PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

On Site Dance with Stephan Koplowitz

Episode Summary

With the help of his colleague Elise Bernhardt, Stephan Koplowitz traces his early years at Jacob's Pillow, where ideas were planted that led to a fruitful, life-long career and his book entitled “On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation.” Featured are inside looks at Dancing In The Streets and Grand Central Dances, as well as Joanna Haigood's thoughts about her work process as a site choreographer.

Episode Notes

With the help of his colleague Elise Bernhardt, Stephan Koplowitz traces his early years at Jacob's Pillow, where ideas were planted that led to a fruitful, life-long career and his book entitled “On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation.” Featured are inside looks at Dancing In The Streets and Grand Central Dances, as well as Joanna Haigood's thoughts about her work process as a site choreographer. 

Book, "On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation" https://www.stephankoplowitz.com/onsitebook

Video, "Fenestrations" (1987) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxCkkMPypGc

Video, "Fenestrations2" (1999) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcMW78qRuSo

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation. And it's my pleasure to introduce Stephan Koplowitz, who will host this episode on site-specific dance. With the help of his colleague Elise Bernhardt, Stephan traces his early years at the Pillow, where ideas were planted that led to a fruitful, life-long career and eventually to his book entitled On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: My career as a site-specific artist can be traced directly to my Pillow experience that started in 1980. The short story is this: I met Elise Bernhardt at the Pillow that summer when we were 24 and on Pillow Fellowships, giving us supervisory and teaching roles during the festival. A few years later, Elise started making site-specific dance and started her own site dance production company, the nationally/internationally renowned Dancing in the Streets, which commissioned me in 1987 to create my first large-scale site dance in the windows of Grand Central Terminal and propelled my now 36 plus years of making site performance. In this episode, we will discuss the topic of site-specific dance and performance and uncover a part of Jacob’s Pillow’s history that helped inspire a great deal of future site-specific work in the United States and abroad. Elise Bernhardt, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, was the Founder/Executive Producer of Dancing in the Streets from 1983 until 1998, and was the CEO of cultural organizations, including The Kitchen, Foundation for Jewish Culture, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. And she is currently the Founder and Director of Jerusalem International Fellows, and is a floral designer, and teacher. I recently sat down with Elise to discuss those two formative summers at the Pillow, and the direct influence on our collective future as site-specific artists. We were both challenged and inspired, and, unknowingly, propelled onto a path where we would work together for decades. In this part of our conversation, Elise touches on how far the dance community has accepted site dance as a legitimate creative activity.

ELISE BERNHARDT: And now like, what? 40 something years later, you wrote a book because there's lots of people doing site-specific work. It's not weird anymore. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:No, it's not. It’s not…

ELISE BERNHARDT:It’s totally like…

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:right. I mean, everyone now…

ELISE BERNHARDT:Part of the jargon.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:Yeah. Well, it's part of what a lot of contemporary choreographers think is just an extension of what they might do, as opposed to this esoteric, other thing. When…

