Interview: Tahni Holt talks about ‘Rubble Bodies’

Veteran Portland choreographer Tahni Holt discusses life after a collapse in her new dance

Rubble Bodies brings up the possibilities for me of something after a collapse, where we don’t actually know how it’s organized yet,” Portland choreographer Tahni Holt told me over coffee last week as we talked about her new dance. This idea she said, “gives me freedom and curiosity about how to combine things in interesting ways that aren’t habitually organized in my body at this particular moment in time.”

Holt has been working on Rubble Bodies since 2015. Originally a solo called Apples and Pomegranates, it is now a group work-in-progress in collaboration with composer Luke Wyland, visual artist Elizabeth Malaska, New Orleans trombonist Willis Ross, singer Holland Andrews, and dramaturg Kate Bredeson. Although Holland is part of the work, she will not be performing in this weekend’s show, though she will take part in the work’s official premiere in the winter.

Holt is a choreographer and founding director of FLOCK Dance Center here in Portland, and she has been creating performances, programing and teaching for the past 19 years.

Rubble Bodies will share the bill with New Orleans-based Shannon Stewart this weekend at Performance Works NW/Linda Austin Dance. (I also interviewed Stewart about her work Relatives, which you can read about here.)

“Rubble is this amazing word,” Holt observed. “It brings up this very strong image of all these bits and pieces. When I think about this work and what I’m manifesting, it’s a lot of bits and ways of imagining the materiality of my body.”

Within Rubble Bodies, the physical body, the trombone, and the voice are all used in both traditional and non-traditional ways. “The trombone is played through the breath, and we’re trying to bring out the extremes of the breath, how long can you hold your breath, what happens when you’re in THIS configuration with this instrument,” Holt explains, describing different ways to “play” the trombone and the body.

Tahni Holt and Willis Ross rehearsing for “Rubble Bodies.” Photo by Kate Bredeson.

In talking about her process with trombonist Ross, Holt explains that “to bring out the materiality of the body through the design of this amazing object, we came up with three significant ways the brass sounds: the parade, the funeral procession, and the army advancing. And those are all brass sounds.”

“We’re thinking of those three things, too, and never really landing in any of those places,” she explained. “And why would I want to—I’m not trying to take a particular tradition with the trombone or a particular tradition of my personal lineage of contemporary dance. Although, of course, some of that might show up.”

Holt has also up-ended the hierarchical relationship between dancers and musicians during performance by creating a piece in which everyone is an equal performer on stage. “We’re bodies in space together. So in that way we’re not just relegated to these positions or roles. I don’t look at the piece like me as a dancer, and two musicians on the stage. That’s not actually the set-up.”

Holt talked about how that conclusion came from the process of making the work: “The work is completely based off of conversations and practices that we do together. It is a collaborative effort. Everybody inside of the work is what makes the work. It would not be the same work by any means without any of those people or if one of those people were switched. It would just really a different piece. The piece gets actualized by the collaboration.”

Rubble Bodies is also in conversation with the visual art of Elizabeth Malaska.

“Her work has been incredibly influential to this piece” Holt said about Malaska. “Bringing her actual painting into the space for the first time. That’s exciting for me to figure out.”

Tahni Holt and Willis Ross rehearsing for “Rubble Bodies.” Photo by Kate Bredeson.

“Her work also takes you into spaces, and you never quite know where you are. Are you in ancient Egypt? Are you in a religious painting? Because there are all of these signs and symbols of all of these places and you get a little lost. I love that you can’t clearly identify where you are, but you clearly identify with the mess of this body. That also really ties into the title for me, Rubble Bodies.”

“The subject is always these female bodies…in all of their guts and glory,” she said, flipping the script from a Eurocentric, historical point of view on the nude, female body to “grotesque, post-birth, nipples hanging down and twisted. Brings you into the materiality of the female body form in a way that’s truth, as opposed to predefining.” Her work, “really examines this overarching male gaze” she said.

Malaska’s artwork, which is about 12 feet across, will hang six feet in front of the back wall of Performance Works NW, and several feet above the ground, making it possible for the performers to interact with it from all angles.

“I think my work is highly visual,” Holt said when I asked her to describe this work and her work in general. “There’s always these really strong visual elements to my work. There’s a lot of care around the visual landscape. And then I think in terms of the movement. It is about a body going through states of being, if you will, not always, but some of it. For example there’s a really rageful moments in the piece where it’s really not about form or line.”

“It’s about a quality of being in my body in a very informed, movement-based body,” Holt continued. “Which would be different, for example, than trying to become a character in a play. So yeah, the movement is weird and awkward and uncomfortable and never has to do with a particular frame of [dance] lineage. So it’s not like traversing ballet or contemporary dance or anything like that, but it’s all in my body.”

What will that look like onstage? “That might show up for people in a moment, but people would dispute that it was dance, I think? But it certainly has nothing to do with theatre in my eyes. And it’s [also] using untrained dance bodies, and I’m a highly trained dance body. And so that’s also an interesting dichotomy for me.”

Tahni Holt’s Rubble Bodies and Shannon Stewart’s RELATIVES, will run July 19-21, at Performance Works NW, 4626 SE 67th Ave. For tickets and information click here.

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