Q&A: Seattle dancer-choreographer Catherine Cabeen
A conversation with Seattle dancer-choreographer Catherine Cabeen, presenting "Into the Void," an homage to French artist Yves Klein, at On the Boards April 28-30, 2011.
Seattle Times arts writer
When Catherine Cabeen opened "The A.W.A.R.D. Show!" at On the Boards in late 2009, a lot of local dance lovers did a double-take and asked, "Where did she come from?" Her lanky sidewinding moves, alternately fluid and sharp, were mesmerizing. Her sense of theatricality, in both the flair of her performance and the shapeliness of the piece, was impeccable.
Cabeen may have flown under the radar for a while, but she didn't exactly come from nowhere. She lived in Seattle as a teenager, studying dance while attending Nova High School, an experimental public school. At 17, she moved to New York, where she studied at the Martha Graham School of Dance. At 19, she joined the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Eight years later she performed with the Martha Graham Dance Company for a season.
This weekend her first full-length piece, "Into the Void," inspired by the work of French artist Yves Klein, opens at On the Boards.
Q: What prompted your return to Seattle?
A: I had an injury — I had broken my left calcaneus, my heel bone — and I needed to take a little while to physically heal. I had never gone to college. So when I sustained this injury when I was 28, I looked all over the country at different undergraduate programs that offered college credit for life experience, and the best deal that I found was at Cornish (College of the Arts). They basically said, "Come — we'll get you a BFA in a year." So that was this great opportunity. And while I was there, doing the professional dancers program, I taught master classes at the University of Washington. Betsy Cooper and Hannah Wiley, who run that program, pulled me aside and said, "If you want to stick around in town for two more years, we'll pay for you to get your master's and you'll have a terminal degree." And I said, "Sure."
Q: What did you study at the UW?
A: What I was interested in was gender representation, particularly in 20th-century dance — dance history. So as I got into that, I took a lot of courses in the Women's Studies department, to understand the history of feminist theory better. I took a lot of 20th-century art-history classes to understand the interdisciplinary historic context better, and I took several classes in the philosophy department, so I would understand the history of aesthetics.
Q: In your early training you immersed yourself in Graham technique. How did you choose Graham?
A: I had come across it at first when I was 15 and the technique, as you probably know, is extremely grounded, it's extremely emotional. It comes from the core of the body, and my personality is such that though I love the discipline of ballet, there is no part of the ballet aesthetic that feels authentic to me. When I discovered Graham technique, it was sort of like love at first contraction. It felt like a place where I could at last actually express how I was feeling through dance, which I had never found in other classical techniques.
Q: How did you hook up with Bill T. Jones?
A: It was a cattle-call audition with 420 women in it, and I was chosen to apprentice for the company when I was 18. Then Bill hired me when I was 19. I spent 8 years working with him, traveling all around the world, being able to create new work and have new work created on me.
Q: So were you choreographing back then?
A: Bill works very collaboratively. All of the dancers in his company contribute to the choreography. And I think that one of the reasons why I'm interested in being a choreographer now was because my professional career started with someone who asked and demanded that of me.
Q: In 2005, you moved on to the Martha Graham Dance Company. How did that come about?
A: I left Bill's company in 2005, and went back to the Graham School to take a class, because I assumed I would be teaching. Janet Eilber, who was the current artistic director of the Graham Company, happened to be watching that class and offered me a job on the spot with the Graham Company. I danced with the Graham Company for a season, and at the same time Bill T. had asked me to be his assistant choreographer on "Spring Awakening," which then went onto Broadway. ... At that point I broke my foot falling down the stairs at a lunch break from Graham rehearsal. It was totally pathetic. I'd been doing really complicated things and I was fine. Then I was walking down the stairs, and it was kind of the ultimate irony, I guess. But it was actually OK, because as much as I love Graham technique, I did not love being in the company. I had been working with Bill T. Jones for so long and had so many opportunities to be creatively involved in something that switching to the Graham Company — where I was honored to be a part of that work, but not a part of the creative process — wasn't actually a good fit for where I was intellectually or emotionally.
Q: How did you come across Yves Klein?
A: I first saw Klein's work as a child. And then when I was re-introduced to it in graduate school, I was so struck by his focus on immateriality and the void and the value of empty space. I remember saying to a friend, "Some day when I'm a famous choreographer and I have lots of money, I'm going to make a piece about Yves Klein." Then the idea wouldn't leave me alone. I'm not famous yet and I don't have a lot of money, but I decided to go for it and to make what I could with what I had.
Q: Among Klein's final works are his "Zones of Immaterial Sensibility," in which he accepted payment from an art collector in gold, threw half the gold into a body of water and then pocketed the rest for himself. There's a fine line between visionary and con artist here. Is that part of Klein's appeal to you?
A: It's certainly part of the curiosity in terms of why I was interested in Klein. But the more I looked into his work, the more I couldn't help but take him seriously. I think the fact that we see him as a con artist just points out how conditioned our collectors and our critics are to look for the tangible material value of things. That said, he was definitely a showman. These things are spectacular performances. Or they're spectacular rituals — and a spectacular ritual is a performance.
Q: How much would you pay for a zone of immaterial sensibility?
A: I think I would do a dance for him. I wouldn't even try to come with the gold.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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