ELISE BERNHARDT:Right. Or, or it's really troublesome [Koplowitz: Yeah]. Now, like, now, it's like, I remember saying to somebody that, Listen, you know, there isn't just one path to be a choreographer. There is, yes, there's a little like, you audition for DTW, and then you got to show and then do you went to The Joyce, and then you went to BAM, and then you went on tour. Like, that was it. And I was like, That isn't it. That isn't the only way, there's gonna be other ways to be a choreographer, and be in the public eye. And I think, you know, this idea that you could make things outside the theatre gave people another way to think about how to make work, and still make work.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: But before we hear more from my conversation with Elise, I want to propose a definition of site-specific dance. The term site-specific is used quite often in many different contexts. In my book, titled On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation, published in 2022 by Oxford University Press, I outline four categories of site performance to help an artist understand what’s possible when wanting to work with this form. The term "site-specific" is used broadly for any art event presented outside of a traditional theatre or gallery setting. A work is considered site-specific if it has a connection to a particular place or is inspired by an aspect of the site. The site shapes the audience's experience of the work, and the two become one entity. There are four distinct types of site-specific work. Each type is related to an artist’s intention in relation to the selection of a site. I’ve arranged these into 4 categories. Category 1, I call simply “Site-specific” which is when the site itself wholly inspires the work and cannot exist as a performative experience in any other location. In-depth research into the physical design, history, and current use of the site will prompt creative decisions, with the artist approaching the creation of the work without preconceived ideas, biases or agenda. The site inspires every creative decision. So the site acts as though it’s the score. This type of site-specific creation is the most labor intensive, and actually is the kind I have mostly devoted my career making. Category 2 is something I call: “Site-adaptive”, which is created by exploring a particular feature found in multiple locations, such as a subway, a beach, a staircase or a quarry. The artist takes inspiration from the feature's design, history, and current use. But they focus primarily on the element that kindled their interest. Once completed, the piece can be replicated in similar locations that contain this feature. I created a site work called Flight as part of a site-adaptive project called “The Grand Step Project.” And it was a dance for 50 dancers and was staged at 6 grand staircases in NYC boroughs back in 2004. So it was the same work inspired entirely by, by staircases and their use, and somewhat their history. And then adapted to all six of these sites. Category 3 is something I call: “Site-reshaped,” which is created by bringing a previously created piece to a specific site that did not initially inspire it. The artist can make changes to the work to better fit the site, but the original construction of the art remains intact. This category of work is where the artist’s intention is to bring already made creative material. and start a dialogue with site. And this is a category that artists will often use when they walk by a particular site, and get inspired by, by what they see. And they want to animate it. Category 4 is what I call: “Site-reframed.” Work is made by transferring a previously created work of art to a new site without any intentional, overt or implicit connection to the, to the new site. The work is reframed, but that is all. It is not reshaped; the presentation is unaltered from the original. Now this transference allows an audience though to view it from a completely new perspective, even if the piece is already familiar. The new frame elicits new responses by chance—the more unique the performance space, the greater the impact on the audience. The Jacob’s Pillow “Inside/Out” stage and the performance series, also known as the Henry J. Leir Stage is a wonderful example of Category 4: Site-reframed work. Dance artists and companies will bring previously made work to the stage, and it will have an indelible effect on the audience because of the beauty of the outdoor surrounding trees, sky and sounds. So, in summary, the intention of the work, and the back story for the choice of the site are important factors in determining the type of site-specific work. As I mentioned earlier, Elise and I began our journey toward becoming site-specific artists at Jacob’s Pillow beginning in the summer of 1980, the first year of Liz Thompson’s tenure as Director. Liz offered Elise and me a fellowship, along with Victoria Marks and Laura Donnelly. We were tasked with overseeing the work of the 12-26 scholarship students who handled cleaning, theatre ushering, office work, and various chores around the Pillow campus. But one significant duty Liz gave us was managing and re-defining the Pillow Dancers, renamed as the Jacob’s Pillow Touring Ensemble. Our mission was to bring a collection of dances performed and created by Pillow students to as many different places and sites in the surrounding area, like summer camps, senior centers, shopping malls. This experience is where Elise and I discovered that there was much more to dance than just a concert stage. This part of our conversation touches on Liz Thompson, who was the Pillow’s Director from 1980 through 1990. And her vision for community outreach, which inspired the Pillow Touring Ensemble and made us start to think about dance differently.

ELISE BERNHARDT:But this idea of, you know, sending dancers out into places where dance was unknown, and making it familiar. That was definitely my first exposure to that approach [Koplowitz: Yeah]. And that definitely informed pretty much everything I did in Dancing in the Streets [Koplowitz: Yeah, So]. And beyond. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:But I think Liz Thompson, she was very much, she really had that, that, the headspace of wanting to do outreach. I, I remember her being, that, that's the thing that she was most open about, about really wanting to spread the gospel [Bernhardt: Yeah, yeah] of The Pillow. And she really, you know, she really did, she really did fortify the idea of the ensemble, the Touring Ensemble, because it was called, as we saw in that article, it was called something else. 


STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:And, and she really wanted it to…

ELISE BERNHARDT:She wanted to give it legs. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:Yeah, really give it legs. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Right, she was really transforming the idea of what the Pillow was. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Yeah. As a creative place. As a place [Bernhardt: Right] where work was being made. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: In this clip, our conversation gets more specific about our task of managing the Pillow Touring Ensemble, and how it started to shape Elise’s mind as a producer, and my perspective of where dance could exist outside the theatre.

