Ariel Schmidtke: Can you explain a bit about your creation process? Smoke and Mirrors is very philosophical and I am curious to know if you start with an issue you wish to investigate and then create choreography that interacts with it, or do you start with choreography and then notice the philosophical issues that are already at play in your work?
Cohdi Harrell: Both of these things, certainly, are happening simultaneously. A concept can affect the movement and movement can inform a concept. We don’t often work “conceptually” in that way, it feels linear, which isn’t how my creative body works. In Smoke and Mirrors, for example, there are a lot of different ideas/concepts, but the show is not necessarily about capitalism, gender dynamics or politics. But it’s necessary to use those ingredients intelligently for the sake of what we are doing. We often like to look at singular ideas and then see how we can expand them into something more universal.
A: Do you have any particular theories that you research or is your work based on things you come into contact with every day?
C: I would say mostly the latter, but certainly I have repeating themes in my research process that I suppose could be called theories. I feel like a lot of my inspiration comes from paying attention to what is happening in the world around me. Watching strangers, taking note of patterns of humans movement and Energetics, collecting images and gestures and stories and interactions. All of those things end up in some obscured data bank in my brain that jumbles them together and informs a particular movement research. A sense of realness is at the core of what I am interested in and inspired by, so then taking these collections and finding how they relate to my own experience. When there is a political or cultural theme that I am curious to know more about… then I will go research it and again, try to find both the personal and universal pieces of it.
A: I guess I ask mostly because at one time I read that Smoke and Mirrors had to do with the idea of the “other,” and I’m not sure where I read that.
C: These are two different shows. I made a solo show called The Other, that’s probably where that got mixed up. The Other was about different states of silence, different states of solitude, about queerness, about Otherness.
C: It doesn’t feel like a struggle to me. If I’m interested in making work about something it means that I am feeling it. If I’m feeling it in some way the only thing that I really know how to do as a human being is move my body in order to understand it.
A: Do you think music is something you hear and then decide to create corresponding movement, or do you have movements and then find music that goes with it?
C: I would say both of those things. I spend a lot of time with music and a lot of time alone with music, going deep with music. I’ve thought a lot about the role it plays in my work. Something I think about a lot though, especially within circus and dance, is how the relationship between the mover and music can be often problematic, especially in the creation phase. Meaning, it is often you see an act that is essentially a back up dance to an exquisite sonic composition. Although there is something, of course, satisfying about this for both the performer and the viewer, it certainly brings up for me, “okay, well is that actually my work? Is that my art?” When I have people coming up to me after they see something on the trapeze and they tell me all of these things, particular adjectives about what they felt, which are all of the same adjectives about how I feel when I listen to that song, it brings up questions of, “is this actually realness or are they responding to the song?” I suppose you can’t really separate them. It’s almost like I’m representing that song, even though I often don’t know the artist who made this song, they don’t know that I’m doing this dance to this song, I am responding to it. And that’s not a bad thing, but it’s something that has influenced a lot of the thought and research that I’ll do movement-wise. How do we actually source music? How do we source movement from our own rhythms, from our own tempos, from our own ways of naturally moving? What is our way of moving? So I work with music a lot, obviously, and I also work equally in silence, especially while I am researching. It’s rare that I find a piece of music and decide I need to make an act to this song. It’s more finding a piece of music that is really symbiotic with the research I’m already doing and pairing it that way.
A: Do you think that idea is something Laura considered when she made the act in Stitch where she didn’t use any music at all, and all the noises were from her movement and her breathing?
C: Totally, but that happened on accident. She was working with some different songs and wasn’t very pleased with any of them, and she was rehearsing in the theatre and I walked in and she didn’t have any music playing, because she was just practicing the moves. And I walked in and it was total silence, I mean silence is one of the loudest things ever right? Where it’s like there actually isn’t silence, there’s so many sounds always.
A: Right, it was a very intense act.
C: Totally, so I walked in at that moment and just stopped and watched her and it was like, “this is the act, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” because we’re listening to her breath, we’re listening to the creaks of the building. Working in silence is no new idea, it can be really, really beautiful. So certainly that was thought of, but in that regard, that one happened by accident, which is generally how the best things happen.
A: I wanted to talk about two specific themes I’ve noticed in your work. I don’t know if they are things you do intentionally, or if they just occur. It goes along with the idea of the sounds of silence, or when you use nudity, or a lot of exposure of the characters; these are very vulnerable moments? How do you see vulnerability in your work?
C: It doesn’t feel like an external ingredient that I want to bring in; it feels like the basis. For me, I generally don’t want to watch anything unless there is some sense of vulnerability in it. That’s what draws me in, that’s what makes me feel connected to a performer, as well as what makes me feel like as a performer I’m giving something real. So, certainly nudity is very vulnerable, to be naked on a stage. In the Other, my solo show, I’m completely naked in both the beginning and the end. There was no other choice artistically with the Thematics… It’s about being totally stripped down, like “here it is, this is what’s happening.” I want everything to be vulnerable. I mean, I want things to be strong and I want them to be vulnerable. This is what is beautiful to me. In the past two years I’ve really been obsessing over balancing tricks on the trapeze, and one of the things that I really love about that whole process is that it’s really fucking vulnerable. It is physically really vulnerable, and although there is technique to it, it’s really just you standing on a trapeze bar without any hands, balancing. And the movement that comes out of the organic nature of that, that’s everything that I want to watch. It’s interesting to get to explore vulnerability from a technical side as well as artistically.
