybe not in a linear way. I think my work is opening up, but will still be about and involve the ideas I’ve been working with since I started making performance. Lately, though, I’m working more with structures or situations where I’m not really ‘performing’ but rather just getting involved with people and talking. I’m very process-y. I think that making performance in that way can be very powerful — I like the concept of using performance as a means to create new relationships. I think ultimately this is really a shift towards ‘solo work’ — where, for instance, it’s just me performing but really there will be so many people involved. To me thats not even a solo really – the idea of a solo (which scares me so much) would be to still have the fourth wall, or a form of it, and really just be there, completely by myself engaging with the audience in a way where I’m not really ‘working a room’ but more completely at their mercy.

What’s on the horizon for you?
Well, we’re really just starting to attack the submissions that came in for INDEX, so that will be a huge project to work on for the next coming months. I’m heading to Los Angeles in April and I’m hoping to show something there with Kate. Neal Medlyn/Champagne Jerry and the Champagne Club (of which I am a part, as Business Pony) will be performing frequently over the next few months (one of our shows is a shared bill with Peaches!) and I just found out we will be doing a U.S. tour through the south late this summer! That will be super weird. I’ve never been to the south. I gotta say though, I think my most exciting project as of late has been learning the drums!!!! I am really getting back into music and I am just loving it. My teacher, Sara Landeau (of The Julie Ruin) is the fucking BEST teacher and I’m truly never happier than when I’m playing — the best part of learning though is that soon I’ll be playing in a feminist punk band with one of my best friends, Samara Davis. We came up with this idea before either of us were learning our instruments. We’re called Penis.

 

 

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