ELISE BERNHARDT:I, I am in charge of getting the Ensemble to all these places. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Yeah, you were booking us. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:I was, I was the booking agent [Koplowitz: Yeah]. I had to have a clipboard. I think it was like the producer piece, for me, was probably that first experience… 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: …of being a producer. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Of being a producer. Yeah [Koplowitz: In a sense. Yeah, yeah]. And like figuring out that this should go here. And that should go there. And you know, that'll look good over here. And that, you know, like [Koplowitz: Sure] in a shopping mall, it's X and in the [Koplowitz: Right], in the market, it's Y.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: And, and for me, it was just the cavalcade of sites that we visited. From literally on the front lawn of a senior center that spilled out into [Bernhardt: Hmm], literally spilled out into the, to a street in a sort of a suburban area to…

ELISE BERNHARDT: Oh that shopping mall… 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: The shopping mall, which was crazy.

ELISE BERNHARDT:The shopping mall was like a horror. 


ELISE BERNHARDT:I still remember thinking. First of all, it was noisy. Second of all, there was no way to really get people's attention [Koplowitz: Attention. I, yes]. To get people focused. That was probably an important lesson [Koplowitz: I…], which I don't think I registered at the time. But that, the how you, where you go, and how you place things in a way that you do draw people's attention…


ELISE BERNHARDT: …is a really, like, that's tricky business, and probably doing it in a shopping mall. I think I said I never want to do that again. 


ELISE BERNHARDT:I'm pretty sure I did say that. You might have done it again [Koplowitz: Right]. But I think I was like, Oh-oh. Nuh-uh. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Yeah. No, and it was, it was, it was really the fact that we were having to interface with also different populations of people. So…

ELISE BERNHARDT:We had campers…

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: We had campers, you know, seniors, we had, like as shoppers. And remember, we ended up doing a street fair, but on a stage at the Springfield Arts Festival or something. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:I'll, I’ll take it. I'll take your word for it, sounds like we had lights.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: During Elise’s second and last summer at Jacob’s Pillow, she created a site-specific work inspired by the opulent grounds found at Wheatleigh Manor in the Berkshires, the last performance site of the Jacob’s Pillow Touring Ensemble of 1981. For that performance, we were told that a special guest, the famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein would be in attendance, and we were all, as one can imagine, excited and star-struck. As you’ll hear, his presence had a memorable effect on Elise’s life. When Elise returned to her home in Brooklyn, her artistic perspective and eyes were transformed. The notion of activating other sites and architecture began to take shape. In the following clip, Elise speaks of her “aha moment” while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. This moment is a textbook version of a Category 3: Site-reshaped, where an artist brings a work made for one site to a new site. This new site, obviously changes the work, and the artist has the chance to adjust the work to the new site. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:‘81 was the summer that I did Wheatleigh Manor.


ELISE BERNHARDT:And, and when Liz told me that Leonard Bernstein asked her who's that choreographer? And that like, made my [Koplowitz: That made you...], that made my like everything. I mean, like that was just beyond the beyond. So, I think that was the year that I moved to Brooklyn. Pretty sure. And I took my first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, like first time ever. Never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, and as I'm walking, I'm thinking I could do that dance here [Koplowitz: Hmm]. It was like a real “aha moment” like oh my god. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:So you adap—in a sense… 

ELISE BERNHARDT:So I adapted it [Koplowitz: Adapted that piece. That piece became the genesis…]. That piece was totally adapted [Koplowitz: Okay]. That was the genesis of Dancing In the Streets [Koplowitz: of Dancing in the Streets]. Dancing In the Streets didn't exist then. It took a couple of years. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: No. What I mean to say, is that the piece you did at Wheatleigh Manor… 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Totally became it. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: …was the, was the thing that you took with you.