A: As an audience member I’ve always found that move to be one of the most anxiety inducing tricks I’ve seen.
C: Right! So I feel like within the role of vulnerability, especially in circus, what a lot of people are taught is how to polish the vulnerability out of everything and how to make everything super pristine. I actually like to watch a little bit of a struggle; I want to watch that process. Not to say that there aren’t a lot of people working with high skill technique that is really fucking vulnerable and they are really polished at it, but it’s a different thing. I want to see the rawness. So that’s an interesting one, of actually looking at the technical aspects of trapeze for example. It’s one thing to present vulnerability; it’s one thing to gesture vulnerability; it’s one thing to display a vulnerable character; and then it’s another thing to really make something physically, emotionally, psychologically vulnerable. How do you get into that state? That’s interesting to me.
A: I’m interested in your characters, because you and Laura do have distinct characters, but they seem almost interchangeable sometimes, which ties into my next question about gender. When I watch the two of you, especially since you have similar body types, there are a lot of similarities, and it breaks down certain gender barriers. How has gender affected your character development?
C: Within character development, going back to drawing from our own experiences as human beings, the closer we can stay to a place of what is actually true for ourselves, the more developed and real those characters are. All of us have many characters inside of ourselves, it’s a basic rule of clowning, find the thing about yourself that is real and exacerbate it. And I think that can be done in multiple directions. Laura and I have been working together for almost a decade, mostly just the two of us. We have grown up artistically side by side and there are a lot of similarities in our presentations. Looking at gender in Smoke and Mirrors is an interesting one, especially in the finale where we’re both almost naked and we’re both in the ropes in this moment of ethereal hope. What was and is important to us is that we are not presenting ‘HOPE’ as this hetero-normative romance, which we too often see. We have a very queer relationship and its important to us not to misrepresent that. Although I am the base in the duo, and although I am flipping around the flexible girl, it’s also about restructuring so that you can’t really tell whose body parts are whose, how do the body parts interchange? So it’s more than “I feel like gender is like this really big topic that I’m interested in exploring,” it’s more of, as a queer person, how do I do this beautiful aerial act and not be perpetuating the thing that I don’t want to be seeing in circus (or anywhere), which is basically faggots and flexible girls pretending to be in love.
A: That is something that drew me to your work, and though you say that you’re the base, I don’t see it that often. I rarely notice the base, especially when you do movements that are synchronized and show that both the female and the male are capable of doing the same motions. You exhibit flexibility too, so it’s not just the standard dynamic of strong male base flying the flexible woman.
C: No, it’s not that at all. And that’s really important to us, and even if it wasn’t important to us, like, I’m not a beefcake, you know what I mean? I’m strong, but I’m not that guy. So I think it’s really just encouraging what’s already happening, where it’s like how do we show the sweetness of our relationship, as well as be careful not have it become sexual? This is not the man and wife love duet. This is two humans who are having an intimate experience together; how do we non-sexualize it? How do we use nudity and make it non-sexual? That’s another big one. How do we take off the clothes and have it be the most un-sexual thing? At least to us. So it’s interesting, I feel like people are way sexier, and there’s a lot more connotation, when clothing is actually involved, because of the presentation of clothing, and the presentation of gender through clothing. Take the presentation away and just have two bodies doing stuff, and it’s worked for us.
A: What is your background? Do you come from more of a dance background? Does theatre have any influence on the work that you do?
C: I think I’ve been to like four dance classes in my entire life, so classical dance is not a part of my training. I’m not a very good student, honestly. Really my dance background is, which will sound like a joke to say, but isn’t at all… I have an older sister who started bringing me into the psychedelic, underground dance scene in the early 90s when I was eleven years old. I sort of grew up in the rave scene in the 90s, and although there is a party component of that, what was happening culturally in New Mexico is that all of these things were outdoors, in the desert, with really exquisite music, and really phenomenal, life changing moments were happening, which is where I learned about moving my body, and where I learned about Energetics, ritual and the manipulation of energy. Though it sounds like a joke, I don’t want to discredit the fact that I was a raver for a decade (and am still totally a raver), and really did a lot of movement research with psychedelics and dancing for many years. So I feel like that is what sparked my interest, and then from that I got into yoga, and that led into martial art training, then that led into more interest in acrobatics, and acrobatics led into finding a trapeze class with Alessandra Ogren. She was my first teacher as well as first artistic partner. She owns the Penasco Theatre, where I lived for several years… It was a lot of time alone in that theatre in the middle of nowhere, which afforded an endless supply of time and space to invent and research and make.
C: It’s always interesting to hear peoples’ interpretations of things. As a performance maker, I’m more interested in providing an experience for people to make up their own version of what’s happening, rather than tell them something so directly through the work. We have had some funny moments certainly, like we had someone call Smoke and Mirrors “the marriage show” because they couldn’t remember the name of it… which is hilarious and also a bit of ‘oh fuck!’. No harm in any interpretations, but always interesting. I want people to feel connected to something, anything.. to know themselves deeper through our work…and I feel like we get that.