ELISE BERNHARDT:So originally, the idea was for me to just do my dance [Koplowitz: Your dance] across the bridge, and I was gonna have, I don't  know, I did the math, X number of dancers. And then I got these old-timey musicians. But I had to present it to the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial people. And I rolled out, you know, it's very, Norma Dalby was the music for dance person [Koplowitz: Yeah, right] at, at Sarah Lawrence. And we used to do scores. So I had this, like, 9-foot score that I had done at my kitchen table with colored pencils. And I roll it out for them. And they say, Well, this looks like it would be great from a helicopter, but you need backing. And that is when I like thought, Well, I guess I should go back to the Brooklyn dance community and see if anybody wants to do some pieces, here and there. So it wasn’t just about my dance. It was also about other peoples and figuring out where they should go and what belonged where, and who could do what [Koplowitz: Right], and you know, and that thing, 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: And that was the summer of 1983. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: Yes [Koplowitz: Right]. Yeah. So it took I mean, it took a year. 


ELISE BERNHARDT:But took a year to like… 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:Yeah, but you had to…Yeah, there was a lot of moving parts for this. 


STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:But it was during that, it was during that. So basically, two years later, [Bernhardt: I (unclear word)] you, you [Bernhardt: Yes] birthed, in a sense, your first big site-specific work [Bernhardt: Right, right], which then got you really thinking about as more as much as a producer as much as an artist.

ELISE BERNHARDT: Right. And I think I always say that rehearsing on the Brooklyn Bridge, I,I was looking at the Staten Island Ferry, and the Statue of Liberty. And so those were the first things that Dancing in the Streets actually did as Dancing in the Streets. [Koplowitz: Yeah] We did, we did the project on the ferry [Koplowitz: Which I wrote music for], which you wrote music.. dumplididee [Koplowitz laughs and says: Yeah].

[Trails into music by Stephan Koplowitz]

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: In addition to Elise’s exposure to alternative dance spaces at the Pillow, it’s the Pillow is where she first met legendary educator and godmother to the New York City dance community, Bessie Schonberg. Bessie and Elise became very close, and she remained an integral figure in Elise’s work with Dancing in the Streets and beyond until her passing in 1997. Bessie was also instrumental in my life as an artist, which was forged early when I took one of her first choreography workshops at the Pillow, in the summer of 1982. Bessie Schonberg came to the Pillow in 1980 at the invitation of Liz Thompson. In the following  clip, Elise describes how she came to meet Bessie at Jacob’s Pillow.

ELISE BERNHARDT:It was that long, three months stint. And I decided to get through the summer and the rock raking else I needed to have something to do separately. So I said I wanted to start a garden. And somehow maybe Liz told me that Dimitry was a gardener. So I talked to him. And we went out to the, the place where the Inside/Out stage is [Koplowitz: Mm-huh], which was then just like a rocky field. And he helped me like figure out the right place to put a patch of garden. And he went with me and [unclear word] to the hardware store to get plants. And he kind of supervised me in planting. And it was through Dimitry that I met Bessie, which was a really great way to meet her. And Bessie became my mentor.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: After Elise produced her site-specific event for the Brooklyn Bridge, and then for the Statue of Liberty and the Staten Island Ferry, she set her sights on her most ambitious and historically significant project, Grand Central Dances, which premiered in October of 1987. This event featured high wire artist Philippe Petit, iconic choreographers Merce Cunningham and Lucinda Childs, juggling artist Michael Moschen, laser artist Richard Sandhaus, and an emerging choreographer Paul Thompson with lighting for all these artists by Tony Giovannetti. The event was seen by 16,000 people during two evenings and was called “FANTASTIC. The Woodstock of the Eighties?” by chief New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff. In the following clip, my conversation with Elise touches on many subjects concerning the birth and inspiration of Grand Central Dances: Bessie Schonberg’s participation, meeting Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs, and how I ended up, as a choreographer, joining this fantastic group of artists for what would be my very first site-specific creation. It would launch Elise and me into new careers, artistic territories, and opportunities.

ELISE BERNHARDT:I started talking to Bessie about Grand Central, probably in, I don't know, 85 or so, because I'd read this book, A Winter's Tale. And there's a guy who hangs from the ceiling and I suddenly looked up at the ceiling of Grand Central, which I had been through lots of times, on my way from college to dance classes. And then I thought, How do you get people to look at the ceiling? That was the impulse for Grand Central. That was like how, and then I don't remember how I got to like Merce Cunningham as the meeting of time and space. And so he was the like needed to be like [Koplowitz: Like you…]. Bessie told me from the first minute that I came up with this idea. She says, This is a terrible idea [laughs]. She says, I go through, she was like, I go through Grand Central all the time. You do not want to do something in Grand Central. It's impossible. I mean, she, she told me no, no, no, no, no, until she could not get me off the subject. At which point I said, Would you introduce me to Merce? And she did. And Merce. I still remember meeting Merce like I don't know it was like right outside of the dressing rooms and we sat like in the little bench in the studio, and I sort of proposed this idea and you know. They were old friends Bessie in had Merce. And Merce was like, Sounds like an interesting idea, aah [laughs] [a couple of unclear words]. And then it went to Art Becofsky, who was the Executive Director, and then we had to work out the money and all the stuff. And…

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: And then, what about Lucinda? When did that…

ELISE BERNHARDT:So I don’t remember…

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:Or, or Philippe Petit, how did that… 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Well, Philippe Petit was how you're gonna get people to look up. I mean, he was [Koplowitz: Oh yeah, literally], he was a solution to [Koplowitz: to that] a particular problem. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:But look [Bernhardt: Yeah], literally look up at the ceiling. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Literally look up.


ELISE BERNHARDT:And so was the laser thing that [Koplowitz: Mm-huh], that Dick Sandhouse did with Michael Moschen. That was the second night, because you couldn't get Philippe Petit to walk the high wire twice [Koplowitz: Right, right]. And I think that, Aaah Lucinda, I had either seen or read about Available Light, which she had done in Los Angeles at the Temporary Contemporary, which I think had these scaffolds. And the scaffolds made me think of the windows [Koplowitz: Mm-huh]. That's why I asked Lucinda. Because I thought she could just take whatever she had made [Koplowitz: And adapt it] available, I think was it called Available Light

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: But, but also Einstein on the Beach. That was on scaffolds too.

ELISE BERNHARDT:Yeah, but I don't think I [Koplowitz: You didn’t see…okay], I don’t think I had actually seen it. But I, I know about this, and I thought….

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: So, so, you actually thought that she would adapt one of her dances and make it fit [Yeah. To those windows] to those windows. Wow. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:I don't know, seems [ Koplowitz: Ohh] seemed, seemed logical to me. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:Sure. I mean, in a sense, yeah. Sure. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Well, which is a little bit about what I did with you. But just to come back [Koplowitz: But I didn’t adapt, I made a completely…] No, I know that [Koplowitz: Yeah], but when we get to the seed of the idea [Koplowitz: Yeah]. So Lucinda, I gave Lucinda a tour. I brought her up onto the [Koplowitz: Oh you did? Wow]. Oh, yeah. Lucy, she and I, we always say like, [Koplowitz: Oh, so you actually took her into the…] I took her into the windows. And basically, she looked at the glass floor, and she said, I could never ask my dancers to dance on this. Okay then. She did dance on the stage [Koplowitz: The stage. Yes, of course], so I didn’t [Koplowitz: yeah], it wasn't like, Ok, bye.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:  Before we continue with Elise’s interview, I want to explain her references to my photography exhibit and postcard. In the spring of 1986, I had a one-person show in the gallery at Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea, New York City. It was called Spacial Reconstruction: The Photobooth and Other Mediums. The postcard for the event that Elise refers to in the following clip was an image taken by a vintage black and white photobooth machine, and depicted in a semi-abstract form. A human figure in motion, made up of individual photos, each separated by a black border. It, It kind of looked like bodies moving inside a series of windows. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:So what was the timeline from that event? 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Oh, Steve, you know [Koplowitz: And then], I can’t remember everything. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ:And then I had the show of my photography [Bernhardt: I…], at DTW, that's what you saw.

ELISE BERNHARDT:Oh, I think what I [Koplowitz:…of my photobooth] remember is the postcards [Koplowitz: You thought it was the postcards]. What, what I remember is the postcard and [Koplowitz: Of the show], of the show. I remember the postcard more than I remember the show. And then I remember just saying to you, Steve, see these photo, you know, these photobooth things, You know, they come in rows. I said, Do you think you could do that in the windows? Right? [Koplowitz: That's right. That's sort of what you said]. That’s kind of what I said [Koplowitz: Can you do that in the windows?] Yeah. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: And I looked at you like, dying to get involved. You know, I mean, it sounded, you know, and of course, terrifying. Of course, I just said sure [they both laugh].

ELISE BERNHARDT: It’s always say yes. You should always say yes.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Always say yes. And I mean, you didn't even, I didn't even go to the windows before. I’d said yes before even going, knowing what it was.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: In the following clip, Elise and I continue to unpack the challenges, and deconstruct some of the lessons learned from our experience of creating and producing site work in Grand Central. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: So I mean then I remember, I remember the first time going the windows with you. And that's where I measured, measured the mouth to see how many people you know. That was where I learned, and I say this in my book, the making of Fenestrations for me was, was really the first lesson learned, there were so many things that went, stayed with me. But you see you had those instincts too, in terms of picking sites and things like that [Bernhardt: That was probably my best instinct, was picking sites]. And that, it was actually one of the best locations for Grand Central. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Oh, it was the location.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Yeah. The location [Bernhardt: It was the location]. Okay, but you see, that's probably what but Bessie was thinking about that, you know, where could, how could you see anything in a place that's thousands of people are going through? She's probably worried about that. 

ELISE BERNHARDT:Well, I think she was also she was worried about the chaos, and what it looks like and you know, rush hour. And [Koplowitz: And it was a dark place], and it was pretty dark [Koplowitz: Oh], which is why you know where Tony came in, like was like critically important to all of it, which was and that's something I learned from him. Even in daylight, lighting is critical because your [Koplowitz: Sure] eye travels [Koplowitz: Your eye travels]. And you know, I say this now in floral design classes, which is your job is to keep people's eyes moving. As soon as their eye is like stuck. You've like lost your momentum. So you know, it's interesting how all of that translates. But just to get back to Bessie. Bessie, you know, I don't remember the conversations we had once it was, but once it was gonna happen… 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: She was on board. Well… 

ELISE BERNHARDT:She was 100% on board. And she also helped me you know, because there was a lot of bureaucracy to deal with. And Bessie would literally rewrite my letters. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Oh, she would. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: Oh, she edited me [Koplowitz: Wow]. Like, ‘cuz you know…

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: This was your first time out, I mean big time. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: Yeah [Koplowitz: In terms of public art], she turned me into [Koplowitz: Yeah]. I wouldn't say she turned me into a diplomat. But she certainly gave me a lot of tools to be more diplomatic.


STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: In the final clip of our discussion, I share with Elise my challenges in creating the work, and Bessie’s role in my process, which happened very close to the premiere of the work. This exemplifies how flexible an artist needs to be when making site-specific work.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: So you asked me to do this piece. And of course, I've never done anything like this in my life. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: But neither had I [laughs].

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Okay, right. We're learning we're learning on the job. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: Learning while doing. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: So, you know, the, the really funny part about, about, about that process was I really did not have a name as a choreographer in New York City. I had not, I just finished my first season at DTW. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: Oh, right. With [a couple of unclear words].

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: And I'd done FRESH TRACKS in ‘85. So I just had it that spring. But I didn't have the confidence that I, because I lacked confidence, all I did was put a advertisement, a tiny little ad in The Village Voice looking for dancers for, and I think I might have said it was for something in Grand Central, and put my phone number on the listing. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: And you got like a zillion phone numbers.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: And so people would be calling me on the phone. And I would basically interview them on the phone, and hire them on the phone. If they said they did this and this, I would just say, Okay, I knew and you needed, like, you know, close to 40 people and I just said, Okay, you know, the classic sign up, meet me at Grand Central, you know, at the clock, on this day. And that was going to be my first rehearsal. And I'd spent four hours on that day, wiring all four levels. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: Oh, I remember this. 


ELISE BERNHARDT: I do remember this.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: With my own sound system that I got, that I, I bought on Canal Street. And I remember my friend Bruce Gordon, who was in this band that check Freud Hein was in college, Screaming Hawkers, he and his wife helped me wire all this up. We'd been there since 5:30 - 6 In the morning, for a rehearsal that was supposed to start like at 9 or 10, 10 o'clock in the morning. We all assemble in, on the terminal floor, all these all these dancers, and I and right before, we're going to go into the windows, this big guy comes up to me and says, I'm sorry, what do you folks doing here? And I said, Oh, we're doing a dance rehearsal in the windows. He goes, Who, who says you can do this? I said, Well, we're with Dancing in the Streets. And Elise Bernhardt says, and he goes, Okay, show me your, your insurance… 

ELISE BERNHARDT: Your permit… 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Your permit, your insurance and the permit papers, and I go, I don't have them. And I remember calling you up, and you said, Okay, Steve, I'm sorry. We're, we’re, we’re gonna have to, you know, work on it. I'll get back to you. And it and two things happen. The first thing that happened was that day, I had to save my rehearsal. I immediately said to everyone [Didn’t you go to Packer?], that, in that in that moment, I said, Okay, everybody, we’re going to go, get on the subway, and we're going to meet at this school where I was teaching at. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: Right? I remember the rehearsal at Packer. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Yeah, but wait, that was the, wait, that was... And so then we went to Packer, and some dancers didn't follow me. They said, Oh, this guy's full of crap. You know, you know, he doesn't, at least he's not organized. So I lost people. But we had a rehearsal at Packer, in the gymnasium, which turned out to be actually a very good. 

ELISE BERNHARDT: It was a perfect place for rehearsal. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: And yeah, very good thing not to have, not to be because it would have been hard for and plus, I was working with the entire cast. That was the other thing that was weird is that I learned after that to work with smaller amount [Bernhardt: Right] of people that I was making this dance in real time with [Bernhardt: Right] 36 people or so. The second thing was that it took you a month to get the insurance. We didn't get access to Grand Central until the weekend before [Bernhardt: Before] the opening [Bernhardt: Uhh], or two weeks. I remember I had 4 rehearsals, only 4 rehearsals in the windows. And I remember Bessie. So I, so I made most of that dance, conceived most of that dance, [Bernhardt: In the gym], in the gym with, you know, people putting their shoes and socks, you know, to make the four levels. And trying to figure it out, you know what it was going to look like. And then I got to see it maybe 2 weeks before the show [Bernhardt: Right]. It was very raw. And Bessie came and said to me, gave me feedback. And it wasn't, she wasn't happy with what she saw. Because it was, in some ways, it was very symmetrical. It was you know, it was it lacked. It was sort of primitive, you know. She gave me feedback, and I was crushed. Thinking oh my god, how am I going to fix this? And, and so I made as many changes as I could for the next time when we came back, for that for those 2 rehearsals. And I think I was able to make just enough, is what I am saying.

ELISE BERNHARDT: I think, I think it worked.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: [Laughs] Yeah, but I remember just being panicked. And then of course, you know, we did it, and it worked out. And of course that night, you know, 8000 people show up, and it’s, it is bedlam, because there were a lot of people upset because…

ELISE BERNHARDT: Well, people were sitting down [Koplowitz: Yeah]. I mean, you know, like…

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: And people were trying to get to their trains.

ELISE BERNHARDT: People were trying to get their trains and people were sitting down. But as Merce said, So many people, and they were relatively quiet.

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Because, because as the night went on, and people had left to go to do their commute, then it was just the people who were there to see, to see this [Koplowitz: Right]. And it really did bring in [Bernhardt: Oh], thousands, [Bernhardt: thousands of people]. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: After Elise produced Grand Central Dances, and my first site-specific work, she consistently created large-scale site events with her company Dancing in the Streets for about another 20 years. Soon after the success of Fenestrations, Elise continued to commission me to create original site-specific works between 1988 and 1991, in such venues as the Wexner Center for the Arts, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Union Station in Washington DC, the State of Illinois Building in Chicago, and the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Thanks to Elise, within 5 years, I had created 6 large scale, Category 1 site-specific works in some of the US’s most iconic buildings. And Elise’s Dancing in the Streets had established itself as the premiere national producing entity of site-specific performance works. Her work as a producer is responsible for elevating the art form to a level never before seen and single handily established site-specific performance as a form, part of our cultural landscape. To bring Elise’s story full circle with Jacob’s Pillow, in 1993, 12 years after Elise’s last summer at the Pillow, she partnered with the Festival to bring veteran and acclaimed site choreographer Joanna Haigood’s sited installation work Cho-Mu/Butterfly Dreams, created with visual artist Reiko Goto, to New York City and the Pillow campus. Joanna’s exposure to Jacob’s Pillow during that summer led her to discover the inspiration for one of her seminal site-specific works, Invisible Wings, which was commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow and was a Category 1, fully developed original site-specific work that has had two iterations at the Festival, in 1998 and 2007. In the following audio clip, taken from the Pillow archives, Joanna is interviewed by Maura Keefe, a scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow. In 1998 before the premiere of Invisible Wings, Joanna discusses her approach to creating site work.

MAURA KEEFE: My question is about, you call yourself a site choreographer [Haigood: Mm-huh], and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that means to you and your work? [Haigood: Mm-huh] Oh, and let me just specify, by site choreographer, s-i-t-e not… 



JOANNA HAIGOOD: A little of that too.


JOANNA HAIGOOD: Well for about 18 or 19 years I’ve been working around concepts of place. And place being how we define a particular site - what kind of social, cultural context that a site has. And so what I usually do, what I have developed over the years is a process of investigation where I do research on the history, and on the particular architecture or the natural environment. And then I create a piece that reflects that research. Most of it is not narrative or it’s not a linear narrative, but it draws from the impressions that I have gathered from the research. 

MAURA KEEFE: Like, what kinds of places have you done research? 

JOANNA HAIGOOD: Let’s see, I’ve done pieces, well I’ve done a piece in Roman Cemetery, in France. For a clocktower in San Francisco. I’ve also worked with some natural systems. I’ve worked with bees and butterflies. I’ve worked in canning factories. And it’s a pretty large variety of places, and it’s, it’s a wonderful thing for me because it really keeps, it really keeps me fresh, in terms of, you know, the material that I’m working with. I have to change my movement vocabulary depending on the type of place that I’m working in. 

MAURA KEEFE: So what do you think the connection is between dance and place that is particularly fertile?

JOANNA HAIGOOD: Well there are two things. One that I’m just kind of coming to now, and one that I have been forced to notice just by the very nature of the physical materials. So, for instance, if I’m working in a place that is surrounded or involves a lot of water, my physical responses or the, the vocabulary that springs forth, is very specific to that material [Loud noise from an aircraft and audience chatter]. If I’m working in an airplane, for instance, they’ll be a very specific vocabulary that’s involved [Haigood and Keefe laugh]. Or you know if I’m working in a very high place that has limited amount of room, you know if I’m working on a steel beam that has only 4 inches of space for me to balance on, that that’s going to require a certain type of centering. I mean if I’m working on steel, you know, there’s a certain response system, there’s a certain response that my body has to that hard material so I’m not going to do, I mean one can, but the, my instinct is not to jump up and down, and you know create a shock wave through my body. But that’s really different if I’m working on a material like sand or, or something that has more of a, you know resilient. 

MAURA KEEFE: So it seems like you’re saying that there isn’t a place that you can’t imagine some kind of dancing happening. 

JOANNA HAIGOOD: Yeah, the other thing that I was going to say, the other, the other area that is now becoming interesting to me is how place really defines the character of one’s body. And what I’ve begun to study now is watching the various patterns that evolve through the body by specific things like you know people who have to, who work in fields who carry large bundles. These are really obvious examples. You know that their bodies over time start to register or start to, yeah the, the effects, the evidence of their activities in relationship to the place, get recorded [Keefe: Mm-huh]. So you start to see the, the body taking various shapes that are very specific to the tasks, and often to the places that those tasks are related to. That’s where I am right now is kind of exploring some of that, starting to investigate those notions. 

STEPHAN KOPLOWITZ: Site-specific dance and performance have become a more ubiquitous form in the past 40 years, and was a means for many artists to continue working during the recent pandemic and lockdowns. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has been fertile ground for artists for the past 90-plus years allowing performances to be reframed in spaces infused with nature. The grounds are not only situated in the beauty of the Berkshires, but are imbued with history and unique ecology. For any listeners who have never visited, let this podcast be your invitation to allow the site of Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts be the start of your own journey to a new world.

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at Dance Interactive dot Jacob’s Pillow dot org. And of course, through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts, and visit us again soon, either online or on site.